Last night, Jamaicans had an important conversation, about child abuse–its presence, how to avoid it, its consequences, and other aspects. This conversation, as fits our times, was online, on Twitter, in the form of a ‘chat’ organized by UNICEF, Jamaica (@UNICEFJamaica), and ‘DoGoodJamaica'(@doGOODJamaica), with additional guidance and prodding by Deika Morrison (@deikamorrison). The interchange was through the hashtag #Keepchildrensafe, and you can check it to see the details of what people had to say.

I did not get to see all of the interactions, but it was notable that several important protective agencies were represented, namely the Office of the Children’s Advocate, through its head, Diahann Harrison (@diahannh) and the Jamaica Constabulary (@JamaicaConstab), both of which gave useful advice about how and where to report suspected instances of child abuse.

On the face of it, the conversation was widespread, with 15 million Twitter ‘impressions’ (ie, the total number of times tweets about the search term were delivered to Twitter streams) during the 75 minutes or so of interaction. I’ve not seen a finer breakdown yet, but know that the conversation was not just between those in Jamaica, but also involved participants from outside the island. Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 6.31.03 AM

Discussing sexual misconduct is not easy in many contexts, and in the Jamaican setting is made more difficult by a host of taboos that surround the topics. We are also often leery of bringing children into such conversations, which denies them the chance to better understand how to protect themselves and their peers. As the ‘chat’ started at 7.30pm, I took the opportunity of having my 12 year-old take part in some of it. As I noted, online, her perspective is important, and she needs to have both confidence and courage to tackle problems like abuse, if she meets it personally or if she suspects it’s happening to one of her peers. It’s also important that her school environment encourages that similar confidence and courage, and also does not tolerate either the committing of such offences or hiding them.

We are a society that on the one hand loves to apportion blame in all instances (often onto victims, themselves), but on the other hand shies away from blaming those whom we ‘respect’ or, more correctly, ‘have position’. The problems those attitudes create are many, not least the simple hiding or denial of misdeeds, which naturally leads to their continuation. The damaging consequences of not pointing fingers at each and every instance of abuse include the isolation of victims, whose pain (sometimes in the form of shame) is often borne by them alone. In the same way that many of our people who suffer mental illnesses are left to fend for themselves, I suspect that the same fate is often pressed on victims of child (or other) abuse.

Before the discussion, UNICEF, Jamaica reminded us that the island has some child abuse hotspots, with the parish of Westmoreland in western Jamaica having the highest number of child abuse cases in the island, with 500 active case (as of May 2015). I was concerned that the report did not seem to point to any factors or reasons to tried to explain the prevalence of abuse cases in rural areas, especially in the west. We can guess about the cultural practices that still exist in some areas, but I would like our agencies to help us understand what may be going on in such areas. I wouldn’t wish to suggest that some areas are a ‘law unto themselves’, but many forms of law-breaking happen in extraordinary numbers in the western rural areas.

I cannot gauge or try to judge the real commitment to tackling the issues of child abuse, but many of the comments pointed clearly to a strong determination to identify and try to eradicate it. We have substantial underreporting of abuse, with some 1-in-10 known cases being reported. Despite that, the Office of the Children’s Registry (OCR) shows alarming trends through 2014. Well over 10,000 abuse cases were reported, many of them involving neglect. But, we saw a staggering 3000 sexual abuse cases were reported (which involves engaging or enticing a child to engage in any form of sexual activity, with or without the child’s knowledge or approval), and nearly 90 percent of these were against girls.

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We have too many people who cannot control their sexual urges, and do not understand the limits past which they should not go with children. We have cultural contexts that ‘justify’ sexual initiation with minors, and also norms that allow some parents to believe that they are able to have sexual relations with their children without legal consequence. We also have people who understand some adults’ desire for, and thrive on selling, sexual favours of minors. When one hears of a 12 year-old girl being sold into prostitution by a woman who took her in as ‘homeless’ we see that various forms of depravity do not create a barrier in the minds of some adults.

A further 3000 plus cases of physical abuse were reported in 2014 (which included any act or failure to act that leads to the non-accidental, physical harm of a child or that places the child’s physical well-being at risk. It includes, but is not limited to, beating, burning, choking, kicking, punching, harmful restraint and the use of a weapon or instrument).

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 7.15.32 AMI’m not going to get into a discussion here about our attitudes towards ‘discipline’, and how people may try to justify physically harming a child as an acceptable thing in an effort to ‘correct behaviour.

That we have an astonishingly high rate of teenage pregnancies, which can lead to many unskilled parents, tells us something about the major social challenge we face: 85 percent of children born to unwed mothers, and 50 percent with unregistered fathers tells you much about our notions of ‘family’. But, those statistics also lead us down a very uncomfortable path, which is that the vast majority of our households (about 45 percent) are female-headed and we have to understand that our parenting problems must stem in large part from that. Such families tend to be larger and also poorer.

I read many comments last night that suggested people want to have a better, safer environment for children. We know, though, that many people exist who want just the opposite. We cannot identify easily many of the people who want to harm children, and it’s simplistic to talk about ‘identifying dangers’. By their nature, most people who wish to do harm are devious; they also spend much time developing that disarming element called trust. They also need enablers. While most of us don’t understand that latter group, we have to understand that it exists and may well be looking us straight in the face. Parents are often a weak link in child protection. I mentioned in a comment last night that I don’t drop off my child at locations without ensuring that the responsible adult(s) is/are there. It seems obvious to me that this is essential. I have no recourse if later I hear that my child was either left alone, or attended by someone other than I expected (and trust to do the right things). It doesn’t matter that nothing had ever happened before. My duty of care is clear. Others may not share that. By extension, if I am reluctant to leave my child when I do not see any responsible adult(s), but others have already left their children, I feel duty bound to stay until I’m satisfied for all the children I see. Later, I can do several things like tell the parents I know that I don’t think leaving their child unsupervised was a good idea, but that’s part of their choices. It may raise alarm bells if and when my child may need to interact with that parent. But, that is an example of how a chain of responsibility gets built and stays strong.

Each of us is responsible for protecting children, but each of us won’t discharge that duty willingly or at all. Each of us needs to stand ready to fill that gap, however. It may be uncomfortable or inconvenient, but it has to be done.

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