Tue | Jun 2, 2020

Creating dorm families to survive children's homes

Published:Sunday | May 10, 2015 | 10:35 AMCorey Robinson
Keisha Tomlinson, psychologist with the Mobile Mental Health Unit at the Child Development Agency (CDA).

Faced with the tough realities inside Jamaica's juvenile correctional facilities, wards of the state are forming 'dorm families',

taking on the roles of mothers, fathers and even vulnerable children, as a survival tactic.

It is a matter of coping among some children, many of whom have been abused and are suffering from other social disorders, explained Keisha Tomlinson,

psychologist with the Mobile Mental Health Unit at the Child Development Agency (CDA).

"In a lot of the cases in the children's homes their (wards) real families have abandoned them. They (families) either don't want to visit them or give them the attention that is needed once they are there. So, they create what they call 'dorm families' and within the dorm families there is a reflection of different types of families that you have in the society," stated Tomlinson, during a Gleaner Editors' Forum at the newspaper's North Street, Kingston office last Friday.

"You have somebody who is playing the mother, somebody who is playing the father, you have single-parent settings, you have the nuclear-family setting, and you have the extended-family setting, including grandparents and so on," explained the expert, noting that in many cases the dorm families are more important to the wards than their actual families outside the walls of the correctional facilities.

Inclusion into these dorm families, said Tomlinson, is consensual - some girls consent to play the mothers and grandmothers, while some, usually the more aggressive, take on the role of the fathers. The more vulnerable wards are the children.

"They provide emotional support for each other and they act as a protective source for each other," said the psychologist.

"The father is the protector. If one person troubles one of them, the father will respond in an aggressive way. And if you try to separate them it creates problems and they will want to destroy or create mayhem in order to stick together," continued Tomlinson, elucidating the point first raised by minister of youth and culture, Lisa Hanna, who also attended the forum.


Hanna said the phenomenon of dorm families has been detected in at least two of the island's children's homes, and that there are reports of similar cases at male juvenile facilities. "So let us say that the child has to be moved to another home or if the child is going back home to their family, the (dorm) family protects the child," added Hanna.

The experts said that there is often inter and intra-family rivalry among the factions, and that some of the wards will engage in sexual acts as part of the family setting.

Rosalee Gage-Grey, chief executive officer at the CDA, explained that the authorities have been trying several measures to counter such behaviours within the juvenile correctional facilities. One such measure is the Children and Family Support Unit, which works to strengthen the relationship between children in state care and their biological families.

This is in an effort to keep them out of the state care facilities, she said.

"Once the children interface with the child protection system it allows the councillors in the unit to work with both the child and family to keep them in their homes," said Gage-Grey.

She explained, however, that some wards are so strongly tied to their dorm families that even when they are reintegrated into society, they will break the law in a bid to be brought back into the child-care system.