Tue | Nov 28, 2023

Custody clash boils over in school

Published:Thursday | September 22, 2022 | 12:12 AMAndre Williams/Staff Reporter
Diahann Gordon-Harrison, Jamaica's children's advocate.
Diahann Gordon-Harrison, Jamaica's children's advocate.

A frenetic hunt for a child which ended in a showdown between a mother and stepmother at a Corporate Area primary school last Thursday has reportedly resulted in emotional trauma for the grade three student whose father allegedly breached custodial...

A frenetic hunt for a child which ended in a showdown between a mother and stepmother at a Corporate Area primary school last Thursday has reportedly resulted in emotional trauma for the grade three student whose father allegedly breached custodial orders.

The mother, whose name is withheld to protect the child’s identity, told The Gleaner that the dispute emerged after the child was allowed to spend summer holidays with his father but was not returned at the agreed time before the start of the new academic year.

Just in July, Charles Young, legal officer at the Jamaica Central Authority, had warned parents in a Gleaner article about custodial breaches that tend to surge in the summer, sometimes spiralling into transnational judicial battles.

The mother, according to court documents, was granted primary custody of the child, but oversight of the child can be shared during holidays.

The father, who is reportedly a member of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), was granted rights to see the child on alternate weekends but is accused of backtracking on the agreed terms.

“I called him about August 13 and said please bring back the child. He told me that he won’t be able to do that because he registered the child into a (different) school,” said the mother, who enlisted the help of the police to search for the father, who was not found at his last known address.

“I dont know where this man is, and JDF told me from February that he is not an active member and that he submitted his resignation 12 minutes before I came. I went to JDF, like, two weeks ago, and they told me that he is not active because they had one of the court orders for maintenance.”

The mother and her spouse embarked on a search of approximately 10 primary schools but narrowed the hunt to a particular institution after a photo triggered a tip-off.

After initially being told by the principal that no boy with the designated name attended the school, the couple was allowed to conduct a sweep of classrooms. It has emerged that the child might not have been officially registered with the school.

“My partner saw him and expressed to the teacher that his mom was outside ... . The teacher came outside and said that’s not the information he got,” the mother said.

The situation escalated when the father and stepmom were contacted, and the dispute evolved into a brawl in front of the child, administrators, and other students.

Police from a nearby station were called to intervene.

The mother was stunned to see the child’s father turn up in full army attire.

“I thought I was seeing a ghost because this cannot be the man that JDF told me is not an active member. He is still a soldier. The next day I called Up Park Camp and got further confirmation that he is still a serving member,” the mother said.

Child sweating and crying

The child was reportedly sweating and crying during the ordeal as he was barred from reuniting with the mother.

“Both of them decided that they going to fight me for my child and they won’t let the child go until the father reach. Even though the police said I must take my child, it was a tug and pull because they were pushing me,” the biological mom said.

Two weeks into the academic year, the boy is not settled in a school and has reportedly expressed concern for his safety.

“The child is still traumatised. Even to go to the front of the house to dispose garbage, the child is looking left and right if the father will snatch him away,” said the mother, who has been granted time off from work.

She said she intends to return to court and apply for full custody.

Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon-Harrison said breaches of custodial orders are not uncommon in Jamaica but urged parties to pursue remedial courses of action.

Her office is not routinely involved if both parents are represented by their own attorneys, she said.

She has urged parents and guardians to consider the consequences of their actions on children’s psychological health.

“That is sometimes the most unfortunate thing because adults who are going through their marital or relationship issues sometimes are so caught up with that that they do not focus on what their behaviour will obviously mean for the child: embarrassment, feeling very distressed about the situation, shame and torn as well because the child has a relationship with both parents,” Gordon-Harrison said in a Gleaner interview.

Gordon-Harrison revealed that the Office of the Children’s Advocate has been contacted directly by children on its 24-hour helpline called SafeSpot.

“The very first day that we launched the helpline, an eight-year-old child reached out to us, saying that her parents were going through a divorce and she wanted to know how to navigate that in terms of her own happiness and what that meant for her as a child,” the children’s advocate said.

“It’s a very real issue, and so through our psychologists and counsellors at SafeSpot, we provide support for these issues and others.”

SafeSpot is available for anyone 18 and under every day and differs from other child helplines that specifically focus on criminal matters such as abuse and rape.

It provides immediate assistance on issues such as feelings of anxiety or embarrassment.

To contact SafeSpot, call toll-free 888-723- 3776, WhatsApp 876-439-5199, or direct message @safespotja on Snapchat and Instagram.