MONTEGO BAY, St James — Twenty-three children are now in State care after being removed from the Bayith Yahweh compound in St James where there have been allegations of forced marriages and other abuses.
For many residents of the Paradise Gardens community, the intervention was long overdue.
The children, who are between one and 17 years old, were taken before the St James Family Court on Wednesday as the authorities moved to protect them. The police also reportedly detained a number of adults from the facility during the early-morning operation.
Commanding officer for the Area One Police Assistant Commissioner Clifford Chambers told the Jamaica Observer there were reports that a number of infractions — as outlined under Section 11 of the Child Care and Protection Act — are suspected to have taken place at the compound.
"They are being forced into marriage once they get to the age of 16. And they are being humiliated; so the girls' heads are shaved if there were any issues," he said on Wednesday afternoon.
He added that there have also been reports that formal education has been withheld from school-aged children and youngsters were being housed in a communal living space that is not conducive to their well-being.
When the Observer visited Paradise Gardens on Wednesday morning, residents eagerly shared their concerns about the facility that has often attracted negative attention to the area. Most of them chose not to provide their names.
One woman said she has long been concerned about how the young girls there interact with older men.
"I always see the kids, like maybe 10- or 12-year-olds, passing with some gentlemen. And they are holding them like they are their wives. I would always [ask] myself why the authorities don't step in to see what is going on down there," she told the Observer.
She also expressed concern about sanitation at the compound, saying frequent scenes of children fetching water from a nearby pipe appeared to indicate there might be no running water inside.
For area resident James Montague, Wednesday's intervention by the police, the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA), and supporting agencies was long overdue.
"It is full time that somebody takes care of the children that are over there," he said.
He said he has long viewed the establishment with suspicion after what appeared to be a power struggle there.
"I understand that they manhandled the man who was there and took over, then started to do things that a church doesn't normally do. A church is supposed to be an open place for people to attend and come to know God for themselves, but they are doing it differently. They shut in, so you can't just walk in," Montague said.
The Bayith Yahweh group is no stranger to controversy, as there have long been concerns over what takes place behind its chained gates. Montague told the Observer that he believes the authorities allowed its operations to go on for far too long.
"I think they waited too long. It is not a church — it is much more like a cult than anything else," he said.
A female resident said she is eager to see the back of the controversial compound.
"Since that is what they are carrying on with down there, I think it should be removed," she said.
She added that after the police carried out an operation at the facility in 2019, members of the Bayith Yahweh group tend to keep a low profile in a bid to not attract outside attention.
"A lot of young girls used to pass by, but since they [the police] came there the last time, I haven't seen many of them. They said the Government moved some of them from the property," the elderly woman explained.
An attempt by the Observer to speak to a woman and man seen on the Bayith Yahweh property was met with resistance. On seeing journalists the woman, who was covered from head to toe in a purple garment, ran towards a building on the property.
A man who emerged from the rear of the structure forcibly declined a request for a comment.
"We are not interested in releasing a statement! We are not interested in the media!" he shouted.
Montego Bay is no stranger to controversial groups that claim to practise religion. The nation was shocked in October 2021 when police stormed Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries to prevent human sacrifices being performed at the behest of the organisation's leader, Kevin Smith. One woman's throat was slashed as part of the ritual; another of Smith's followers was stabbed, shot in his back, and an attempt made to cut his throat during the mayhem inside the building in Albion, St James. Cops shot dead a believer who ran towards them with a knife.
Kevin Smith later died in a car crash before he could stand trial.
Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries was located within walking distance of the Bayith Yahweh compound.