Missing children problem persists

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Missing children problem persists

Blaine points to disturbing trend, disputes recovery numbers offered by authorities

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
Senior staff reporter
saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

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The disturbing trend of minors going missing for the weekend, and returning home in time for school on Monday morning is continuing.

It is a phenomenon that Betty-Ann Blaine, founder of advocate group, Hear the Children's Cry says has developed over the past two to three years, and which parents and caregivers say places them in a peculiar situation as they are unsure whether to report these children missing.

Blaine told the Jamaica Observer that her organisation had become aware of the new development through the over 150 follow-up calls it makes to families and caregivers each month. The average age range for children reported missing is 14 to 17 years old.

“The parents are telling us that there is a new phenomenon where the children go to school on a Friday, pack clothes in school bags, and they don't come back until Sunday, sometimes Monday. It's quite a serious thing. Parents are oftentimes conflicted, they don't know if they should report them missing or not,” she said.

According to data the Observer received from the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA) for January to October last year, 1,334 children were reported missing, and 71 per cent, or 942 of them have since returned home or were recovered.

Five of the missing — including three girls — were found deceased.

There has been a five per cent increase in the number of children reported missing when compared to the corresponding period of 2018, the CPFSA said.

Furthermore, 19 per cent fewer children returned home between January and October 2019, compared to the similar period in 2018.

The Office of the Children's Registry (OCR) recorded a total of 1,512 reports of missing children in 2018, the lowest figure since the Ananda Alert system was launched 11 years ago, following the kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Ananda Dean.

The CPFSA says that in 2017 a total of 1,674 children were reported missing and 1,476, or 90 per cent, returned home or were recovered.

But Blaine is challenging that most of the kids who return home do so on their own. She said the authorities should be cautious about claiming a drop in the numbers, as there could be under-reporting.

“Whenever they're speaking about it, I always try to correct them because they have a way of saying these children have been recovered. The truth is, nobody has recovered those kids, nobody was looking for them; these are kids that leave home and then come back,” she stated.

As in previous years, majority of those who went missing in 2019 are female, according to the police's missing persons monitoring unit. One hundred and thirty-five of the 188 children who were reported missing in the month of May 2019 alone were girls.

In June 2019 a total of 111, the second-highest number of girls for the year, were reported missing. In total, 1,026 of the children reported missing for the 10-month period are girls. Two hundred and eighty-five girls are still missing, and 84 boys.

Most reports that are made to the OCR bare a common thread of two or more forms of abuse against children.

Blaine noted that most cases involve runaways, usually because of problems at home, oftentimes with the parents. She said these include communication issues, and abuse. “Largely, the reasons were problems at home abuse of some kind, poverty, somehow they felt life was better at their friend's yard or it looks better to them. Oftentimes they go missing because they're unhappy and they go with friends, or are lured by adult males. Those are the ones who never come back home, then years later they're pregnant or have reached the age of 18,” she said.

She insisted that the State needs to dig deeper into the issue of disappearing or runaway children, given the emerging “weekend missing children” phenomenon.

“Parents aren't reporting those who stay away for the weekend, and multiple missing ones. I suspect there is under-reporting going on. I would caution anyone against reporting a decrease in numbers, without having done the research. The numbers are still very high and have been consistently high over the last several years,” Blaine asserted.

She said another major reason the children who, in fact, run away are leaving home is that they are leaving to engage in sexual activities. “Parents say a lot of the teens are leaving for sex — that's a big reason we get from parents. They can't control them,” she remarked.

“Based on follow up by the Ananda Alert Unit, most cases of children reported missing in 2019 were due to children's fear of going home because of coming from school late, fear of punishment for some other infraction, peer pressure, a [wish[ for freedom, and the child going to another relative or friend's house without the knowledge of a parent,” the agency said in its response to the Observer.

In the meantime, the CPFSA said it has embarked on a public education campaign sensitising citizens to the issue of missing children. This includes a docudrama series that was broadcast on TVJ in May/June 2019.

Additionally, the Ananda Alert Unit has collaborated with partners, such as the police and victims services, to have community sensitisation sessions to encourage people to be on the lookout for missing children. The CPFSA has also been using social media to solicit tips on the possible location of children reported missing.

“Through these tips, the CPFSA has been able to work with the police to locate a number of children who were reported missing either in 2019 or in previous years,” the agency said.

The registry also said it was not able to speak about the role of social media in child disappearances in 2019.


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