The announcement last week by Minister of Local Government Noel Arscott that the Ananda Alert system is to be moved to the Ministry of Youth, and specifically to the Child Development Agency (CDA), has, intentionally or not, brought to the fore the crisis of missing children and the levels of intervention that are required to address the problem.
While it makes a lot of sense to place the programme under the youth umbrella, it is important to point out that the problem with the Ananda Alert, since its inception three years ago, was never a problem of location. It was, and still is, a problem of an inexcusable lack of commitment and resources.
In fact, the housing of the Ananda Alert, under the then Department of Local Government, was deliberately designed to galvanise the "on the ground" mechanisms and networks necessary for search and rescue of missing and abducted children. The plan was that the new rapid response system would be driven by the parish councils, thereby triggering support and action from citizens and communities islandwide. Having announced the shift, Minister Arscott must now tell the Jamaican public if that particular objective has changed and how exactly will the CDA be able to deliver that level of local support across constituencies.
It is common knowledge that the CDA is already overstretched and overburdened and is itself in need of additional resources, both human and financial. In addition to the mammoth mandate of administrative oversight, investigation, and rehabilitation - and more, of all matters relating to children, it is the receptacle for reports and referrals from the Office of the Children's Registry (OCR) and to a lesser degree reports from the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA). In other words, every complaint that reaches the OCR is also reported and followed up by the CDA.
Given those realities, the government will have to explain exactly how the additional responsibility of the Ananda Alert will be subsumed and managed by the CDA.
I'm not sure that Minister Arscott knows or appreciates the seriousness of the crisis of missing children, given that he's been in the job for only six months. On an average, 150 children go missing every month in Jamaica. Some months the figure is closer to 200, and whilst approximately 80 per cent of that number return home, there are children who have never been seen again - month after month, and year after year. There are children who have been missing for years without suspects or investigations.
The case of 14-year-old Jhaneel Goulbourne exemplifies the severe nature of the problem. Jhaneel was allegedly abducted four years ago. Though it is surmised that she was the victim of foul play, Jhaneel's body has not been found. As a consequence she remains on the missing persons' list.
The attendant problems are equally bizarre. Most of the children who go missing are involved in sexual activity, both forced and unforced. Legally of course, the latter is irrelevant when it involves any child under the age of 16 years, but the psychosocial impact is nevertheless profound. Some of the missing children cases handled by Hear The Children's Cry involve gang rapes, pregnancies and contraction of sexually transmitted infections. Almost all of them involve trauma presenting itself in one form or another.
In one gruesome case, the 15-year-old girl who had been reported missing was buried in a pauper's grave before her mother even knew that her badly decomposed body had been found. The emotional ramifications of that particular case on the mother as well those close to the family are deep and long-lasting.
One of the unspoken consequences of the crisis of missing children is its impact on the educational life of the victims. Children who go missing don't attend school for the time they are away from home. Equally disturbing are reports that some of the children who return are being denied re-entry into the formal school system. Negative short and long-term social effects of this type of problem will continue to plague a country already characterised by under-education and the associated problems of crime, teenage pregnancy and other serious dysfunctions.
The epidemic of missing children requires a stand-alone, investigative unit equipped with adequate staffing and wide-reaching capacities - internal and external, the latter being critical in tackling the problem of child trafficking. To simply announce a shift in location is definitely not good enough, given the scope of work required.
For the Ananda Alert to function effectively and efficiently, it is going to require significant resources and structural mechanisms that clearly cannot be accommodated by the CDA in its present form.
While the move to the CDA is welcomed from a purely child-focused point of view, the magnitude of the crisis of missing and abducted children is much more than geography. It is going to require commitment, collaboration and creativity, but most of all, it will need the commensurate financial and material input from government and the private sector, if it is to have any semblance of viability.