The children of Armadale
by Wendel Abel
In this article, I attempt to explain the road that takes many children to a place like Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre. To illustrate my point, I present here two cases (though the stories have been adjusted and names changed).
John was physically abused by his father and his mother abandoned him at age five. He was sent to live with his grandmother at age 10. She also abused him emotionally and physically. John became a sad, angry and aggressive child.
One day a girl teased him at school. He felt abused. He decided that he had had enough. He almost beat her to death. He was arrested at age 15. He was brought before the court and he was sent to a correctional institution.
Jane was abused. For many years, her father forced her to have oral sex with him. At age 10, he penetrated her. She was traumatised. She decided to tell her mother. Her mother refused to believe her. Jane started to steal and fight. One day, she stabbed a girl at school. She was sent to a correctional institution at age 14.
A life of abuse
Every year, hundreds of children are sent to correctional institutions like Armadale. Many of them have come out of problem families and are victims of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. These children often suffer silently. When children experience intense emotional pain they may display externalising behaviour such as stealing, lying and fighting. These are not bad children; they are sad and crying out for help, love and affection.
Many of these children end up before an already overwhelmed court system. Their families are dysfunctional and there are limited services at the community level to take care of their needs. In Jamaica, locking them away is often the only alternative, but instead, these cases should be investigated and therapy provided to the children and their families. We should not lock up children, especially those with severe emotional problems.
Let's solve the problem
1. More parenting programmes are needed. We need a comprehensive parenting programme that promotes better parenting especially among problem families.
2. Place emphasis on the education system. Greater resources must be channelled into the education system so that teachers can be trained to detect and refer children with emotional and behavioural problems at an early age. Many dysfunctional behaviours become manifest at school.
3. More child guidance clinics are needed. These are specialised clinics available for children with behavioural problems and their families. There is currently a long waiting list at the few such clinics in the island.
4. Support the correctional services. The correctional services are woefully understaffed. They require the services of more social workers, psychologists and other mental-health professionals.
5. Consolidate services to children. Currently, the social services to children and adolescents are fragmented and delivered through too many government agencies. These services need to be consolidated to increase efficiency.
Armadale will happen again
Despite the commission of enquiry's report, the Armadale incident may very well repeat itself. More resources are needed to ensure that these services operate in a more efficient and effective manner. The grim reality is that we do not have the resources at this time.
The system renders people incompetent
There are many hardworking people in the system giving yeoman service, and often going way beyond the call of duty. They cannot speak out as they are constrained by the civil service secrecy act. The lack of resources prevent them from doing their job effectively. The system has rendered them incompetent. Calling for their resignation will not solve the problem. What is needed is a major overhaul of our social services to children and adolescents.
Dr Wendel Abel is a consultant psychiatrist and head, Section of Psychiatry, Dept. Of Community Health and Psychiatry, University of the West Indies, 977-1108; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.