Sun | Dec 15, 2019

Safety fears for Yahweh kids - Advocates express concerns over remaining children at Qahal sect in Norwood, St James

Published:Monday | November 18, 2019 | 12:23 AM
Omar Thompson, leader of the Qahal Yahweh assembly
Omar Thompson, leader of the Qahal Yahweh assembly

Children’s advocates last week remained concerned for the safety of dozens of youngsters who remain at a compound in Montego Bay, St James, as allegations of child abuse and human trafficking at the communal settlement are investigated.

More than a week after the security forces stormed the Qahal Yahweh sect in Norwood for the second time, and took into custody three children, including a pregnant teen, there are reports of discontentment within related agencies over the handling of the matter.

The incident brings the number of children taken from the compound to six, but dozens more minors are reportedly among the 120 people still living on the premises.

Last week, sect leader Omar Thompson copied an eight-page letter to several government agencies, including the Office of the Prime Minister. He also released a video, promising damnation on Jamaica as he attempted to clear the sect of the allegations.

RED FLAGS

Such actions have raised red flags for at least two childcare advocates, who chided the authorities for dragging their feet in ensuring the protection of the remaining children at the facility.

“We need to hold all the agencies accountable. We have to hold the police accountable … all the other agencies; not just one or two. Where is the fulsome investigation on the part of everyone?” asked a concerned worker, who declined to be named owing to his closeness to the probe.

“If you look at the video that has been published and the letter, you will see that there are clear issues at the facility. I am very concerned for those children,” he said, recalling the aggression meted out to the armed security forces by tussling church members.

“We have to hold the Ministry of Education accountable. Public Health needs to be onboard. Is the place sanitary? What are their roles? Bottom line is that we don’t know what those children are being exposed to,” he said, noting that children in such situations are usually brainwashed into silence – especially when their parents are complicit.

The advocate pointed to similar facilities in Jamaica where children have been exposed to religious practices that contravene social customs and childcare, such as the rejection of immunisation and other medical interventions.

Children should be removed while probe takes place – Blaine

Founder of child-rights group Hear the Children’s Cry, Betty Ann Blaine, last week blasted the Government as she questioned the mental and physical state of the children at the Qahal Yahweh Church compound in Norwood, St James.

“There are so many questions that have to be answered, and I am extremely surprised and disappointed that children are still on the compound. That, to me, doesn’t make any sense,” Blaine argued.

“These are serious allegations that are being levelled against this particular group. Why would you want to keep children there?” she continued. “These children should have been removed while the investigation is taking place. That way, we know that the children are absolutely safe.

“How do we know what’s going on with these children? Is there someone monitoring them every day? What is the latest in the investigation? What about the pregnant teen investigation,” she said. “Successive governments have done very poorly, so far, as protecting our children in a general way.”

Normality RETURNED

Last week, The Gleaner was met by a locked gate and a straight-faced guard at the facility.

According to residents, things have returned to normal since the raid this month. There was no obvious surveillance of the premises.

Last week, head of the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse, Senior Superintendent Charmaine Shand, and head of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Vice Squad, Deputy Police Superintendent Carl Berry, both deflected queries to the High Command.

When contacted, Assistant Police Commissioner Fitz Bailey, under whose jurisdiction the matter was said to fall, said he was aware of the investigation but had no details on the matter.

On Thursday, Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison, who is also the national rapporteur on trafficking in persons, noted that representatives from the Office of the Children’s Advocate visited the compound as part of the investigations.

“A team was dispatched and we are seeking to gather all relevant information so that the best way forward can be charted. That [remaining children] remains a concern and we have the matter as a priority issue,” said Gordon Harrison, adding that no evidence of human trafficking has been presented to her office as yet.