"Sometimes a home is not a home," was 13-year-old Lejony Barrett's attention-grabbing response to the disturbing trend of missing children which the nation grapples with annually.
Barrett, who is a second-form student at Wolmer's Girls' School, was among several students who aired their concerns at an Ananda Alert Youth Forum on Thursday, which was recognised as International Missing Children's Day.
"I believe children run away because they don't feel safe in their environment and they feel as if they go they will find something better and somewhere that feels like home," added Barrett, whose response was met with applause from members of the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA), school leaders and other officials in attendance.
Another student, Joshua Naulthy of Oberlin High School, said restrictions in the home contribute to reasons why children go missing.
"They feel like there is a lack of freedom in the home so they try to get away from the home. To them, their parents are restricting them from what they want to do. So they run away to get freedom," he said.
Meanwhile, Greater Portmore High School student Kriss-Ann Robinson said children go missing due to "sexual, emotional, physical and mental problems".
In a panel discussion, members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and CPFSA addressed the students, pointing to contributing factors to and dangers associated with child disappearance.
According to children's officer at CPFSA Judine Webb-Brown, low socio-economic conditions, lack of resources at home, availability of a better life were some push factors for children leaving their homes.
She spoke of a case involving a 14-year-old girl who ran away to her adult boyfriend's house while her dad was asleep. She said the young girl's boyfriend later threatened to beat her due to cheating assumptions.
"Her father kept calling and came to CPFSA and when we made the call, she said he locked her in the house and took away her slippers and clothes so she couldn't come out. We even told her to try and kick down the door but she was so afraid because he threatened her," Webb-Brown said.
"Sometimes, we believe we are doing things to spite our parents because we are thinking that this boy loves us but they really don't. They isolate us, we don't know where to go, where to turn, and they abuse us. So, if it is that you are depressed... there is always someone to talk to," she added.
At the same time, Detective Corporal Diana Grant, who is the missing person coordinator at the JCF, shared missing children statistics for the St Catherine South Division.
Grant said up to May 24, 36 children have gone missing of which 36 per cent are male and 64 per cent are female.
"While we do have a reduction as it relates to missing children, we do have very serious concerns for persons going missing. There are things that happen out there and you need to find somebody who you can confide in instead of running away," said Grant.
In the meantime, Minister of Education and Youth Fayval Williams expressed concern about the missing children problem in Jamaica.
"It is a sad reality that we have had to establish a day to fully give credence to the fact that far too many children go missing annually," she said.
"Despite your parents and caregivers and the State's best efforts at child protection, the issue of continued abuse and neglect of children is painful to acknowledge," she said.
Data showed that 893 children were reported missing in 2021, the lowest in five years. In 2020, when the island recorded its first case of COVID-19, the number of children reported missing was 1,066, which was also lower than the three preceding years.
As usual, the majority of children reported missing in the five-year period, 2017-2021 (79 per cent), were girls.
The data was analysed during the signing of a memorandum of understanding among partner agencies to the Ananda Alert System, including the CPFSA and the Ministry of Education and Youth.