Protecting Jamaica's children
This is an open letter to Portia Simpson Miller, prime minister of Jamaica:
Dear Prime Minister,
Thank you for articulating an unequivocal stance on the protection of children from abuse in your address to the nation on Sunday, May 17, 2015. It was a call to our individual and collective moral, legal and social responsibility to reduce the tolerance of forms of child abuse in Jamaica.
Throughout the decades-old history of naming the social problem of child abuse, it has often taken the shock and emotional impact of some very severe cases of abuse and the death of child victims, such as the recently reported cases, which were brought to public attention, that have served to galvanise greater scrutiny, responsiveness and evidence-based approaches, across several disciplines. The majority of child abuse victims never tell. Instead, they suffer in silence, struggle to process their trauma, make meaning of, and try to cope with their world that has become unsafe.
Along with the deterrent value of the likelihood of detection and successful legal action against perpetrators, and the increased accountability of parents and caregivers that you so strongly voiced, I write to highlight five areas that will require strengthening in order to support the legislative and administrative changes of which you spoke. Given the earliest attention along with proper monitoring and evaluation, these would improve the effectiveness of the country's overall response to these young victims and possibly reduce the incidence of child abuse.
First is the early-response system, which comprises child protection, health and law enforcement. This system must necessarily be equipped with the knowledge and skills to be able to recognise, analyse and appropriately respond to reports, as well as the physical and behavioural signs of abuse. A well-informed and highly skilled response system can better contribute to the further development of best practices in the essential multidisciplinary support for the victims' health, development, justice needs and ways of healing and prevention.
More needs to be done
Second, the child-protection workforce and caseloads require urgent attention. In the absence of putting a reasonable cap on caseloads, the risk is that practitioners may not be able to do much more than track cases instead of delivering the quality of intervention that they intend. In addition to underserving their young clients, this poses risks of compassion fatigue and burnout, losses we can ill afford.
Third, the manning of the network of child guidance clinics and victim support services should be looked at. For example, there are no public-sector posts for play and art therapists in these systems, yet there is much therapeutic value in using play and the expressive arts in the assessment and treatment of child-abuse victims.
Fourth, given the legal obligation to report child abuse, the adequacy of the current surveillance system should be evaluated to ensure it is up to date and that there is adequate and consistent capture of the data, especially at health-care facilities, since these are usually the first stop in the process of treatment. Evaluating the validity of screening mechanisms and treatment activities and procedures will contribute to better outcomes for victims and enhancing relevant policy design and implementation.
Fifth, the unique empathy of law enforcement and the courts requires that the attendant procedures be consistently forensically sensitive in investigating and adjudicating cases and, as such, requires specialised training in facilitating the safe disclosure of a victim's account of their abuse experience(s). This is because of the fact that children interpret, store and retrieve the memories of their trauma in particular ways, some of which may, sometimes, unfortunately, be interpreted as lying. In addition, on occasion, some children recant what they previously reported. There is a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is that recantation is indeed one aspect of the process of disclosure.
We do have an impressive legal and child protection framework, as well as committed individuals working to resolve the trauma of abuse and promote the children's rights to protection and healthy development. However, we must seek to get increasingly better returns on these investments in the nation's children, who are not only the future but also our present.