Babies do not belong in children's homesSunday, October 10, 2021
Jamaica can easily be regarded as a difficult and dangerous environment in which to raise our children. It is, however, especially difficult for children who are compelled to live in State care.
Because the Government is the most powerful institution in society, it stands to reason that it is best suited to care for and protect our society's most vulnerable members, children in need. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Evidence from Jamaica and other countries has shown that State-owned childcare institutions (such as children's homes) are not the best place for children, and their time in these institutions should be limited, if not avoided entirely.
According to research, a child's biological family is the best place for him or her to be raised. However, there are times when this is not possible. Sometimes parents are unable or unwilling to care for their children. In other cases, the children are at risk in their own homes. As a result, the State must intervene to save children who have been abused, neglected, and subjected to a variety of negative actions by adults, including their parents.
In some cases, birthparents give up custody of their children, resulting in the placement of these infants in a State facility. Time is of the essence for these children because of how quickly infants develop. In fact, during the first two years of life, babies' brains develop rapidly, and it is critical for their development that they form secure and stable attachments with one or two primary caregivers during this time. Children who are insecurely attached have more difficulty regulating their emotions and demonstrating empathy for others.
Studies show that babies who cannot be raised by their biological mother (or other family members), and are adopted before the age of 12 months, are just as securely attached as their non-adopted peers, while those adopted after the age of one have less attachment security than non-adopted children.
Children in care (in children's homes/childcare facilities) have disproportionately higher rates of cognitive and intellectual delay, poorer mental and physical health, lower educational outcomes, and are at a high risk of abuse, including sexual assault, according to research. If circumstances indicate that a child cannot be safe with their birth family, it is critical that they be placed in a family environment at birth or soon after, and adopted as soon as possible, to give them the best chance of becoming productive members of society.
We have a history of not doing right by our children who are unable to be with their biological families and are in the care of the State. Babies who are relinquished at birth (for example, because their birthmother has stated that she will not take the baby home from the hospital) are usually not placed for adoption until they are two years old, despite the fact that there is a waiting list of more than one hundred approved adopters.
There are several reasons for this, many of which have evolved over time in the practices and de facto policies of the bodies responsible for State-cared children:
• A historical policy emphasis on child institutionalisation.
• The practice of first resolving uncertainties and then placing the child. These uncertainties with babies include the possibility of people coming forward to retrieve the baby at a later date, as well as the obligation to find the baby's father. Uncertainties with older children are almost always related to biological parents who repeatedly make promises that they do not keep.
• The agency with responsibility for children believes that two years is a reasonable time to resolve these uncertainties. Based on overwhelming evidence, this Administration does not consider two years in an institution to be in the best interest of a child, and this initiative is one policy measure to change that.
• There is a human resource deficiency on the part of the agency, which does not have enough social workers to efficiently manage all the children who they are responsible for. While there has been an increase in resources to the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA) to hire more social workers, the gap is still large.
• While there is no legal impediment to placing a newborn with an adoptive family while the uncertainties are resolved, the agency believes that placing a baby with a potential adoptive parent who may later be removed will have a more devastating psychological and mental impact than placement in a child care facility. This practice is not supported by evidence. This type of arrangement occurs in adoption procedures all over the world and is regarded as a normal part of the process.
This is a solvable but unresolved issue. From Cradle to Loving Arms is a new policy proposed by the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information which is this Administration's solution to the long-standing plight of Jamaican children in childcare facilities. The policy proposes to change the current approach so that children three years and under entering State care can be placed with prospective adopters under a foster care arrangement as soon as possible, while investigations are conducted to determine the child's permanent placement.
Other aspects of the initiative include expanding the CPFSA's foster care programme and increasing the focus and attention on this vulnerable group and their well-being. The policy seeks to engage prospective adopters and new foster parents to become partners in rescuing these babies from the cribs of childcare facilities.
When implemented, this policy will not solve all of Jamaica's problems with children in need of care and protection. In addition to this initiative, the ministry has been working assiduously on a number of other policy and legislative reforms, including:
(1) Repeal of Section 24 of the Child Care and Protection Act that allows judges the discretion of placing children without charge in penal institutions
(2) Reform of the Child Care and Protection Act
(3) Institution of the 211 24-hour Child Abuse Hotline
(4) A new Adoption Act
(5) Promulgation of a Child Online Protection Policy and Law
(6) Reform of the Child Protection and Family Services Agency with a view to making it more efficient and effective with proper staffing
(7) Restructure the oversight and management of children's homes by instituting a clear and objective assessment and licensing regime that includes home grading.
(8) Establishment of the first Child Care Excellence Centre at Maxfield Park Children's Home, which will serve as a model for childcare in Jamaica and the Caribbean.
This is only the beginning. The mission is to transform Jamaica's childcare ecosystem so that the child's best interests are at the forefront of decision-making. The Cradle to Loving Arms Policy is just one of several changes that must be implemented to ensure that the current and future generations of children who end up in State care do not face the same challenges as those who came before them.
We owe it to our children to ensure their safety both outside and inside the State's childcare system. It is within our power as adults, decision-makers, and duty bearers to effect these significant changes.
Robert Morgan is minister of state in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information.