Sun | Sep 15, 2019

Where are they? - Efforts to recover missing children hampered by inefficiencies, reporting flaws

Published:Monday | May 6, 2019 | 12:22 AMJason Cross/ Gleaner Writer

Inefficiencies dog the Ananda Alert system established 10 years ago to help reunite missing children with their families, even as the country continues to see kids disappearing at the rate of one every six hours or four per day.

Police data reveal that last year, 1,512 children were reported missing, with girls (1,164) outnumbering boys (348) three to one. Of this number, 155 girls and 31 boys are still missing. One boy and four girls were reported dead.

Since January 2019, the trend has not slowed. Up to April 30, police statistics show that 413 girls and 104 boys have been reported missing, with 126 girls and 26 boys still unaccounted for. Two girls were reported dead.

Launched in May 2009 after national outrage over the murder of 11-year-old schoolgirl Ananda Dean in September 2008, the alert system had proposed a number of strategies to help with the speedy and safe recovery of missing children.

Among the stakeholders were telecommunications companies FLOW and Digicel, which were engaged to send out SMS alerts to customers when children were reported missing.

When The Gleaner contacted both companies, they revealed that that aspect of the system has underperformed.

Digicel noted that it has been sending Ananda Alert SMS texts to customers “who subscribe to receive these messages”. However, head of public relations, Elon Parkinson, admitted that subscription numbers were very low.

“As we move further into the digital future, we believe the Ananda Alert system can be transformed to function more efficiently to reach the growing number of smartphone users, who are able to quickly receive photographs of missing children on their devices,” a statement from Digicel read.

FLOW said its text notification system, which was also based on subscription, has been defunct for a number of years and urged the secretariat to consider new channels, including social media.

In 2017, the Ananda Alert Secretariat revealed that it had formed a partnership with social media giant Facebook to help spread awareness and send alerts to more persons in a shorter time. These alerts, officials said, would include photographs and other pertinent information about the children.

“Through this partnership, Facebook will be ensuring that once a child is reported missing and comes into our Ananda Alert system, the information will appear automatically on the pages of its Jamaican users,” then State Minister Floyd Green said at the launch.

However, two years later, this system appears to have had little,if any, effect on assisting recovery efforts or reducing the number of children being reported missing,

In 2017, the head of the Ananda Alert Secretariat, Nathalee Ferguson, admitted that turning to social media to assist in reuniting missing children and their families was a catch-22, as while users of the different platforms can sometimes provide useful tips, trolls were causing additional hurt to families based on stigma surrounding missing children.

“The social media experience is bittersweet. It’s great to get that help but even when a child is recovered, the photo is still being circulated, and because there are different things associated with why children would have gone missing, this can cause negative attention for the child,” she is quoted in a UNICEF article as saying. “Sometimes false information is also broadcast and, of course, we want the public to have full confidence in the system.”

Turning to the high number of children reportedly still missing annually, she revealed that some parents are fearful that the state would take their children so they decide against informing the authorities that the children have been found.

“Parents tend to think that the CDA (Child Development Agency) is going to take away the child, but really the State does not even have the resources to remove all recovered children from their families and certainly would not want to separate families anyway,” Ferguson said.

Attempting to explain why the numbers are so high for girls who remain missing, a representative from the police’s Corporate Communications Unit last week told The Gleaner that many times, parents know their children run away in search of romance or for other reasons. To avoid trouble with the cops, they file a report but are not so quick to indicate children’s return.

The Ananda Alert system was originally managed by the Office of the Children’s Registry, which was merged with the CDA in 2017 to form the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA).

The CPFSA told The Gleaner last week that while the police lead operations to find missing children, the Ananda Alert Secretariat supports this endeavour by sensitising persons at the community level to volunteer and assist in carrying out searches. This includes search and rescue training delivered in partnership with the Caribbean Search Centre and the Jamaica Fire Brigade.

jason.cross@gleanerjm.com