Thu | Jan 17, 2019

Walker’s fire a wake-up call - Advocates not convinced about the safety of children in state care

Published:Sunday | January 28, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Firemen at the Walker's Place of Safety in St Andrew following the blaze one day earlier.

Child-rights advocate Betty Ann Blaine has charged that Jamaica needs fool-proof, life-saving safety standards in government-run residential homes for children.

Blaine was speaking against the backdrop of the fire that destroyed the Walker's Place of Safety on January 16, killing two female wards of the state.

Last week, the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA) issued a statement in which it said that the Walker's Place of Safety had a comprehensive safety and security plan, in keeping with the 29 Standards of Care governing all childcare facilities.

The CPFSA was responding to an editorial published by The Gleaner entitled 'Place of Safety?' where it was argued that not enough attention was being paid to ensure the protection of children who are placed in the care of the State.

However, Blaine, convener of the advocacy group Hear the Children's Cry, stated that the CPFSA's "masterful document of defence" was not enough.

"We need to deal with the reality of the situation and not just with check marks on a list unless those check marks bring the needed results, and the tragic death of two young Jamaicans is not the needed results, by any means," said Blaine.

"I would like to hear from relevant associates, from the Jamaica Fire Brigade, UNICEF, institutional staff members, and most of all, the children themselves who live in these residences, about how safe they believe these institutions actually are and about how effective they think the safety measures taken have been," said Blaine.

"The questions still remain: How was the fire started? Why did the children die?"

Social commentator Kay Osborne agrees as she argues that the nation's childcare and protection system is demonstrably dangerous for children.

She pointed to the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre inferno in which seven children perished, the SOS Children's Village fire, and the Glenhope Place of Safety fire as part of a nightmarish pattern.

Osborne argues that whenever these tragedies have occurred, government agencies with direct responsibility for children's welfare invariably claim that robust child protections and safety systems were in place.

"Yet, all of the activities that the CPFSA claims have been undertaken, along with the various government commitments, have not prevented two more vulnerable children from perishing in a place-of-safety inferno," said Osborne.'

And while the authorities are yet to determine the cause of the fire, Osborne has maintained that determining the circumstances that led to the deaths by fire is more important.

"An investigation into the circumstances that led to the children's death could yield accountability and other vital information that may not emerge from a fire department investigation into the cause of the fire. Such an investigation is also required, bearing in mind that the government must resist the temptation to appoint persons with potential conflicts of interest to the investigative team.

"The investigative roles must be reserved for qualified, unbiased third parties with no responsibility for children in state care. Only then will the results of the investigation have a chance of being broadly accepted as credible," said Osborne.