By Jaevion Nelson
The dependence on institutionalisation as an 'effective strategy' to respond to the complex needs of our children, especially those who are most vulnerable, has been a sore for many children and their families and advocates for many years. Many of our children come in conflict with the law for various reasons, including serious criminal offences. This is in no way unique to Jamaica.
The situation is dreadful, to say the least. Our approach has not necessarily yielded the results we intended, and I cannot explain how our response contributes to making Jamaica 'the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business'. A frightening 50 per cent of our children who are placed in remand and correctional facilities are there for non-violent reasons (Office of the Children's Advocate). About a quarter of them are deemed to be uncontrollable and (some) girls were being placed with (hardened) adult criminals. This awful practice, which has even resulted in unfortunate incidents such as suicide, was in contravention of local and international laws.
The announcement (on September 2) by Peter Bunting, minister of national security, about the separation and removal of female juveniles from adult lockups couldn't have come sooner. According to the Ministry of National Security, "Female juveniles at Diamond Crest Juvenile Correctional Centre were transferred to South Camp Road Correctional Facility and (on September 2) the remaining 25 girls from the Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre have been relocated."
Having ventilated about the (seemingly) misguided response to children who come in conflict with the law, I wholeheartedly commend the minister and his colleagues for keeping their commitment. I must also applaud the advocates, such as those at Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) and the Child Rights Working Group, who have worked tirelessly on this issue.
However, while we celebrate and laud the Government, we cannot overlook the issues that were raised by JFJ, Stand Up for Jamaica and other advocates. These matters of concern include the fact that: (1) all girls, regardless of reason for being in custody, are seemingly now lumped together - those with serious charges, with those placed for being 'uncontrollable' with those deemed in need of care and protection; and (2) families from across the island must now journey to Kingston to see their daughters.
We must also posit pertinent questions to ensure that decisions are being made in the best interest of our children. Why transfer girls from Diamond Crest, which is a juvenile facility? What about the Upliftment Programme - an interagency pilot therapeutic programme - which was launched on August 7 at the Diamond Crest Juvenile Correctional Centre? Why go in the direction of one large population facility instead of smaller numbers at the existing juvenile facilities? What rehabilitation plan is in place for these girls? What is the status of the "uncontrollable" girls and those in custody for care and protection? Are the staff at this new facility appropriately capacitated?
I was delighted when Cabinet announced that the 'uncontrollable' label that has been unfairly (and viciously?) slapped on many of our children who exhibit psychosocial behaviours will be removed. On August 13, Cabinet 'approved legislative changes for the removal of the 'uncontrollable behaviour' label from children'. The 'Cabinet has also approved the review and development of recommendations for the amendment to the Child Care and Protection Act with an emphasis on Sections 8, Subsection 1 (a)' pertaining to 'the circumstances under which a child is deemed in need of care and protection' and Section 24, which addresses 'the power of a parent or guardian to bring a child before the court' (Ministry of Youth).
A WORRYING PICTURE
JFJ and other child-rights advocates will now have to monitor these positive developments carefully to ensure that "uncontrollable" is not replaced with other designations and that it will not take eons before this actually becomes law.
I am also worried about children like one of my good friends' cousin, Chantal (name changed), who is eight years old and has had at least four homes with different guardians. By the time Chantal graduated from elementary school, she was expelled three times for "bad behaviour". Chantal is lucky (?) she was never brought before the courts because she embodied the 'uncontrollable' label from very early. The Child Care and Protection Act will have to treat with children like her who are being handed down sentences by school administrators. I imagine some of more than 25,000 children who have been suspended and expelled from schools since 2009 might have been 'uncontrollable' too. A February 13, 2011 report by The Gleaner, called this 'a worrying picture of indiscipline' which is really symptomatic of larger problems.
Chantal, and I suspect others who have been suspended and expelled, have serious challenges at home and their parents are not necessarily equipped to deal with their multi-faceted circumstances. We desperately need to champion for our children. We need to take care of them.
Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.