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Youth at risk — The ties that unravel

BY MARCIA SEPAUL editorial@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, July 23, 2012    

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STEPHEN, at 16 years old, is a youth in conflict with the law. Chances are he committed his first offence at 10 years old, according to a 2008 World Bank Study of Youths at Risk in Latin America and the Caribbean.

According to that study, Jamaican youth begin to engage in violent behaviour at an early age (10 to 15 years) and that age group accounted for about two per cent of those who were arrested for criminal/violent activity in 2007.

The typical youth at risk, like Stephen, would, according to the study, have been charged for unlawful wounding. The weapon of choice — the knife. Most crimes committed by youth at risk are done in an urban area with gangs in the community. Kingston and St Andrew is the parish most likely to have at-risk youth.

Stephen is a stereotype of the youth at risk in Jamaican society. His foray into juvenile crime has probably been fuelled by a variety of factors, including having a family member who has been in conflict with the law, being affiliated with a gang and using drugs such as marijuana.

Disconnect from family, school and society are also emerging as leading factors contributing to delinquent youth behaviour in Jamaica.

According to the World Bank study, feeling disconnected from school has emerged as an explanation for all kinds of risky behaviour, and some argued that it has been the most important influencing factor.

School connectedness — feeling that someone in a young person's school cares about his or her well-being — is negatively correlated with school repetition, early school leaving, premature employment, risky sexual activity, early sexual initiation, substance use and violence. Connectedness is not the same as attending school, the study said, nor does it have to do with school quality because young people in both lower and higher ranked school can feel school connectedness, the study found.

However, schools with dangerous environments and overworked teachers were less likely to connect with students than safe schools with a caring staff, according to the World Bank report.

The importance of school is supported by the report 'Children in Conflict with the Law' by the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA) in Jamaica. Identifying why children are in conflict with the law, practitioners working with at-risk youth pointed to poor parenting (60 per cent), lack of adequate supervision (60 per cent) and frustrations with school or being illiterate or

semi-literate (74 per cent) as critical factors.

Some practitioners also pointed out that poor literacy leads to poor reasoning. This results in violence where even simple conflicts, such as a disagreement about who is the best entertainer, might disintegrate into an altercation. At-risk youths like Stephen, according to the OCA, are also likely to admire deejays such as the controversial artiste Vybz Kartel.

Poor reasoning, combined with the other factors, make at-risk boys vulnerable to being exploited by others, including 'dons' (49 per cent), to whom they turn for fatherly support, and negative peer pressure (37 per cent).

The issue of parenting is also critical. The OCA report indicated that one of the strongest predictors of children coming into conflict with the law is poor parental monitoring and supervision (Gibson, 2002). The World Bank study agreed, reporting that the feeling of having a parent who cares is a protective factor for several risky behaviours.

"He would have often heard that he is loved but might have missed school because his parent told him that bus fare and/or lunch money was not available," said the OCA report, in its profile of a 'Child in Conflict with the Law'.

At the same time, young people who feel a connection with a parent are more likely to stay in school, would not enter the labour force prematurely (or if they do they remain in school); initiate sex at a later age and use condoms; avoid the use of drugs and alcohol, and be less violent than those who do not have this emotional connection to their parents, the World Bank

report said.

Quite likely, Stephen lives with his mother — who is head of the household — and with two to four siblings, although he probably has more siblings outside of the home. If Stephen had lived with both parents he might have become involved with fewer kinds of risky behaviour, compared to at-risk youth who live with one or no parents.

However, regardless of household structure, young people who participate in activities with their parents, who feel that they can talk to their parents, or who feel a sense of closeness to their parents are less likely to engage in risky behaviour than those who do not have these connections. They are less likely to get involved in negative behaviour that would disappoint and embarrass their parents.

While family harmony could help to prevent youth butting up against the law, household poverty, which is a strong and consistent correlate of several risky behaviours, makes this hard to achieve. A number of children live in single-parent homes and single parents facing economic stresses and working long hours and often unable to provide the levels of monitoring and supervision necessary to keep their children on the straight and narrow.

One organisation throwing its energy behind the effort to keep more of Jamaica's at-risk youth on a crime-free path is the Rotary Club of Kingston. On July 7, 2012, the club launched BACK2LIFE, its 2012-2013 major project which it is hoping will break the cycle of crime and reduce recidivism among male juveniles in Jamaica, beginning with the wards incarcerated at Rio Cobre Correctional Centre in St Catherine.

The club has joined forces with the Children First agency to implement BACK2LIFE, which will use strategies like life skills development, life coaching and mentorship to engage the boys at Rio Cobre and address some of the issues affecting them.

"The whole effort is meant to reduce crime. This will take time, but in the short run, our aim is to help those incarcerated young men and to give them an alternative to the path they are on," said Rotary Club of Kingston President Manley Nicholson.

Several BACK2LIFE strategies dovetail with the recommendations of both the World Bank and the OCA, as well as successful initiatives implemented in Jamaica. Two major ones are using volunteers to provide youth instruction and mentorship.

"We want to involve as many players as possible, including those who were there before and can offer experience to guide us," said Nicholson. "We have to get the Ministry of Justice and other key people involved. We want to be as inclusive as possible, and we are depending on volunteers to help us achieve our objectives."

According to the World Bank, effectively reintegrating at-risk youth into society requires carefully targeted programmes designed according to the evidence of what works. One such intervention is mentoring, which has proven to be a cost-effective means of affecting a range of risky behaviours including crime and violence, substance abuse, and school dropouts. When compared with other successful risk-prevention programmes, mentoring consistently shows high rates of return.

Nicholson said mentoring was at the heart of BACK2LIFE, adding that the club was seeking 100 mentors to help make the project a success. "We want to match each ward at Rio Cobre with a caring adult who will provide coaching and role modelling," he said. "To have this male figure in their lives, one-on-one relationship with a positive male showing them care and attention, is not something many of these boys would normally have."

BACK2LIFE will spend some $28 million to help the boys at Rio Cobre turn away from a life of crime.

The Rio Cobre Correctional Centre currently houses 93 boys between 12 and 18 years old who have been incarcerated for crimes such as larceny, possession of offensive weapons, possession of drugs and other minor offences. The centre prepares them for school examinations, offers vocational training and where pos-sible, behaviour-modification programmes. However, the latter two are at times cancelled or put on hold due to a lack of funding.

According to the Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica, three per cent of persons arrested for major crimes were in the 12-15 age group, and 21 per cent of major crimes were committed by those 16 - 18 years. These crimes include murder, shooting, robbery, rape, and carnal abuse. Victims of these violent acts were also young persons.

Typically, uncontrollable behaviour accounts for the largest number of children admitted to institutions, followed by charges relating to dangerous drugs, larceny, wounding, possession of offensive weapons and shop/house breaking, the OCA report stated.

In addition to the emotional and physical cost to the boys, risky youth behaviour reduces economic growth in Latin America and the Caribbean by up to two per cent annually, costing the countries billions of dollars.

Stephen, our stereotypical youth in conflict with the law, would have contributed to the cost of crime in Jamaica a whopping $12 billion in 2004.

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