Are teens innocent and blameless?
Last week, Jamaica was once again racked by the horrific deaths of three more children. Technically, two, because the 18-year-old, who was killed in the intentionally set fire in Hopeful Village, qualifies as an adult despite his being in high school at the time of his death.
With the number of children being murdered in this country reaching at least 18 since January, we are all on tenterhooks, especially with the subtheme of some of the murders being the inappropriate sexual contact with an adult male, who ramps up his role and becomes killer. We are all scrambling for explanations.
In my commentary last Sunday, the focus was on the child abusers. From the existing research, the statistical profile of the typical person who abducts and murders teenage girls is "most likely to be a close friend or a stranger, sexually driven, killing with weapons". And 'stranger' simply means not a blood relative, and importantly, is more often than not someone who the victim is familiar with. Thus, neighbours, 'parisheenas', uncles-in-law and stepfathers also fit within the category.
Nevertheless, inasmuch as this might not be popular at this time, bearing in mind the sensitivity of the matter, I still have to ask a very pointed question: Does a child ever become accountable for his or her action? Now, let me make it clear: This is not the stereotyped 'blaming of the victim' such as where a skimpily dressed woman is raped. Nor is it a refreshing of the argument that a woman who goes out on a date or visits a man in his apartment is 'asking for it'. Nothing that a victim does ever places responsibility on her shoulders for someone else forcing himself on her or him.
Yet, are there things that teenagers do that make them culpable participants in their abuse? Have no delusions, a teenager may be a child under legislation dealing with human trafficking, child labour, pornography and other sexual offences, but there is a big difference between being children and being innocent.
Now, kiddies, from preschool and to fifth grade, are not completely clear regarding the extent of right and wrong. This is particularly true for sexual behaviour. Most of us can recall some embarrassing 'dolly house'-related inappropriate conduct. There is one comment I made as a brash, prepubescent nine-year-old, for which my siblings blackmailed me into dishwashing duties until I passed Common Entrance and entered high school. What is important is that I absolutely knew that it was wrong and Miss Ivy would have sent me to pick the tamarind switch for my own castigation had she been informed of my indiscretion.
This is a different phenomenon from the toddler or infant who humps the leg of the neighbour or gropes at her breasts in full view of his parents. Similarly, the little six-year-old girl who attempts to position herself on her uncle's lap and giggles is a true innocent, who has to be gently nudged by responsible parents or guardians into knowing and doing what is right.
Teenagers with hormones kicking in, who are sometimes bigger and stronger than many adults, and who are capable of almost everything that full-fledged adults can, cannot be equated with babies. The law recognises that for certain crimes and under certain circumstances, a teenager or even a 12-year-old can be charged as an adult.
Indeed, the use-of-force policy of international police and even our beleaguered Jamaican law enforcers allow the security forces to kill a firearm-wielding teenager, who is presenting a threat to other lives. In Pennsylvania in 2014, 10-year-old Tristen Kurilla was charged as an adult for beating to death a 90-year-old woman.
A 2003 American study showed that approximately one out of every three 11 to 13 year olds lacked the mental competence to stand trial as adults. However, only one-fifth of the age group 14 to 15 years were so unqualified. These point to an overwhelming majority of teens knowing what they did and their blameworthiness.
Three years later, another study found that there were no differences in the mental capacities of 15 to 17 year olds when compared to young adult offenders. Therefore, there was no basis to treat them differently.
Our penal system is not merely the official institutions under the jurisdictions of the ministries of national security and justice. Our homes and schools are part of the social mechanisms that straighten out wayward teens. True, children do not raise themselves, and we take pride in them when they succeed and feel shame when they don't. Nonetheless, we reward them for good deeds and punish them for misconduct, because we hold them responsible for their misbehaviour. Flashback to your pranks in secondary/high school! Do you remember the mirror on shoe tips; peeking in the girls'/boys' bathrooms, under tree encounters and the occasional 'skulling' or straying to meet girls or boys?
Schools give detentions and demerits for minor offences and suspend and expel for major ones. Some of these equate to major crimes outside of schools. The school resource officers and police personnel at schools have myriad stories about 'bad' children, some of whom are dangerous.
Data from our Office of the Children's Registry (OCR) reveal that inasmuch as the majority of children 'in need of care and protection' are because of parental absenteeism and neglect, there is a significant eight per cent who are picked up because of 'bad associations'. Between 2012 and 2013, the OCR recorded 2,203 and 3,173 children with behaviour problems. Some eight per cent of them were 'beyond control', 13 per cent ran away from home; 10 per cent were abusing substances; and 11 per cent were truants. And by the way: 90 per cent of missing children return home voluntarily.
Point made; not all children are angels and we must make our teenagers know that they are also responsible for their lives and safety.
- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.