Child abuse alarm - Reports plunge, potentially giving predators free rein
Preliminary reports of child abuse to the National Children’s Registry in March fell by approximately 28 per cent compared to the previous month, signalling to welfare authorities that hundreds of children might be at greater risk of exploitation and neglect amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In March, 842 reports were received, compared to 1,163 in February. And Gleaner analysis also shows that reports of child abuse in March 2020,declined by 30 per cent compared to March 2019.
The data may trigger heightened response mechanisms by child-welfare officials amid warnings by United Nations human-rights experts that children would become more vulnerable to abuse and violence during coronavirus lockdowns and other containment measures.
The experts also urged governments to ensure that adequately staffed and equipped child-protection services and law enforcement are available and accessible to all children.
Overall, there was an 8.8 per cent reduction in the number of reports received for the period January to March 2020 when compared to a similar period in 2019.
Those numbers run counter-intuitively to a nine per cent jump in reports of child abuse to the authorities in 2019 over the previous year. Official data show that there were approximately 20,200 reports of child abuse in 2019, a jump on the 18,607 cases submitted in 2018.
Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison told The Gleaner that she is concerned but not surprised that there was a decline in reports.
“I think everybody has been very distracted by the entire COVID pandemic, understandably so, and there certainly was some amount of confusion or misunderstanding in terms of whether or not the various agencies that provide services to children were accessible,” she said.
Gordon Harrison said that the numbers raise concerns that children could be in “compromising situations” where abuse is taking place at home or at the hands of relatives.
“They are now spending a lot more time with those persons and not really having access to make the reports because they are not accessing, for example, guidance counsellors at school, or they may not feel comfortable making a call to one of the agencies because they live in the same house as their perpetrator,” she said.
CEO of the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA) Rosalee Gage-Grey is urging Jamaicans who know or suspect that a child is being abused, neglected, or otherwise in need of care and protection to make reports to the agency.
Gordon Harrison echoed similar sentiments, noting: “Child rights are not on vacation. It is not impacted negatively by the pandemic in terms of our ability to offer services.”
Gage-Grey told The Gleaner that the CPFSA usually receives a number of reports through schools, which have been ordered closed by the Government since March 13 amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Quarantines in at least six communities and one parish, as well as an islandwide curfew for more than a month, have made reportage even more difficult.
However, the agency said it has continued to receive reports through its toll-free lines and WhatsApp numbers.
Schools will remain closed until the start of the 2020-2021 academic year in September.
“For the month of March, we saw about a 25 per cent reduction in reports that we have received. We are still tallying the numbers for April to see what that looks like,” Gage-Grey said.
May is recognised as Child Month, and there are plans to increase sensitisation through mainstream and social media about the importance of reporting child abuse, as well as the avenues for reporting.
A poetry competition and an online ‘pickney party’ will also be hosted, among other activities, in celebration of Jamaica’s children.
Hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans are reeling from the impact of lost jobs as the new coronavirus forced governments worldwide to impose curfews, lockdowns, and social-distancing rules, causing commerce and everyday life to grind to a halt.
“Child neglect is the area that we get the most reports on regularly, so no doubt, we believe that it will have some impact,” the CPFSA chief executive said.
There are about 4,500 children under the care of the CPFSA, including wards of the State, children in foster care, those reintegrated with families, and others who access services through the Child and Family Support or Psychology units.
“Social workers have conducted status checks, and we continue to assess. The officers will report any adverse situations so that we can intervene,” Gage-Grey said.
Foster parents who have lost their jobs have been provided with financial support, and their stipends were paid out in early April to enable them to offer appropriate care.