Jamaica’s children: An increasingly endangered species
There is no easy way to put it. Jamaica's children are easily becoming an endangered species. Over a period of three decades, I have been an unhappy witness to the steady deterioration of the state of the nation's youngest citizens. It is the children of Jamaica who have been made to bear the brunt of the harsh social and economic environment that we, the adults, have created, and it still hasn't shamed us into collective action.
The steadily running feature on Television Jamaica (TVJ) portraying missing children tells the grim story. Night after night, the faces of children who can't be found are beamed into tens of thousands of homes across the country. We see the children night after night, yet the situation remains unabated, in fact, it is worsening.
On an average, 150 children are reported missing every month in our country, and the numbers rise even higher during summer periods. While approximately 80 per cent of them return home, albeit reluctantly, another 20 per cent remain unaccounted for month after month and year after year.
The number of reported cases annually is in excess of 1,200 children.
A telephone call from a grandmother living in Savanna-La-Mar remains hauntingly memorable. "Ms Blaine," she said, "I need help. My 14 year-old granddaughter left home for school one morning in her school uniform, and I have never set eyes on her again." Sobbing audibly, she continued, "and Ms Blaine, that was five years ago."
The bereaved grandmother shared the story of how she got a tip months later that someone resembling her granddaughter was seen in Mandeville. She immediately headed for the town with photograph in hand.
She recounted how she walked the streets of Mandeville looking and showing the picture to perfect strangers. After a couple of days, she gave up the search and headed back home, tired and heartbroken. Her granddaughter has never been found.
It seems odd that the potential for child trafficking is so very high in a country with so little knowledge about the phenomenon. To this day, there are Jamaicans who believe that "trafficking" refers to traffic on the streets, yet so many of our children and youth are at risk. The inability of the state to adequately educate the public and to enforce and institute laws and policies to inhibit and deter potential traffickers is curious at best, despite repeated calls from Hear The Children's Cry for a specialised police unit for missing children, and increased vigilance at our ports of entry and exit.
While the children who return home offer hope for positive intervention, many come back deeply traumatised, pregnant, suffering from sexually transmitted infections, and generally unhappy and depressed. Equally problematic is the fact that none of the children who go missing attend school while away from home. Some of those opting to return to school are being refused re-entry into the formal education system.
Then there is the growing problem of child sexual abuse. It can be of no comfort to the society that while gun crimes are decreasing, sexual crimes against the smallest and weakest members of the society are increasing.
Statistics from the Office of the Children's Registry (OCR) confirm that rape, incest, carnal abuse and buggery have catapulted, and while there is increased reporting, those of us on the ground know that there is still significant under-reporting of those types of crimes.
Many of Jamaica's murdered children were also victims of sexual violence, several of them under the age of 10 years. Others have been killed and dismembered with little or no public outcry, and with diminished prospects of bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Five years after the brutal murder of 11-year-old Ananda Dean, perhaps the most renowned case of its kind in Jamaica, no one has been held or charged for her killing. Ananda's murder along with many others remain unsolved, leaving nagging questions about the quality of the investigations, but also about the types of killers we have roaming our communities.
The public must now demand answers to some fundamental questions - do we have persons in the society who have killed more than one child - in other words, child serial killers? Are there pathological paedophiles among us, and what do they look like? More importantly, how do we protect children from these monsters?
At the root of the problems affecting the majority of the nation's children is the twin issue of child poverty and deteriorating family life. Both, of course, are intertwined.
The reality of the two Jamaicas in which we live is most pronounced in the lives of children. The monument in downtown Kingston dedicated to children who have died violently and tragically is a testament to that fact.
Almost all of the names etched into the sculpture are children of the poor and working classes. Children who die in fires, for example, are entirely representative of children from the lower socio-economic groupings in the society. The same applies to children who are murdered and those who go missing.
To put it succinctly, the state of the nation's children is directly linked to the deep roots of structural and systemic poverty and inequality that characterises Jamaican society.
In this regard, the role of the state is not only critical, but paramount. In societies like ours where children are so marginalised, the state has the responsibility to be both protector and promoter of children. Quite frankly, the Jamaican state continues to fail the test.
The Armadale tragedy remains a national blight. As a result of gross governmental and institutional negligence, seven teenage girls met the most horrifying death imaginable. They were burnt alive because someone had padlocked them inside a building and couldn't find the keys. Even before Armadale, several had already met their deaths in various children's homes and places of safety.
Until the State recognises that it is, in fact, the parent of children in its care and protection, we may not see the type of reform and results that are meaningful and lasting. I also contend that only when the State begins to publicly demonstrate its seriousness about protecting and promoting the interests of children will the country begin to experience the ripple effect of valuing our precious little ones.
But children are children, and despite the dark clouds that loom overhead, they continue to reach for the sunshine. Some are even able to defy the odds and break through the barriers of social and educational discrimination, differentiation and exclusion.
Our children are well aware that they are endangered as a result of the environmental circumstances of their lives. What they tell me would make them really happy is that the adults would stop harming them. It seems like a reasonable request, but one we, the grown-ups, seem unwilling and incompetent to solve.
n Betty Ann Blaine is the founder of Hear The Children's Cry and Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU).