Poverty, parenting, and public passivity - The crisis facing Jamaican children
The tone and voices of the current outcry might be new, but the problem of the murder and abuse of Jamaican children is an old one.
A visit to the Children's Monument in downtown Kingston tells much of the long and embarrassing story. Etched in the base of the monument depicting a child with tears running down the cheeks are hundreds of names of children who have died violently and tragically in our country. I knew several of them personally, including 11-year-old Ananda Dean, who was brutally murdered six years ago.
For the past several years, I have had the responsibility of taking groups of doctoral students from various foreign countries to visit the monument as a requirement of their course of study. Year after year, I have watched those strangers stand transfixed, shocked, and weeping uncontrollably as they viewed the display.
It is a difficult scene to absorb. Some of those killed are babies; some, siblings with the same last names and dates of death. I recognised the names of the brother and sister who were mowed down as they crossed the pedestrian crossing in St Thomas a few years ago. I also recognised the name of the nine-month baby who was buggered and killed whose funeral I attended. Many of the murdered victims were also victims of sexual abuse. Most are teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 years.
The monument also tells another disturbing story. It tells the story of the two Jamaicas in which our children live: one Jamaica for children of the poor and working classes; and the other Jamaica for children of the middle and upper echelons of the society.
Every single name etched in the stone, with the exception of a handful who may have died in motor vehicle accidents, are all children of the poor and working classes. All of those children who have perished in fires come from the lower socio-economic groupings.
The same applies to murder victims, and even children who have perished in accidents on our streets as passengers of public transportation. In the seven years that Hear The Children's' Cry has been working on the problem of missing and abducted children, there has not been one single report among the close to 150 every month of a child going missing from the middle and upper classes of Jamaican society.
CHILD ABUSE CONTRIBUTOR
There is no doubt that child poverty is a major contributor to child abuse. Children who share the same bed with multiple persons, including adults, are especially prone to sexual abuse. Children who go hungry day after day are particularly vulnerable. The case of the six-year-old girl who was savagely raped and murdered by her killer, who offered her a patty to eat, comes to mind.
The phenomenon of "shifting households" continues to put large numbers of our children at serious risk. When children are moved from one place to the next and from parish to parish as a result of economic deprivation, they become especially ripe for abuse. It is no wonder that sexual abuse against children is now one of the fastest-growing crimes in the country.
At the root of the crisis of Jamaican children is the steady deterioration of family life and poor parenting. Young, undereducated, and unemployed mothers and fathers are unlikely to demonstrate good parenting skills without direct and positive interventions.
The inter-generational cycle of teenage parenting serves to deepen the problems that our children face. Many of those who have died in fires were left unattended by their young mothers, who simply do not qualify to be parents and who are operating within a changing culture of extended family and community-support systems.
Jamaican children are also victims of public apathy and passivity. The lack of collective outrage and action sends a message to children that we the adults don't really care, and wittingly or unwittingly, sends a similar message to child abusers about the general devaluing of children in our society.
Spontaneous public gatherings and displays of flowers and other items that we see in other countries placed by citizens known and unknown to victims of tragedies are alien to us here in Jamaica, with the exception of efforts in some of our inner-city communities. Instead, we have come to accept the constant diet of murders and abuse of children as a normal way of life for which only those directly involved are responsible.
The inability and reluctance of the powers that be to see to it that our child-protection laws are rigidly enforced and that perpetrators of heinous crimes are brought to justice is to my mind one of the biggest contributors to the escalating violence against the smallest and youngest among us.
Child murderers and child sexual offenders are walking around scot free, leading to the likelihood that there might very well be child serial killers in our midst.
Something has to be done - and done now! A zero-tolerance campaign has to be mounted with all willing and available hands on deck. We must send the clearest message that persons who would seek to kill and abuse our children, including family members, will be doggedly and impartially tracked down and brought to justice.
As we seek to ramp up protection efforts, let us also look to engaging in critical child-promotion initiatives, including mentoring and sponsoring children, particularly as we approach yet another Child Month celebration in Jamaica.
- Betty Ann Blaine is a children's advocate. She is founder of Hear The Children's Cry and Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU). She is also director of the Holistic Child Development Programme at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology.