Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Monday | June 1, 2009
Home : Commentary
Unsafe homes for girls?

Garth Rattray

The recent Armadale fire-related tragedy that claimed the lives of five wards of the State and injured 11 others is shocking beyond belief. Although we are occasionally surprised to learn that girls 'go missing' from one home or the other, we expect that, generally, juvenile wards of the State are living under extremely safe and secure (court ordered) conditions.

Abandoned girls, abused girls and girls who display 'behavioural problems' (uncontrollable girls, truants and runaways) are taken into a place of safety by the police, probation officers, parents or children's officers. A few take themselves in for refuge. They are laid before the court within approximately 48 hours. A judge will officially return the children for children's officers to investigate them and their family home while counselling takes place. They are returned to the court a second time for a judge to hear the findings and recommendations.

Based on reports received, the court may elect to return the children to their family home environment for a stringently supervised trial and intervention period of two to three years. Or, the court may send them to a place of safety to stay for a variable period of time before being sent to a home for girls (Windsor, Elsie Bemand, National, Yadel or one of the Mustard Seed homes - to name a few). Girls placed at any of these (often overcrowded) facilities are supposed to be securely housed, transported and schooled ('raised' by the State under a 'fit-for-person' order from the court).

Multiple, obvious breaches

If that breaks down, depending on the severity of uncontrollability and/or offence, probation officers could send the girls to a correctional facility under a correctional order.

About two months ago, a ward 'went missing' from the Windsor Home for Girls in St Ann's Bay. I, therefore, took a detour on my way to Ocho Rios (one Saturday afternoon in April) to see for myself what it looked like. The remnants of a road led to the facility. The chain-link security fence abutting the 'road' had several spots repaired with barbed wire. However, I was dismayed to see multiple, obvious breaches along that highly visible and easily accessible border. I wondered what the rest of the unseen fence looked like.

Within the grounds, sitting on a concrete structure near to the unsecured perimeter fence was a group of fully mature girls talking among themselves. There was no security guard, authority figure or chaperone in sight. I was deeply concerned by a bunch of smirking young men gazing longingly at the girls from across the 'road'. The passage of my vehicle only momentarily broke their lustful trance. The scene looked like a recipe for certain disaster.

Vulnerable to harm

When I asked one member of the adjoining squatter community if the girls habitually left the compound without permission, he proclaimed, "Dem say a yah so dem get dem freedom!"

The State is entrusted with the care, protection, guidance and education of these troubled teenage girls, yet anyone could enter and exit through holes in the fence and the girls could interact (even intimately) with the young men waiting nearby.

Concerned parents, probation officers, Child Development Agency personnel and the need for extraordinary police vigilance have had no effect on the upper-echelon bureaucrats - a paucity of funds remains their excuse for this travesty. The inadequate security at Windsor defeats the rehabilitative process and exposes the girls to danger, predators and sexual abuse. I hope that this and other glaring shortfalls within the system will be remedied before another tragedy occurs somewhere.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Feedback may be sent to garthrattray@gmail.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.

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