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Slipping through the cracks

Psychiatrist wants special gov't unit to help troubled teens

BY KARYL WALKER walkerk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, November 25, 2012    

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CONSULTANT psychiatrist and head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI), Dr Wendell Abel, is calling on the Government to speedily establish a unit to provide specialised care for adolescents with behavioural and mental health issues.

Abel's call comes days after 16-year-old Vanessa Wint's body was discovered hanging in a cell inside the New Horizon Adult Remand Centre, her life allegedly taken by her own hand.

Wint's death has turned the spotlight on the treatment of troubled teens — whose anti-social behaviour is often a cry for help — but who end up being victimised by the very system that should have assisted them in dealing with the causes of their problems.

"There is no unit established to provide specialised care for adolescents with behavioural problems. It is time now for the Government to put resources in to establish such a unit. There are a lot of children in children's homes who need help. They are not getting it and they end up in the prison system," Abel told the Jamaica Observer.

The psychiatrist said the UHWI has put forward a proposal to the CHASE Fund for assistance in constructing a unit to provide specialised care to mentally challenged adolescents.

Vanessa had repeatedly run away from home after she was allegedly molested by an adult male who lived in her community. She was eventually dragged before the Family Court and ordered by a judge to spend three years in State care.

That ruling was the beginning of the end for the troubled teen who ended up surviving the deadly fire at the infamous Armadale children's home in 2009, which saw seven female wards of the State being killed and a policeman slapped with criminal charges. Head of the Department of Correctional Services June Spencer-Jarrett was sacked as a result of a probe into the tragic incident.

"These institutions (places of safety) cannot provide the mental health care that these youngsters need. The institutions are not equipped and don't have the resources. A lot of children with behavioural problems end up in the prison system," he said.

Human rights group Jamaicans for Justice have, for years, been lambasting the State for its treatment of children who are sometimes placed in adult penal institutions with hardened criminals.

On Thursday the group blamed the Government for Vanessa's death.

"The Jamaican Government continues to preside over the illegal and inhumane practice of placing children in adult correctional facilities. Gazetting an adult remand centre or prison as a juvenile correctional facility does not make the facility into a juvenile correctional facility, nor does it absolve the Government of its legal and moral responsibility to protect the rights of the children in its care and to ensure their separation in every way from adult remandees. Children in conflict with the law are vulnerable children, often in need of special support - medical, psychological, educational and social. The Jamaican State is systematically breaching the rights of these children to the care and support that they require and that local and international law prescribe," a release from the group stated.

There are presently more than 400 juveniles in the custody of the State.

In February 2009, some of the 60 female juveniles who were being housed at the Fort Augusta women's prison in St Catherine rioted and injured several warders.

The girls, aged 17 and under, armed themselves with crude 'jammers', faeces, urine and used sanitary napkins and ran amok in the penal facility.

A week before, an officer's nose was fractured after a gang of juveniles attacked her, knocked her to the ground and kicked her in the face. Another warder was stabbed in the shoulder.

That type of violent behaviour is sometimes the result of repressed anger over some past trauma/abuse in a child's life. However, sometimes children internalise this anger, inflicting pain on themselves. Sometimes troubled children will adopt behaviour which psychiatrists dub 'self-harm' or self-inflicted injury. They may cut, stab, punch holes, take mood-altering drugs or indulge in acts that inflict harm to themselves as a means of crying out for help or seeking attention.

"A lot of them will tell you they do it to relieve themselves of emotional pain or some do it to evoke what is dubbed 'emotional numbing'. The majority of youngsters who indulge in self-harm do not intend to kill themselves, but in some instances it may result in suicide," Abel said.

Psychiatrists say statistics reveal that the majority of teens who take part in the worrisome practice are female.

"We see more girls. Eighty per cent of them come from chaotic family backgrounds where parenting is inconsistent and erratic, and a majority of them come from backgrounds where they have been abused, especially sexually abused," he said.

Parents whose children have been sexually abused, or are victims of a crime and are displaying troubling signs can seek help from the Victim Support Unit, which is headquartered at Old Hope Road in Kingston and has branches islandwide.

According to senior co-ordinator Osbourne Bailey, the unit has a comprehensive range of programmes to deal with these situations.

The unit offers court support and orientation, individual and group counselling and psycho-emotional support.

"Counselling has helped. I have seen where it has helped children who have adopted a different approach," Bailey said.

He said abused children act in odd, extreme ways because they have internalised their ordeal, or out of fear of reprisal if they speak out, which is the reason Vanessa's relatives have offered for her running away from home repeatedly.

He said children will sometimes commit suicide to permanently end their ordeal.

"It is really an attempt to be safe. Just to get relief and safety, they will take their own life.

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