In care of our children...

Barbara
Gloudon

Friday, August 16, 2019

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On Friday, August 9, 2019, during the newscast on one of the local TV stations, an item of “breaking news” came up. “There are reports that there is a fire at the Jamaica National Children's Home...” Immediately there was a sense of dread. Would this be another case of young lives lost in a terrifying blaze? Would this be another Armadale, where seven girls perished in 2009? Or the 2018 fire at Walker's Place of Safety resulting in two deaths? Or any of the other cases of fires occurring at children's homes and places of safety?

By morning the news updates came in. The fire had destroyed the dormitory section of the home and, as a result, 41 children had to be relocated to another facility in Stony Hill. Thankfully, no lives were lost. Officials have stated that the non-lethal outcome was due in part to the fire brigade having conducted drills with the staff and wards a few days before. When disaster struck, the children and caregivers knew what to do and how to get to safety.

The nation breathed a sigh of relief.

Pledges of assistance have been coming in from individuals and corporate Jamaica who are putting up the funds to rebuild and restore the home and make sure the children are cared for in the aftermath. As the days followed, journalists, child rights activists, and arm-chair commentators began asking the why and how of the current incident:

* Why have there been so many fires in spaces allocated to keep our most vulnerable children safe?

* Was the home adhering to safety regulations?

* Were the safety measures announced in 2018 by the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA) enough?

The CPFSA had stated that fire alarms and other equipment would be installed in the different homes and other safety measures put in place. While these improvements seemed to have made a difference at the Jamaica National Children's Home, questions were still being asked as to whether this was the case in other facilities.

As the rebuilding of the home, situated in Papine, St. Andrew, is being organised, we hope that some attention will be placed on the area surrounding the home. If you were to try and get to the National Children's Home from the access road off Old Hope Road you would think you were driving through a river bed. After you get pass the National Water Commission facility, there is not even a shadow of asphalt or paving. Gaping holes and rockstones are more prevalent than a politician's promises.

On Wednesday when I passed that way work was being done at the Papine end of the road. Sidewalks were being put in place, but what about the rest of the road? I hope that the driving surface is on the immediate to-do list. If things had gone differently and there had been a need to move those children out of the area quickly, who knows what would have happened?

As the summer draws to a close, and September morning approaches, there is a renewed focus on children. Parents are being sent into a tizzy buying things to outfit their children for the new school term. Bags, shoes, uniforms, books must be procured. Buildings are being painted, desks and chairs are being delivered to schools to make sure the physical well-being of the students is in place. Auxiliary and registration fees are to be paid over, even as the Ministry of Education and Prime Minister Andrew Holness remind the nation that no tuition fees are to be charged by the schools.

The tangible things that our children need can be easily identified even if we struggle to provide them. What is needed to take care of the emotional health of our children as well? They live in some really scary times. This world, this country, has become a stressful place — even for the youngest among us.

There is a terribly disturbing story from out of St Thomas of a teenaged boy who assaulted a youngster, allegedly wounding him in a most horrific manner. The teenager, who has been taken into custody, is to be brought before the court to answer for his actions. His lawyer has requested that a psychiatric evaluation be conducted. It is important to understand what made him behave in such a manner.

It is chilling to see that our children are joining in the trend of violence that we are struggling with. My heart goes out to the child who will bear the scars of the brutal act. It is an unbelievably heart-rending story. Both children and their families will need support to deal with what has happened.

The CPFSA, United States Agency for International Development and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) hosted the National Children's Summit in Kingston on Thursday, August 15. It is intended that children between 12 and 17 years of age will come together to highlight the issues which they face. Let us hope that the powers that be will not only listen to what the children have to say, but act on the recommendations.

Question of the day: Do we really care for our children or are we just paying lip service? Can we do the hard work to make sure that in our family-homes and institutions our children will really see a brighter, better tomorrow?

Barbara Gloudon is a journalist, playwright and commentator. Send comments to the Observer or gloudonb@gmail.com.


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