Warren A. Thompson & Nathalee D. Ferguson | The real deal on missing children
The Sunday Gleaner of May 28, 2017 published a story titled 'When girls go missing - sex, family woes and peer pressure, which was based on findings from the Office of the Children's Registry's preliminary study on child disappearances in Jamaica. Unfortunately, many aspects of our findings were misrepresented in the story, and there seems to be a lack of understanding of the issues surrounding child disappearances in Jamaica, as well as a deliberate effort to be sensational in putting the matter of sex at the forefront of the missing-children problem in Jamaica.
Children who run away from home make up approximately 90 per cent of children who are reported missing each year. Girls aged 14-17 are disproportionately represented in this number. Our study found that many children who ran away from home did so because of a) fear of being abused or otherwise ill-treated, b) conflicts at home, c) their desire for freedom, or b) peer pressure.
While we are aware that it happens often enough, the matter of children running away in order to engage in sexual activities was not sufficiently raised by our research participants for it to be a major concern in our study. Our main research participants were the parents of children who were reported missing, but subsequently returned home; there was no engagement with the children themselves.
Many Jamaicans have become desensitised to the problem of children going missing. People often believe that children who run away from home are just 'bad' or have run away to engage in sexual activities. We tend to become alarmed only when we learn that a child was abducted, murdered, or may have been a victim of child trafficking.
However, no community should ever feel comfortable when any of its children cannot be found. The reason for which a child goes missing should never determine how concerned we are, or how committed we are to ensuring that he/sheis found and returned home or taken to a place of safety. When a child runs away, that child becomes particularly at risk for emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and exploitation.
LABELLED AS 'BAD'
We are, therefore, gravely concerned that the story has unwittingly contributed to this idea that we should label these female runaways 'bad' and, therefore, be less concerned about their well-being.
While 90 per cent of children who are reported missing annually are returned home, there are still 10 per cent who never do. Like our civil-society partner, Betty-Ann Blaine and Hear the Children Cry, we are particularly concerned about this set because the circumstances and events surrounding their disappearance and their current conditions are not known. Speculation is thrown about, one being that they are abducted and trafficked outside of Jamaica, but we really do not know.
The Ananda Alert system remains concerned for those 'still missing' children and continues to explore opportunities to have all missing children found and returned home.
On the other hand, the data clearly indicate that there is a runaway problem in Jamaica.
Our study made two significant recommendations in this regard. First is to address the reasons for which children run away from home; after all, children do not run from a place where they are happy and safe. We believe that efforts to strengthen families, improve parenting, and make homes safe and fit for children should result in reductions in the numbers of children who run away each year. This also applies to residential childcare facilities from which children often abscond.
Second, we recommend the creation and provision of services and safe spaces for children who run away from home. As a matter of course, this will have to include family reintegration assistance.
As the Ananda Alert System continues to explore ways to address the problem of child disappearances in Jamaica, we require that our media partners engage in responsible reporting that will accurately represent the nuanced nature of the problems.
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