Girls on Fire: The Plight of the Uncontrollable Child in Jamaica
Just two weeks ago I met Sandrene*, a fourteen year old girl from a rural parish in Jamaica who signed up to participate in the I’m Glad I’m A Girl Summer Camp. Sandrene did not stand out on the first day; she was just one of thirty-seven girls who seemed both anxious and excited at being away from home and in a place with only women and girls. She did not come with her mother; she was referred by her school’s guidance counselor who knew that she was a child under investigation by the Juvenile system and a girl likely to be deemed uncontrollable by the state.
The Office of the Children’s Advocate in Jamaica defines an ‘uncontrollable child’ as one who is beyond control and who exhibits behavioural problems and or maladaptive behavior. In March 2013 Children’s Advocate Mrs. Diahann Gordon Harrison, Jamaica’s Children Advocate noted that the situation of children in conflict with the law was a particularly troubling one for the Jamaican state, but she further acknowledged that the situation with girls is a much more complex one, especially in light of the fact that the overwhelming majority of children who have been deemed ‘uncontrollable’ in Jamaica are girls. The fact of the uncontrollable child has been a serious blot on the reputation and conscience of the Jamaican state. In 2009 seven girls who had been placed in the care and protection of the state died in a fire at the facility in Armadale, four years later the situation of girls deemed uncontrollable was once again brought to national attention when Vanessa Wint, a sixteen year old who had been a ward at Armadale at age twelve (12) at the time of the devastating fire, committed suicide after being held in an adult correctional facility for women. Less than a year after Vanessa’s death four girls were rushed to the Kingston Public Hospital after they overdosed on anti-depressants. The girls were also being held at the facility where Vanessa Wint had been held and had committed suicide.
As the week progressed it became obvious that Sandrene was finding it hard to establish connections with the other girls at the summer camp. Her roommate declared she was weird and had moved out of the room they both shared. At the same time the counselors reported that she did not readily share about herself in conversations with the other girls, she seemed permanently connected to her cellular phone. She did not walk with her head up, nor did she smile, she seemed locked away in her own world and by Wednesday, her anti-social behavior could no longer be glossed over or explained away. What most people did not know was that Sandrene had a court date for August 15, 2013,No one had the vaguest idea that her mother had declared that she had lost control of her and could no longer parent her and so had asked the state to take custody of her for ‘care and protection.’ Sandrene had a rather hostile and violent relationship with her mother. She eventually gave us details about the extent of the toxic relationship. Just a couple months before she had to be hospitalized because her mother used a ‘dutch pot’ to chop her in her head, she said she did not realize how bad it was at first as she tried to run away from her mother and it was only when blood started flowing from her head that she realized that her scalp had been split and her head had opened up, she had to be rushed to the hospital, where she stayed for over a week. Her mother told the doctors that some boys threw a stone in her head. Not long after being discharged from the hospital, she was once again in conflict with her mother but this time she decided she would defend herself, she physically restrained her and told her that the next time she tried to hit her she would kill her. Her mother’s response was to take her to the police station, essentially handing her over to the state.
I had a dream
And in that dream they were smiling through the fire saying let me burn.
No need to insinuate, they were left to incinerate.
Thrown into the state
One room, twenty –seven girls, fourteen mattresses, seven bunkers
No fresh air, no daylight,
Nyam wid yuh han (Randy McLaren)
May 22, 2009, St. Ann, Jamaica, fire razed through a girls home called Armadale killing seven of the girls who had been placed in the facility after they were declared ‘uncontrollable’ and placed in the custody of the state for ‘care and protection’. One of the survivors of the fire recall her drive to Armadale, how she was impressed with the grounds as it looked well-kept and clean, she saw it as a chance to finally relax and do well in school, she thought she would be taken care of, her mother had died when she was just a little girl and she had been in the care of her grandmother who at fifteen (15) locked her out of the house, stopped feeding her and told her she had to now take care of herself. She did not know what to do and resorted to sleeping with men to earn money for food and to take care of her personal needs. When she came to the attention of the state, she felt relieved; finally someone was responsible for her. How could she have guessed that she would be placed in a room with twenty-two other girls, that the room was in fact built to house five girls, but seven bunk beds had been placed in that same small, hot cramped room. She did not know the horrors that awaited her, that girls in this facility either became predator or prey, that they beat and raped each other on a daily basis. She did not know that the Jamaican state had placed her in a virtual concentration camp, a house of horrors, where they would be locked out of the toilet at nights and either had to hold the urge to use the bathroom, or make use of a bucket that was in a conspicuous corner of the overcrowded room. How could she have known that she would not be able to use the grounds that had inspired her to dream, the grass that had seemed so enticing when she first saw Armadale would never be a space to play, she would not be able to play ‘skip rope’ or ‘dandy shandy’ because they would be on permanent lock down. She did not know that she was being thrown away by the state, that there were no classes, no school, no love, no care, no protection
Jamaica is signatory to several international treaties and conventions which speak to an improved juvenile justice system and which suggests standards for the treatment of children in conflict with the law. The Beijing Rule 26 stipulates that juveniles in state institutions should be there for rehabilitation and care, such that they can resume their place as productive members of society. In June 2003 the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) recommended that the Jamaican government develop mechanisms and provide adequate resources to ensure the full implementation of Juvenile systems. Additionally, the United Nations Guidelines for the prevention of Juvenile Delinquency or the Riyadh Guidelines states that detention shall be a “measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time.” The Jamaican government has also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and subsequently funded the Child Development Agency (CDA) in 2006 and the Office of the Children’s Advocate in 2004; both agencies are obligated to be pro-active rather than reactive in the promotion of the human rights of children. The incident at Armadale, Vanessa Wint’s Suicide and the four girls who attempted suicide at the Horizon Adult Remand Centre all took place from 2009 to 2013. Clearly, those who were charged with looking out for the best interest of these vulnerable girls were not doing their jobs. As I got to know Sandrene each day, I recognized just how vulnerable she was, I gave her shampoo so she could wash her hair, I told her she was beautiful, I made sure to touch her, to seek her out and ask her if she was okay. She started to blossom, to open up; she started to let me in. I could see she no longer felt invisible, I thought to myself given the right environment and the right people to love her, this girl would bloom again, I began to worry about the court date which loomed before her
I asked Sandrene if she knew what was likely to happen to her when she went to court on August 15, she did not know and she was very worried that she would once again be placed in a facility, she had been placed in one already and she did not like it, she preferred to live with her mother even at the risk of being beaten and verbally abused. I noticed how utterly overwhelmed she looked, and as she continued to speak of her fears, as she faced the cruel uncertainties before her I could not help but reflect on the reality of a culture which allows adult men and women to prey on innocent children, particularly girls. Before Vanessa Wint wrapped a white sheet from the Horizon Remand Centre around her neck and hung herself from a board in the roof of the facility, she wrote letters to the judge who had placed her at the facility explaining the cruel injustice which she has had to contend with, having being raped on a number of occasions, she must have felt exactly like Sandrene was feeling now. Sandrene could not explain why her mother had become her enemy, she did not understand why her mother did not trust her, nor did she understand what she had done to cause her mother to constantly chase her out of the house ‘to find a man to mind her’. Vanessa had been overcome by the sheer cruelty of her life, at twelve she was deemed uncontrollable, simply because the only activity that could take her mind off the cruel rape she suffered was walking and it was while walking that she had been raped two more times, still no one sought justice for her, she was angry, she knew she had been wronged, but where was her justice? She walked to contemplate these things and this was how the police took her into their custody. After barely escaping death at Armadale she was once again on lockdown in an adult facility. She must have felt that no one cared.
The state has promised to do things differently, the Minister of Youth and Culture recently announced that all children being housed in adult facilities must be removed and housed in appropriate facilities; this would in effect mean that the children would no longer be housed by the Department of Correctional Services. The changes would also see recognition that being ‘uncontrollable’ is not a legal offense but rather a status offense. Additionally, there are plans to provide psychological and psychiatric intervention for these girls and to ensure that while they are in the custody of the state they are able to access education. I am wondering if I can be hopeful for Sandrene and other girls like her, given Jamaica’s current financial crisis I am unsure as to whether or not these plans, well intentioned as they may be, can be put into action. I worry about Sandrene, I hope the system is fixed and that she does not fall through the cracks, she told me she wanted to be a policewoman I hope she gets to be one.
*Sandrene – name changed for protection of identity.
Office of the children’s advocate calls for decisive action from administration
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Armadale revisiting the tragic night of May 22, 2009
Simms; Glenda, A desperate plea for juvenile justice, Jamaica Gleaner, February 15, 2003, http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20090215/focus/focus5.html retrieved August 11, 2013
Duncan, Newton; Why child prisoners turn to suicide; Jamaica Gleaner, http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130623/cleisure/cleisure2.html June 23, 2013 retrieved August 11, 2013
National Plan of Action for Child Justice 2010-2014
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Grant, Lorna et al; A Study of the Profile of Children in conflict with the Law in Jamaica Office of the Children’s Advocate, February 2011 http://jamaicansforjustice.org/?wpfb_dl=55