Sat | Oct 21, 2017

Orville Taylor | Fix the status of children

Published:Sunday | September 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM

As the Government attempts to deliver on its promise of a country where we keep our doors open, I have been rubbing the Krazy Glue on my lips, thinking that it is lip balm. However, when are we going to get it that crime is not a police or military issue or even about the zones of special operations? Indeed, any approach that does not target the production of criminals is bound to fail.

With eyes wide shut, Parliament has consistently treated the status of children as something that is, at best, an afterthought. Understandably, I am livid as two junior ministers seem to be reprising their advocacy training as they debate whether it is the youth or national security ministry that has responsibility for children who have, for whatever reason, ended up in police custody.

This mini impasse epitomises precisely what is wrong with policymakers not understanding the deep connections between what we do to our children and the societal outcomes. Both junior ministers are people whose intellect and desire to do well are, in my opinion, flawless. Young and vibrant, they mean well. However, they have inherited a system of governance that reflects an overall lack of understanding. And unfortunately, nothing in their training equips them for administering children's policy.

It is a similar situation where last week, a Family Court judge and a government prosecutor were featured on a trip to an inner-city school, which seems to be over-represented in the number of offenders being brought before that court for crimes ranging from drug possession to assault, to major violence and sex offences.

Indeed, one can understand how exasperated the learned judge and attorney must be because they are humans, and, perhaps, parents. True, they have learnt much and really want to make a difference. However, as with the above-mentioned ministers who are also attorneys, there, after all, is nothing in their training in law school that truly equips them to deal with social work and psychological or sociological issues.

That they have undertaken such a task is commendable. Moreover, that is not their job. Attorneys and judges have to administer law. Therefore, with the best of intentions, they are simply intelligent amateurs who, though experienced and with learning on the job, are just not experts in analysing the pathogens of antisocial behaviours and bringing about behavioural change. But that is not the fault of these well-thinking court officers. Judges and lawyers cannot fix social problems.

 

PARLIAMENT RESPONSIBLE

 

The responsibility lies in Parliament, as well as the members who seem clueless that the building block of a society is the children. If we miss it at that stage, our goose is sautÈed and burnt long before it's thought to be cooked.

The time is ripe for an overall review and revision regarding how our children are treated. I have long argued that the Family Court is too important a court for it to be peopled by Parish Court judges. While I am not making any evaluation of their competence - at least not all as a group - the point is that their job is too critical for their stature to be less than that of Circuit Court judges.

Simply put, the societal impact of decisions in the Family Court is much more far-reaching than the sentencing of the occasional adult for murder or any other ghastly crime. Therefore, we need the best and most experienced judges in that chair.

Similarly, it is also the argument that all of the staff who have responsibility for making observations and recommendation on behaviour must be amply qualified, too. Probation officers, social workers, and mediators/counsellors cannot be simply so named. Experience might teach wisdom; however, without the right type of training and reward structure, it is less wise and more dumb.

All counsellors must be graduate qualified, and the social workers must have more than introductory degrees. They must also get the money that comes with either having a post-master's/PhD. You want your best there.

Research conducted by behavioural scientists such as my colleague Dr Claudette Crawford 'Barrel Children' Brown, shows a clear path regarding how 'wrong' decisions regarding children's welfare lead precisely to the kind of behaviour that lands them before 'Yer Hanna'.

 

SAVE MILLIONS

 

Anthropologist Dr Herbert Gayle has done copious work on the indicators that are associated with gang membership. Many of the non-legal staff have been taught by these academics and are, at a minimum, familiar with the expertise, although, understandably, not at the same level. If tracked early and with the right kind of social interventions by experts of high stature, we would save multiple millions not only on the expenditure on crime, but also on low educational outcomes and other antisocial behaviours, including low productivity at the workplace.

Nonetheless, I have very clear ideas as to how judicial decisions must be made in the Family Court. Again, having raised the bar regarding the required prestige, my position is that it should be a place that attracts the best graduates of our law programmes, very senior attorneys and Parish Court judges who have distinguished themselves.

Of course, given the importance of the position, not only should they be polygraphed (as are police officers) but they should also be subject to psychometric tests. We who study human behaviour know that victims of abuse often replicate their antisocial behaviour. Certainly, we do not want judges who use the court to make amends for the gaps or pitfalls in their socialisation.

Inasmuch as we need to protect the identity of children and thus the proceedings are 'private', this also prevents the errant judgments from being scrutinised, especially since a judge simply sits on his dictum and does not make it public. Thus, there is not even a large body of instructive cases by wiser local judges upon which to rely.

And finally, the opinion of the court-employed behavioural scientist must not only be persuasive. It must be instructive. Therefore, the law must be so designed that the learned judge cannot simply disregard the input of the expert.

- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.