Running into danger! - Many children learn painful lessons when the y run away from home
Tanya Baker* thought it was a good idea to run away from home following a verbal spat with her mother last February. But the 13-year-old's decision led to her being abducted and raped multiple times by the three men who held her captive for two weeks.
"My mom was telling me to wash the plates, and it was not me who was supposed to wash them. So she start to flare up and start to gwaan bad," Tanya told The Sunday Gleaner.
"I left and went to Greater Portmore to stay with my schoolmate. I was coming back home, and a car drove up, and the man said that I must come in, and I said, 'I am not coming', but they put me in the car," she added.
Tanya, who was 12 years old at the time, said that she was beaten by the men when she did not give in to their sexual requests but that she eventually managed to escape one day when they forgot to lock the door to the house where she spent her days in captivity.
No arrest has been made in her case.
Tanya is just one of 1,674 children who went missing last year. Up to the end of the year, 195 could not be accounted for and three were found murdered.
The majority of the children ran away from home for varying reasons. Natasha Fray*, who ran away from home for seven days last year, says that she succumbed to peer pressure and went to stay with her two female friends and the man they were living with.
"You know when you have a friend and they keep on asking you to do something, so in order to just get them off your back, you just go without thinking," she said.
The 15-year -old said that her friends repeatedly ran away from home and she was told by one that it was because she was being sexually molested by a family member. But after a just a few days of staying with her friends and the man who she described as "very old", she decided to go back home.
"When you go, you realise that nowhere is better than yard," said Natasha before explaining that at home, she could relax in her bed.
The Ananda Alert Secretariat reports that more than 17,000 children went missing in the last nine years. An estimated 78 per cent were females.
Some refuse to talk
Not all the girls who go missing are as forthcoming with information as Tanya and Natasha. This is one of the challenges convener of Hear the Children's Cry Betty Ann Blaine says she encounters when her organisation tries to reach out to children who go missing.
Often, the information has to be extracted from the parents.
"It's an intense telephone interview that we do to see if we can ascertain what is really going on," she said.
Stephanie Stephens*, who ran away from her house for two days last December, hardly speaks about the experience.
Her responses to questions posed by The Sunday Gleaner were "yes", "no", or "nothing". The only exception was when she described her experience as "bad".
Stephanie's mother said that she ran away to stay with a classmate and has refused to say much since her return.
"She went to the wrong people dem yard. The yard that she went to was devastating," said the worried but relieved mother.
Toya Burke's* daughter keeps running away from the home. Last year, she ran away on two occasions, and the mother is convinced that this is because the child's father does not make any contribution to her development.
"She has been saying she is the black sheep, and those little things, and she feels a way still because she has a bigger sister that he pays more attention to more than her," said Burke.
"Right about now, me is her mother and father, so she must put the father aside and stop talking about him," declared Burke as she added, "if she wants a lunch money, he is not giving her."
Chief executive officer of the Child Protection and Family Services Agency Rosalee Gage-Grey says that the Ananda Alert Secretariat, which falls under her remit, has embarked on a number of public education activities to reduce the number of missing children annually.
"Through the use of data provided by the JCF (Jamaica Constabulary Force), trends related to missing children and 'hot spot' areas across the island have been identified, which helps in providing targeted intervention where it is most needed," she said.
*Names changed to protect the children.