By Jaevion Nelson
JAMAICA'S APPROACH to addressing the dire needs of children has been misguided for decades. Until a couple years ago, we ignored the critical function of elementary education in developing our most important asset - the people. About 30 per cent of children go to school hungry; schools are grossly ill-equipped to cater to the needs of students with disabilities, and the 'failing schools' are screaming for attention and resources. It is apparent that those who are in greatest need get the least of our attention and resources.
The situation of children in conflict with the law demonstrates this quandary. Our approach to these children has been punishment (for very petty reasons) by locking them up rather than rehabilitating them, because they are 'uncontrollable'. The Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA) notes, in a report on children in conflict with the law, that about 50 per cent of children in remand and correctional facilities are there for non-violent reasons. The most common of these non-violent reasons is because they are 'uncontrollable', whatever that means. Twenty-four per cent of the population of children in these facilities are designated as 'uncontrollable'. What is most terrifying is that these same children, whom we treat as 'other 'and lock away, are illiterate, have thought about killing or hurting themselves (37 per cent ), experienced abuse (47 per cent), seen or heard someone being shot (77 per cent), and have been suspended or expelled from school (55 per cent). Yet, one psychiatrist said they're just attention seekers. The dilemma of these children is exacerbated because most of them had no legal representation in court. OCA says, when this happens, they usually plead guilty.
Can someone explain the efficacy of institutionalisation as an effective strategy to address the complex needs of our children within the context of Vision 2030? Did you know there are no remand facilities for girls? So we lock them up with hardened adult criminals. Prisons are already unfit for adults, so how can they be a place of 'safekeeping' for children?
The regrettable thing is that not very many of us care. We have subscribed to the notion that they are 'gud fi nutten, bad-bruk pikni', but this is far from the truth. I've met some through my work in justice reform and providing care at homes in St Elizabeth, Hanover, and Clarendon.
Recently, I met a beautiful, intelligent young mother who is a survivor of the dreadful Armadale fire. When she first went into state care, she thought she would have a better life where she would get to go to school and be cared for. Not so; she quickly learned. However, despite her suffering, she has become a child rights advocate to ensure that children who need care and protection or to be reprimanded are afforded the best care. I am thankful for people like her and my colleagues at Jamaicans for Justice for their dedication to these unpopular issues and providing me with content for this commentary.
The time for a paradigm shift where we lift up, not lock up, our children is most urgent. Since the 1970s, reports have proffered recommendations on how to do this, but they have been largely ignored. There has been some implementation, but these pale in comparison to the litany of recommendations on the table. One can only hope that the minister of youth's interventions will - at some point this year - result in:
(1) the removal of children from Horizon Remand Centre, Fort Augusta and police lockups; (2) the deletion of the designation of 'uncontrollable child' (whatever that means) from the legislation as a reason to incarcerate a child
(3) revising the Child Care and Protection Act
(4) providing access to quality legal counsel for children who come before the courts;
(5) creating smaller rehabilitative centres, NOT juvenile jails.
After all, one of the seven guiding principles of Vision 2030, which puts people at the centre of Jamaica's development, is 'transformational leadership.' We cannot invest in the same strategies and be so resigned in our complacency while children languish in their 'sufferation'. The development plan also seeks to ensure "Jamaicans are empowered to achieve their potential" by supporting the holistic development of the child to "produce well-rounded and qualified individuals" (Goal 1; Outcome 2). Perhaps it is that children who are 'uncontrollable' have no place in the Jamaica that is the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business.
If we really are serious about this ambitious plan, let's do things differently. Let's embody the transformational leaders concept (articulated in Vision 2030), which encourages us to have a sense of our roles and be champions of change, strong and decisive leaders, and accountable to the people. If nothing else, let us lift up our children - there is no other way to securing their well-being.
Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, human rights and HIV advocate. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.