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"Gross neglect towards children in state care has become engrained"
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"Gross neglect towards children in state care has become engrained"

Lex GoffeIt is three years since a devastating fire rocked Jamaica’s juvenile justice system. Yet the real lessons of the incident, which claimed the lives of five girls, are still not fully understood, writes Commonwealth Correspondent Alexis Goffe. 

The fire at Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre on May 22, 2009, should have transformed Jamaica’s Juvenile Justice System. It should have caused a national reflection on how the state treats the vulnerable, the incarcerated and the condemned.

Amidst ever increasing levels of distrust in politicians and public officials, in addition to constant claims of inaction and a refusal to hold individuals accountable, this was an opportunity to prove us critics wrong.

Instead, three years later, it proved three things:

Lesson 1: They gonna talk

On November 3rd 2009, then Solicitor General, Douglas Leys, told the Inter American Commission on Human Rights that, “a new culture is emerging, a new day is dawning in the attitude of the state towards children in places of safety.”

Less than three years since Leys’ statement, the question should be asked, has the new day arrived? A look at a couple headlines since the start of the year shows us that we have not learnt much, if anything at all.

On January 26th, news surfaced that the Children’s Advocate received reports that Maxfield Park Children’s Home lacked proper safety measures, a resident nurse, fire extinguishers and had a malfunctioning fire hydrant. A new culture?

A couple of weeks after, the country was informed that children were still being held in police lock ups and adult prisons. It was reported that 40 boys were in adult lock ups and 56 girls in adult prison. A new day?

Lesson 2: Impunity reigns

The fire occurred under the watch of Mrs. June Spence-Jarrett, the Acting Commissioner of Corrections at the time. She assumed this position in December 2008 having previously been a Deputy Commissioner and Director of Juvenile Institutions.

Then, in July of 2009, during the Armadale Enquiry, Mrs. Spence-Jarrett was promoted to Commissioner of Corrections. It wasn’t until March 2010, after the release of the Armadale Report and mounting public pressure, that she was removed, only to be improperly assigned as the C.E.O of the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica.

New attitude? Apparently not. The attitude remains the same; we must place more emphasis on protecting the reputation of adults than on the well being of our children.

Lesson 3: We have to act

Unfortunately, the cycle of gross neglect towards children in state care has become engrained in our culture. However, the same is true for the cycle of silence on the part of Jamaicans.

We must accept responsibility for our inaction and indifference. It is our duty to keep the fire under the government’s feet for the sake of our children. We have the power to determine what will be said at the fourth, fifth and tenth Armadale memorials.

Let us be the ones who ensure that all children are taken out of adult lock ups. Let us call for the provision of quality education by qualified teachers for all children in juvenile justice institutions.

Let us insist that all institutions are equipped with a full time medical orderly or nurse in-residence as well as an increase in visits from medical and mental health personnel.

It is said that with a new day comes a new beginning. Not so for our children in state care. They deserve a new day, a new culture and a new attitude. We must act, and we must act now.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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