Who really cares for our children?
Dr Peta-Anne Baker, Contributor
On Thursday of last week, Jamaican TV and radio audiences were treated to another enthralling episode in the Jamaican soap opera All Our Children.
The 'bad girl' of the piece, Child Development Agency CEO Alison Anderson McLean, by a slip of the tongue, created the opportunity for government Senator Hyacinth Bennett to mount her high horse and declare her undying care and concern for Jamaican children whatever their socio-economic standing.
I hope this means that no child is left behind for failure to pay fees at the group of schools of which she is founder.
Committee chairperson Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert was impatient of recommendations; she wanted "action, not a bag a mout".
'Good girl', Children's Advocate Mary Clarke, was almost in tears - nothing she did seemed good enough for these people. Human-rights advocates Jamaicans For Justice, on the other hand, were gleeful as committee members took up their chant.
Before this, on Valentine's Day to boot,
carried a report that the Office of the Children's Advocate had released a report on its findings regarding children being kept in police station lock-ups.
Its investigators had uncovered 80 children, almost all boys, in lock-ups across the island. The newspaper report quoted the OCA's investigative officer as saying: "Most are broken, they are very sad and express the desire to go home. Keeping them in lock-ups, sometimes being locked down for 24 hours, is a clear violation of their basic rights, especially those who are detained because they are deemed uncontrollable."
Then came news on Friday about the contents of the report of the enquiry into the fire and death of seven girls at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional facility.
"No comment," declared National Security Minister Dwight Nelson, even though his ministry had received the report more than three weeks ago.
Thankfully, Justice Harrison has apparently not minced words in his report. He has provided the names of those he holds responsible. For those who have been close to the situation, neither the findings nor the names of those who - at a minimum - should lose their jobs were news.
Similarly, the report of the United Nation special rapporteur on torture and other cruel punishment, also released on Friday, contained no surprises for those who have been on the justice or child-welfare-system beat for any length of time.
What should make the news, however, is the authorities deciding to do something meaningful in the face of these damning reports.
Overstated? Melodramatic you say? Cynical perhaps? Well let me ask you, after you turned off your radio or television set on Thursday, what concrete remedial action had you heard your legislators agree to take?
Are you holding your breath that anyone will get anything more than a slap on the wrist, or better yet, be allowed to proceed on leave prior to taking early retirement?
I called one of those who had kept vigil in an earlier era: Peter Maxwell. I asked him what he thought of the latest developments. He sighed and recalled his own and others' efforts.
His records, now yellow with age, provide the information included here. For five years between 1973 and 1978, Peter wrote a weekly column, 'Our Children Now' in the
Jamaica Daily News
. The original logo of the column was a drawing of children behind bars.
The headline of the first article published on August 23, 1973, was 'Lock-ups are not Places of Safety'. In that column he wrote: "Children - some offenders, some not - are regularly kept in lock-ups, and have been for years. There is overcrowding, up to 20 boys in one cell ... . No occupation or recreation is provided. Hardened offenders are mixed even with neglected children who have committed no crime at all."
On September 18, 1971, justices of the peace attending a seminar on juvenile justice made a recommendation that the lack of space in places of safety should not be an excuse for keeping children in police lock-ups.
On April 21, 1972, Michael Manley had the glow taken off his victory at the polls when he visited the Half-Way Tree lock-up and was confronted by a group of children being held in narrow, stinking cells.
Despite his declaration that the situation could not continue, it was not until November of the following year, 19 months later, that the children were removed from lock-ups at Half-Way Tree, Central and other police stations.
Maxwell acknowledged that several positive developments had taken place over the years: The establishment of a civil committee on children, a joint effort of the Council of Voluntary Social Services and the Jamaica Council of Churches and later, a government-appointed Visiting Committee for Lock-Ups.
There was the high point of the International Year of the Child when legislation removing discrimination against children born out of wedlock was passed and the first Family Court established.
Committing to sustained action
But the reluctance, refusal even, to commit to sustained expenditure which could address the ongoing needs of children persists.
Children's Advocate Mary Clarke's report only updates and reiterates items that were on the list from many years past: the need for better physical facilities; more professionally trained staff to meet the social, psychological and educational needs of children in care of the State; and, improved allowances for foster parents, most of whom, as we saw in a recent newspaper feature, are not wealthy people.
What happened, I ask him, to the Coalition on the Rights of the Child? It was so active in getting the Government to become a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. His answer was instructive: The committee pretty much died after the UNICEF funding ended.
So, I asked: Our interest in the welfare of children only lasts as long as the foreign funds are available?
Almost prophetically, Peter Maxwell wrote in August 1973: "Can it really suit society to treat offenders in such a way that when they are released from imprisonment, they are hostile, bitter people, with little chance of finding a respectable niche in the community? Worse yet, can it suit us to treat children in this way? ... We treat our children badly. [Maybe] not you as an individual, but we as a nation."
Five years later, he wrote, "We cannot allow Jamaica to enter the International Year of the Child suffocating its children expediently in cold concrete tombs for the sake of dollars that are so light-heartedly poured down the drain in so many areas of Government activity."
Well, here we are at the beginning of the second decade of the new millennium, and the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same.
But we must be realistic. There are those who think that this is but a storm in a tea cup. "Wi out ya sufferin too, an wi neva do nuttin wrong. Why are you getting so excited about somebody else's bad-behaving pickney?"
Achieving sustained change will involve changing the beliefs of those who struggle daily for survival and readily hand over their "uncontrollable" children to the care of the state.
We must also tackle those who declaim loudly about the need to address problems, such as those highlighted in recent reports, but who will resist any initiative that might reduce the benefits they get from the existing system.
Those who have acted with cruel indifference must indeed be held accountable. But what about our own accountability? We need to press for a system that protects those who wish to bring misconduct to light from victimisation and challenge the anti-informer culture that exists uptown as well as downtown.
We need to tell the Minister of Finance that rather than an IMF budget this year, he must present a children's budget.
Perhaps Jamaicans For Justice and others could help us to make proposals that do not just reduce the fiscal deficit, but also reduce the deficit in the treatment of our children.
There have been several calls of late for a national conversation about where we are going as a nation. What better place to start than with a determination of how we are going to really defend our children.
Dr Peta-Anne Baker is the coordinator of the Social Work Programme at the University of the West Indies, Mona. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.