Sat | Dec 2, 2023

Too little, too late

Slow reporting hindering success in finding missing persons

Published:Monday | October 25, 2021 | 12:07 AMDavid Salmon/Gleaner Writer
Residents from Bath, Spring Bank, and other communities of St Thomas join forces with the police to search for a teenage girl and her suspected abductor Davian Bryan last week.
Residents from Bath, Spring Bank, and other communities of St Thomas join forces with the police to search for a teenage girl and her suspected abductor Davian Bryan last week.

Slow reporting and lack of awareness on the part of communities have been cited as major factors negatively impacting the search for missing children across the island.

That is the assessment by Novelette Grant, retired deputy commissioner of police.

Even though the missing person policy was revamped in 2005 to allow for immediate reporting, Grant revealed that, up to when she retired in 2018, some persons still believed that they should wait 24 hours before reporting the matter to the police.

“There is still some degree of confusion out there … . And you keep seeing that coming up and coming up, so it tells you that we may not be as successful in getting people to understand what it is that people should do when somebody goes missing,” Grant said in an interview with The Gleaner.

This is another challenge for the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), as Grant described the difficulty in locating abducted individuals, especially children, as their captors usually strike in less-frequented areas.

Community response

The recent abductions of 13-year-old Winshae Barrett and nine-year-old Phylisa Prussia, both of Bath, St Thomas, have underscored the importance of swift and overwhelming community response in search efforts. Both girls were found and hospitalised.

The abductions sparked an intensive hunt for the suspect, Davian Bryan, as an army of volunteers combed bushes in rugged terrain to locate them.

Bryan is still at large.

Grant stressed the need for the community to be involved by volunteering to search for missing persons or to be spatially aware about their environment. This includes paying attention to overgrown lots, derelict buildings, unlit areas, as well as being aware of children when they go to school or are on errands.

However, more important, she believes that community-based organisations should work in tandem with the police to promote preventative education. This includes raising awareness of the vulnerability of children, especially boys, who go missing.

According to Grant, between January 2013 and September 2017, some 9,138 children ages 11-17 were reported missing, 1,974 males and 7,164 females. Of this number, 8,590 persons returned home, including 1,897 males and 6,693 females.

“What was distressing looking at it over the period, 370 of those children who went missing were murdered, with 302 being males and 68 being females, even though 1,974 males went missing. So the bulk of the violent outcomes were in the male group,” she said.

The three most cited reasons for going missing were peer pressure, sexual activity, and conflict of parents and guardians.

The retired deputy commissioner added that the JCF analysed information between January 2015 to mid-February 2017 and found that 206 persons were abducted in 2015; 157 in 2016; and 20 in the first six weeks of 2017. During the period, 21 victims were below the age of 18 - 17 girls and four boys.

In cases where perpetrators deliberately targeted people, the victims were usually known to the predator, the retired senior cop said.

“Opportunistic targets” usually end up being victims of multiple offences, including rape, robbery, wounding, and, in some cases, murder, she said.

Senior Superintendent of Police Stephanie Lindsay, head of the police information arm, did not provide requested data in time for publication.

Grant shared that the Bath searches were particularly instructive as they showed the importance of sharing information via social media in coalescing community action and national support. Nearly 500 people, involving the police, army, child welfare personnel, and other civilians, were enlisted in the searches.

Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison echoed Grant’s assessment about the value of high publicity and the amassing of participants.

“The situation in St Thomas is the exception because of how public the situation has been dealt with and, of course, we understand why because we had almost the entire community, in fact, and its environs, concerned about these poor little girls,” Gordon Harrison said.

The children’s advocate lauded residents for their proactive interest in carrying out their own searches for the then-missing children.

“There is nothing that bars community members, as was done in this situation, to just really put things together and start searching in their own areas ... . I don’t know of any coordinated police and civilian interwoven search missions, to say, for example, you have a point person in the community who is a lead who would be the one actively liaising with the police,” she added.

Gordon Harrison emphasised the need for greater coordination with communities in the face of institutional hurdles such as a lack of manpower and the speed of sharing information. Hence, she suggests that a shared database be established which can be tapped by different stakeholders who can have access to information about missing children.