Teen runaways make up bulk of missing children, cops say
THIRTY-one-year-old Peaches Parker struggles with one great fear, that her 15-year old daughter Sheena Dixon is one of many young girls lured away from home and is now being held against her will.
Peaches has not seen her daughter since October last year and the uncertainty of her child’s fate has been giving her sleepless nights and a loss of appetite.
“The last time somebody hear from her was a month ago when she called her grandmother,” Parker told the Jamaica Observer from her board house in Farm District, Westmoreland two weeks ago.
“She called and tell her she was in Bahamas and then she (the grandmother) heard a man shout at her and say ‘who you talking to? Come off the phone!’ and the phone went dead. From that, nobody don’t hear from her again.”
The family has other theories about where the teen is, but none of their leads have panned out.
“Is two time she called her grandmother. The first time she call and said she was in Chicago and the second time in Bahamas,” Parker said.
Parker said that her daughter got involved with a man from Kingston while she was staying with her grandmother in another district in Westmoreland.
“We got his number and called him but he said he didn’t know where she was,” Parker explained.
Parker believes that Sheena, a student at Belmont Academy in Westmoreland, was enticed into running away with a promise for a bright future.
“It sound to me like she meet somebody and they promise to take her to foreign and then they trick her,” Parker said.
Sheena’s 13-year-old sister told the Sunday Observer of conversations she had with her older sister a month before she went missing, in which Sheena would tell her that she was going abroad and that she would take back new clothes and other items for her.
Parker, too, admittied hearing Sheena saying the same things, but didn’t take her seriously, believing it was just the wishful thinking of a girl with big dreams.
Parker — a fish vendor who also raises pigs and goats to help support her children — said her daughter was very bright and did well in school. Despite being a single parent, she said she did her best to ensure Sheena and her two other daughters never wanted for anything important.
“People always say that I give them too much money, but I just want them to be comfortable,” she said of her daily allocation of $600 to Sheena.
“She never seem unhappy. We used to sit and watch shows together and when she got home from school she would empty her bag on the verandah and sit down doing her school work.”
If Sheena had stayed at Belmont a year longer, she would have gone down in history as being among the first batch of students to graduate from the newly established academy.
“Sheena not going to school and I strongly believe in education. I never allow any of them to stop from school. She just turn 15 Good Friday and she missing out a lot at school,” Parker lamented.
“Every time I hear a news about a child found dead or anything like that, my heart leap,” the distressed mother said.
“Yes, she might be alive, but under what condition?” she asked.
In the midst of her grief, Parker confided that her daughter’s disappearance came as a bigger blow because her eldest daughter ran away from home when she was 16, only to return with a baby. Parker said Sheena had seen first-hand the difficulties her sister experienced as a result of her poor decisions.
“What can I say to Sheena?” Parker asked. “She saw for herself, and Sheena not fool. She see how I have to be struggling with this [grand] child, because I am the one having to take care of him. Her sister have the child’s father in court because he is not helping her. I talk to her all the time and her sister talk to her. When I go out I make sure to buy all different types of food put in the house ’cause I want to make sure that they are comfortable.”
Trying to ascertain how far the police had reached in their search for Sheena was difficult as each police station in the area pointed to a neighbouring station. Police investigators on the case proved as elusive as Sheena herself, as none of the police officers the Sunday Observer spoke to were able to definitively give a status report on the case.
A Portmore resident, whose name we have agreed to whithold, said her 17-year-old daughter may have run away last October because of the strict rules that she has enforced in her home.
“I’m wondering if I was too strict,” the mother said. “I don’t allow them to go out. They don’t go to clubs, they don’t go to dance or parties or anywhere like that.
“I used to just allow her to go school and call to find out if she on her way home,” said the woman, who has eight children, her youngest being a year and three months old and her eldest, 21.
But, she said she felt she was doing what was best for her daughter at the time. Her overprotectiveness stemmed from the shocking discovery in 2008 that her former common-law husband was molesting her child. She brought charges against him and the case is before the courts. Since then, she has been very protective, even though she insists her daughter was recovering from her stepfather’s sexual abuse.
“… I don’t believe that (the molestation) is why she ran away,” the mother said.
“… We used to talk about it. Then I stopped ’cause I didn’t want to remind her about it. She was feeling much better. She was laughing again and playing with her siblings. But she loves to sing and she loves to go out, so I think it was because I wasn’t allowing her to. I’m wondering if I was too tight — too strict,” the sadness in her voice was clear.
“She is still not back, but she called her sister from a private number to say that she is OK. I am worried, but not as worried as before hearing that. I am coping right now,” she added.
The mother took comfort in that call, but was disheartened that her child was missing school and struggled with the uncertainty as to whether she will ever see her again.
Four other families with children listed as missing, but who had in fact run away, were contacted by the Sunday Observer.
In one case, the missing daughter returned home pregnant; in another case the teenaged girl returned home, but her mother admits that she fears she will run away again, and, in the third case, the family refers to their 16-year-old as an habitual runaway. In the fourth case, the teenaged girl made contact with her father and returned home last week.
Just under 2,100 children under 17 years old went missing in Jamaica between January 1 and December 31, 2011 — 1,635 females and 456 males. Of that number, 1,829 had returned home by the end of 2011. According to police statistics, of those who returned, 20 per cent were found to have left home/run away to stay with friends, 45 per cent ran away after they were reprimanded by parents or guardians and 35 per cent left for other reasons. Altogether, this accounted for 95 per cent of the kids on the missing persons list. The other five per cent are still not accounted for, but are, possibly, children who were abducted.
However, according to a senior police source, the figures are enough to convince law enforcers that the majority of missing children listed every year are actually runaways and are not taken against their will.
Additional statistics from childrens’ lobby group Hear the Children’s Cry showed that for January 2012 a total of 113 children — 24 males and 89 females, were reported ‘missing’. Of that total, 61 were runaways who eventually returned home, while 52 are still unaccounted for.
Statistics for February this year showed that the number of children listed as ‘missing’ increased by 38, to a total of 151– 19 males and 132 females. Ninety-seven of them returned home, with 54 still missing.
According to other statistics, most of these ‘missing’ children are between 14 and 16 years old.
The figures also revealed that St Catherine, St Andrew, Kingston and Clarendon have the highest number of missing children, with the Spanish Town corridor being described as ‘frightening’, because of the frequency of disappearances.
The general trend was that the areas with higher crime rates also tend to have larger numbers of children who have been reported ‘missing’, with many of them being from the lower level of the socio-economic ladder.
“Some are of the opinion that missing children are usually linked to human trafficking, but there is no empirical data to suggest that,” a senior cop said, citing a lack of follow-up information in some cases.
“But one of the challenges is that once the child is returned, you don’t hear much about it to say that the child has been returned to the parents.”
Hear the Children’s Cry and the Office of the Children’s Registry (OCR) also confirmed that runaways form the majority on the list of missing children in Jamaica, joining those who have really been abducted, and to a lesser extent, those secretly sent from their homes as families refused to turn them over to dons who had demanded sexual and other favours.
Registrar at the OCR, Greig Smith, said while there is no hardcore, local research establishing why Jamaican children run away from home, parental abuse, such as that experienced by the Portmore mother’s teen daughter at the hands of her stepfather, is among the top contributing factors.
“These children run away to seek help, maybe from other family members or friends,” Smith said.
He added that sometimes the child’s living conditions are horrific or some of the children themselves are simply out of control.
According to Betty-Ann Blaine, executive director of Hear the Children’s Cry, deterioration of family life; instability/shifting households; crippling levels of poverty; lack of adequate social support systems and heartbreaking levels of hopelessness are key factors leading to children running away from homes.
“Continuing cycles from one generation to the next with children having children; lack of parenting skills, and the lack of the strong extended family structure of years gone by are also contributing factors,” Blaine said, adding that many families today are headed by single mothers, many of whom are unemployed and struggling to survive economically.
“Large numbers of children are leaving home out of sheer economic need. They are hungry, they don’t have lunch money or bus fare for school, they don’t have money for basic needs such as clothing and proper shelter,” she stated.
“A number of children go missing repeatedly, because they are returned to the same situation they found unbearable in the first place,” Blaine said.
The childrens’ rights lobbyist is calling for serious investigation into each case where a child is reported missing and is seeking international intervention in cases where children have been missing for years and have never been heard from.
“I would say about 20 per cent of the children who go missing never return home and have never been heard from,” Blaine estimated.