News

Jamaica's children in crisis

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Features editor — Sunday thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, May 22, 2011    

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THE Jamaican child is, more often than not, poor, barely educated, vulnerable to paedophiles, exposed to acts of crime and violence, at risk of being raped, trafficked, and of becoming pregnant.

This, according to social workers and child rights activists who insist the State has failed its children.

"I think as a nation, we have failed our children because they are not priority in terms of our planning and we tend to respond mainly to crises. So if there is something happening with our children, there is a lot of excitement and buzz and possibly some quick-fix solutions, but in terms of seriously positioning our children on the national agenda, I'm not sure, from where I sit, that there is enough care and support for our children nationally," said Claudette Pious.

Pious is the founder of Children First, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to reform street children mainly through the use of dramatic arts.

"We have a way of saying that our children are our nation's future, but I think our children are our 'now', and if they are our future, then I think we have a very dim future," she added.

Betty Ann Blaine, founder of child advocate group Hear the Children's Cry felt the same way.

"We say we put children first, but really, is like a joke... If children are our priority, how does it translate into our policies and programmes nationally throughout the enitre thread of society?" she queried.

The women were speaking with the Sunday Observer last week on the state of the Jamaican child, who, by definition under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), is any person 17 years of age and under. That population, according to 2009 estimates published by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica, is 849, 822.

Of that number, approximately 650,000 are enrolled in public sector institutions up to the secondary level. The remaining 199, 822 is divided among those who are gainfully employed, are wards of the state in juvenile penal institutions, or are classified as 'unattached' -- not being employed or enrolled in school or other training institutions.

But their situation is much more complex.

The three-year-old Montego Bay boy who was reportedly abducted from school earlier this month -- but who was later found and his alleged kidnappers arrested -- was the sixth child abduction reported to police since the start of the year, according to the statistics and data management unit of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.

That data, solicited by the Sunday Observer, shows that over the past decade, the year 2007 had the highest number of child abductions, registering 200 in total, more than four times the number of any other year.

In November of that year, for example, twin girls were reportedly kidnapped from Kingston Public Hospital by a doctor and transported to Nigeria in West Africa.

Also that year, in June, a 16-year-old girl jumped from a moving taxi in Ramble, Hanover in an attempt to escape the driver who allegedly tried to kidnap her. She sustained injures to her arms, legs and face.

But not all cases of child abduction have ended favourably for the children. Hear the Children's Cry reported that an average of 150 children go missing each month and although the majority of them eventually return hone, many are never seen again. In April, 165 children were reported missing, 107 of whom returned home, and in March 136 of 191 were returned.

In 2008 the nation was rocked by the gruesome discovery of the decomposed body of 11-year-old Ananda Dean, who had been missing for 11 days. The girl, then a student of Swallowfield Primary and Junior High, was abducted on her way home from school. She was killed and her body dumped in bushes in Red Hills, St Andrew.

Ananda was one of 85 children to have been murdered in 2008.

The incident triggered the national emergency response alert system for missing children, dubbed Ananda Alert, which -- through the police, the media and other private sector partners -- issues a nationwide alert once a child is reported missing, rather than waiting 24 hours as per the previous practice.

"The reason that men can rape children and walk around, the reason that they (children) can go missing and they gang-rape them and abuse them, is because there is a kind of unwritten law in society that it doesn't matter, nothing will happen to you the (offender), most of our laws aren't enforced anyway. There is a sense in this society that we don't value children," said Blaine.

In another chilling case of child murder, in November 2007, 41-year-old Carol Waldron of Grange Hill, Westmoreland, killed her daughters -- 14-year-old Kadijah and three-month-old Ashley -- by injecting them with potassium chloride. She later killed herself.

The girls were counted among the 70 child murders recorded by police for 2007, and among the 465 whose lives were lost through acts of violence from 2005 to the end of April this year.

Between January 1 and April 30, 2011, 15 children have been murdered and an equal number has been mowed down in traffic crashes. Twenty-five have been shot, 119 have been raped, 207 have been victims of carnal abuse, 13 were wounded (by means other than shooting), and 25 were assaulted.

"For a population of approximately 2.7 million people, these statistics are very, very high and it speaks to a crisis. If these are the stats for less than half of the year, then the only conclusion you can draw is that the state of the Jamaican child is very bad and there is a need for urgent attention," Blaine argued.

"Those figures sound very high to me, but it might be a little more," Pious said. "I'm positive because sometimes I know of cases where you send them to report it and they don't report it, so I'm not even sure how accurate these figures are, but, even so, one child lost is one child too many."

Some of the offences recorded by police were committed by children themselves, as, according to A Study on the Profile of Children in Conflict with the Law, published by the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA) in February 2011, three per cent of persons arrested for major crimes (including murder, shooting, robbery, rape, and carnal abuse) were in the 12-15 age group while 21 per cent were done by those 16-18 years of age.

According to the same source, there were 210 admissions to juvenile detention centres in 2009; 226 in 2008; and 202 in 2007. Three hundred and fifty-nine juveniles were arrested for major crimes in 2009, compared with 444 the previous year.

Also in 2009, a total of 3,586 children appeared before the courts, 28 per cent for care and protection/abandonment issues, 10 per cent for uncontrollable behaviour, and the remainder for "more serious offences", the study said.

The OCA document labelled these children as being in conflict with the law and presented a profile on them earlier this year.

"The child in conflict with the law is, most often, 16 years old, male, with a charge of uncontrollable and/or unlawful wounding, who used a weapon, most likely a knife at the time of the current offence... He is likely to attribute this to idleness and the influence of "bad company".

"He is likely a poor reader from a low-income family, who knows his father, but who lives with his mother -- the head of the household -- and about two to four siblings (although there are likely to be more siblings outside of the home)," the profile said.

"He would have moved at least once. He would have often heard that he is loved, but might not have attended school regularly because of a lack of bus fare and/or lunch money. He would have experienced some level of bullying and would have been suspended and/or expelled at some point from a school in which fighting is commonplace," the profile continued.

"If the child in conflict with the law is female, her profile is similar except that she is a better reader and has experienced some abuse," the study said.

Of the 254 children in the OCA sample, 68 (27 per cent) were in children's homes operated by the Child Development Agency and 164 (65 per cent) were in centres operated by the Department of Correctional Services.

"It is evident that our children are in trouble," said Pious, "and that we need to take a more proactive approach to protecting our children. It has to be everybody's business, it needs to be on the agenda, everywhere. It has to be the response of every single person because unless we take it on as a national effort, we're really wasting time."

Read part two of this article in tomorrow's Observer.

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