Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Detained and desperate - Children in state custody using suicide to escape

Published:Sunday | July 17, 2016 | 7:00 AMRyon Jones
A graphic of a teenager contemplating suicide.

Human-rights and civil-society activists are expressing outrage at the number of children locked up in juvenile correctional centres over the past five years, and warning that many of those in custody are attempting suicide as they seek to get out.

According to data obtained by The Sunday Gleaner, a total of 611 children were locked up in juvenile correctional centres operated by the Department of Correctional Services between 2011 and 2015. This is an average of 122 children taken into custody each year.

Just over 433, or 71 per cent, of the 611 children who were locked up had committed non-violent offences. The most common reason was break-ins (91) and being deemed uncontrollable (91), while 38 were locked up for possession of dangerous drugs.

According to Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) advocacy manager, Rodje Malcolm, the issue of children being locked away is of grave concern as deprivation of liberty does not serve the best interests of the child and should be a last resort, used only when absolutely necessary.

UNLAWFUL DETENTIONS

"We see far too many children detained in police lock-ups potentially unlawfully, and inside remand centres beyond those that were given correctional orders," said Malcolm.

"In our opinion, the best interests of the child are not served by a system of default detention. Based on our research and visits to the institutions, it has become clear that there is growing consensus that unnecessary detention can truly destroy a child irreparably."

Malcolm charged that the data does not even begin to capture the number of children unlawfully detained in police stations for weeks on end, or the bigger issue of children held on remand - during which the large majority of critical incidents, such as self-harm and attempted suicide, occur.

He argued that there are potentially bigger issues in which state action oftentimes directly contravenes the law.

"As such, it is incumbent upon the Government to urgently plug the implementation gap and take meaningful action on the delayed child diversion programme," said Malcolm.

"Instead of restoring children in conflict with the law to some semblance of wholeness, the experiences of detention further traumatise and damage them. The alarming rates of self-harm and attempted suicide that have been documented only confirm that."

JFJ is reporting that from 2012 to April, 2015, it has documented 119 incidents of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suspected suicide attempts by children inside correctional and remand centres, which is not the total record of incidents.

"Incidents included attempted hanging, consumption of poisonous substances such as bleach, overdose of medical drugs, head-bashing into walls, and self-cutting," said Malcolm.

"Of these, the most common form, by far, was attempted hanging - representing more than half of all such incidents."

According to Malcolm, suicide attempts by children inside correctional and remand centres are oftentimes not taken seriously, with research showing instances such as June 25, 2014, where one ward of the State allegedly attempted to drink a bottle of bleach from the kitchen of a facility in a reported suicide attempt.

The ward is said to have been given milk and escorted to the medical area and subsequently taken back to dormitory.

Another incident cited by JFJ was in April 3, 2015, where a child in state custody was purportedly found hanging from the roof of a facility with a bed sheet tied around the neck, attempting to commit suicide.

ACTING OUT

The child was reportedly escorted to the case manager, then placed in sick bay and scheduled to be seen by a psychologist or psychiatrist at the earliest possible date.

For Dr Carolyn Gomes, executive director of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, these incidents are inevitable, as children who are coming into contact with the law are children who are acting out, demonstrating issues with their behaviour, feelings and position in society.

"To then turn around and put them in a situation where the primary issue is not addressed, with the trauma and trouble they are expressing by this behaviour is only going to make the trouble worse," warned Gomes.

"If every time they (children) act out they get punishment instead of care, then at some point in time, like Vanessa Wint, you're going to have a tragic completion of a thought," said Gomes.

"Every time that a child or an adult - even if you think it's a joke, even if you think the amount of tablets they took can't hurt them - every time they make a suicide attempt it must be treated as an urgent case needing counselling and psychiatric support."

Carol Narcisse, civil-society advocate, also expressed disgust at the inadequate response that is being rendered to children who demonstrate suicidal intent.

"The surprise is that more children are not successful under that kind of inadequate care and response for children who are seriously emotionally disturbed and psychologically distressed. The care system is frighteningly inadequate. And it is just a wonder that there aren't more cases being successful, as Vanessa Wint was."

ryon.jones@gleanerjm.com