Without families we gift-wrap and hand-deliver our children to the eventual killer


Friday, May 22, 2015

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We cannot always build the future for our youth; but we can build our youth for the future. -- Former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

PRIME Minister Portia Simpson Miller seems determined to lead an assault on the huge problem of child abuse faced by this country. She uses every opportunity to express her concern, and last Sunday, in a national broadcast, she had even more to say. I think her concerns are genuine and she deserves our full support.

There are other individuals and agencies that are also speaking out through speeches, seminars and other activities. We are told that new laws are to be introduced to put greater pressure on negligent parents and others who abuse our children. This is long overdue as, regardless of the amount of exhortations to 'treat di yout right' legal sanctions must be put in place to make it abundantly clear that the child abuse will not be tolerated in Jamaica.

It is of paramount importance, however, for it be understood that sound policymaking is impossible without a clear understanding of the root causes of this problem. For example, there seems to be a feeling in some quarters, that the country is suddenly overrun by deadly sexual predators. Is this true? Or could it be that, in most cases, the child was gift-wrapped and hand-delivered to the eventual killer. I have carried out my own checks and I am amazed at the discrepancy between what relatives, bawling on TV, are saying and what has been known for months, sometimes years, by the community.

Children, particularly girls, are frequently reported missing. Child advocates beg for them to be returned home. Of course, they are missed. Missed because they are needed to wash, cook, clean, iron, take care of siblings, clean, bathe, and feed sick, elderly members of the household, don uniforms as if school-bound, but going out to hustle to bring back money. Then there's the current stepfather. He has to be entertained. Will my editor allow me to scream to this nation that our children face a daunting array of problems?

It is claimed, quite correctly, that our country faces a number of problems. I am now satisfied that these all have their genesis in the breakdown of family and community. There is a notion in some quarters here that marriage is some stoosh arrangement carried out by uptowners and others aspiring to move in that direction. From the beginning of time, it is this institution that has kept communities and countries together. Some hip, smart alecks with access to media have frequently postulated that all sorts of variations to marriage can work. Policymakers are now admitting that there is a connection between the breakdown of American families and various social problems. Social scientists are now stating that the deinstitutionalisation of marriage and the steady disintegration of the mother-father child-raising unit has led to the growth of one-parent families. One-parent families is widely thought to be the cause of that nation's most serious problems including crime, drugs, gangs, violence and failing schools. We could talk, march and run 5Ks till we drop, if a young mother does not have the emotional and material resources to raise a child there will be problems.

With all the expressions of concern for the welfare of children in this country, meaningful statistics that can help to formulate policy are still woefully lacking. One is therefore forced to look elsewhere for trends to understand the extent and nature of the problem:

In the US, for example, children in single-parent families comprise 27 per cent of all American children, yet they account for 62 per cent of all poor children. Over the past 30 years, the rise in violent crime parallels the rise in families abandoned by fathers. High-crime neighbourhoods are characterised by high concentrations of families abandoned by fathers

Scholars of The Heritage Foundation found that a 10 per cent increase in the percentage of children living in single-parent homes leads typically to a 17 per cent increase in juvenile crime.

The rate of violent teenage crime corresponds with the number of families abandoned by fathers.

Children receive gender-specific support from having a mother and a father present: Mothers to nurture and fathers for discipline. There are also complex biologically rooted interactions critical to the development of boys and girls. (Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles, 2006)

A child living with a single mother is 14 times more likely to suffer serious physical abuse than is a child living with married biological parents. A child whose mother cohabits with a man other than the child's father is 33 times more likely to suffer serious physical child abuse. (The Positive Effects of Marriage: A Book of Charts)

In married families, about 1/3 of adolescents are sexually active. For teenagers in step families, cohabiting households, divorced families and those with single unwed parents, the percentage rises above 50%. (The Positive Effects of Marriage: A Book of Charts)

There are, of course, other factors that predispose Jamaican children to harm and contribute to the breakdown of family and community. The changing role of grandmothers is important. Today's grandmother, not yet 40, is hunting for the latest fashions and proficient in the latest dance moves. She has absolutely no intention of making the same mistake (motherhood) twice. She is not available. One grandmother I know, who returned from Jubilee in February with her baby; her eighth was confronted with this question from one of her granddaughters -- her daughter's seven-year-old. "So what I mus call her (the infant)? Auntie? Dat not fair!

Then there is a situation which requires children to be out of bed at 4:30 am - 5:00 am to prepare for school. They leave their community 'before day' and journey elsewhere to a school that has no connection with the community and return at all hours -- even night. What has that child done for the day? Did he/she attend school? If not, where did he/she go? With whom? What did they do? Was there really a bus problem? How did he/she come by that piece of jewellery? And that BlackBerry? Eventually, it is revealed that the child knows very little about the community in which he lives. What does anybody know about this child? Neither parents nor community is able to play a meaningful role in these children's lives. Because they don't see them!

My entry into college was the first time that I attended an institution that I could not walk to attend. I knew everyone in my community and they knew me. There were some schemes I devised that were on the shady side. But everywhere I turned, there were the prying eyes of other inquisitive parents wanting to know where I was going, with whom, and if my parents had given permission. When anything exciting was arranged, one had to spend so much time contemplating the consequences, one usually concluded that it would be easier just doing something that could stand up to scrutiny. Life was boring. But safe.

There are some uncomfortable facts that we must face concerning our juvenile population. The overwhelming majority of them were accidents of birth. In many cases, mothers have only a vague idea of who the father might be. They are an inconvenience. Interest in them is limited to their ability to assist with chores and contribute. Many children realise this and, in their desperate search for affection, put themselves at considerable risk to provide the material resources they think will purchase this affection. Mothers often suspect and pile on copious amounts of guilt to increase contributions.

It would seem that one way of taking some of these wretched souls out of this hell, is to consider opening the doors wider for international adoptions. In so doing, a foreign couple would become the legal and permanent parents of some of these children. Thousands of children find permanent loving homes this way every year. The main receiving country is our close neighbour, the United States. They got about 79 from us last year. But they got 388 from Haiti, and thousands from China and other far off countries where language and culture is a much bigger challenge. For reasons that cannot affect us, the number of adoptions into the US has plummeted in recent years. In 2012, the number of adoptions from China was 2,679, down from 7,038 in 2004. Over the same period, adoptions from Russia moved from 5,867 to 748 and today, adoptions from Russia have been suspended. This offers a wonderful opportunity for Jamaica -- providing we can find some way not to make a mess of things. Both the US and Jamaica are signatories to the Hague Adoption Convention (1993) so their legal arrangements cannot be too different from each other. It would really be sad if -- like ganja and DNA -- we spend the next 10 years studying the situation.

It would be misleading for anyone to just set everything down to declining values without taking a long hard look at the social consequences of prolonged unemployment. It does strange things to people's minds. The thought processes of a hungry mother who knows that a chicken is in the oven at home are vastly different from those of a mother who has absolutely no idea if and when she will ever see another chicken. These are the kind of circumstances that encourage, no, demand, that, for survival, women and girls abandon the traditional moral code. They did not just get up one day and decide to employ the coping strategies we hear of every day.

Corrupt politics, crime, disrespect for each other, poor mental health, poor academic performance, conflict; you name the problem. They all have their roots in the breakdown of those basic institutions marriage and family life. Just as how it is impossible for one hand to clap, a single mother -- regardless of the sacrifices she makes -- will always short-change her child. Then both parents need the help of a responsive community who knows the family and shares their values. No domestic trend is more threatening to Jamaica's future than a woman, single-handedly, trying to raise a family.

Glenn Tucker, MBA, is an educator and a sociologist. He can be reached at glenntucker2011@gmail.com.




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