JIS News

Jamaica’s children have found a strong voice in Mary Clarke, veteran teacher and former senior projects officer with the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), who has been appointed the new Children’s Advocate. Her appointment became effective on January 1, 2006.
Mrs. Clarke, who comes to the fore with an enviable track record of success in matters concerning children at all levels, tells JIS News that guided by the revised Childcare and Protection Act, under which the post was created, she is prepared to represent the rights of children whenever called on to do so.
Fully conscious of the enormity of her task, the newly appointed Advocate says among her first steps will be a public education campaign, aimed at ensuring that children are made aware of the functions of the Office as well as its location and communication channels.
“I have to move quickly on recruiting staff. I also have to move quickly on disseminating information on the roles, functions, responsibilities of the Children’s Advocate, so that persons will know what to come to me about,” Mrs. Clarke notes.
The Children’s Advocate points out that during the initial stage, emphasis will also be placed on establishing systems and protocols to hear complaints and carry out investigations and provide legal representation for children.
“I will have to find a way to facilitate broad access to the office and seek the participation of children in the development of strategies and plans,” she explains.
Mrs. Clarke says since her appointment, she has received calls from citizens concerned about the growing number of street children, and violence in schools, in addition to concerns about child abuse. She stresses that such occurrences necessitate a public education programme.
“I have had questions on child abuse; you have mandatory reporting of child abuse.so people need to know the difference between what they go to the Police with and what they go to the child development office with, but this is going to take time and people will learn from experience,” she adds.
The position comes with a plethora of obligations. Under the Act, she is mandated to protect the rights and best interests of children, give advice and make recommendations to Parliament or any Minister or relevant authority on matters concerning rights and best interests of children, review and recommend changes to laws and practices affecting the rights of children.
All this is in addition to providing legal representation and related assistance to children, investigating and hearing complaints brought on behalf of children against government authorities, and reporting to Parliament and to the public on the functions and investigations of the office.
Noting the requirement to “investigate and hear complaints brought on behalf of children against government authorities”, Mrs. Clarke points out that a “large part of (her work)” will be generated by “complaints that are brought” to her.
The position also mandates her to pay specific attention to Jamaica’s international obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, namely the right for provision, protection and participation.
She says that when complaints are made, investigations will be carried out by designated officers.
“The law clearly specifies several things. I can make recommendations to Parliament or the relevant authority. I can call persons into question, give and make recommendations to the Ministers and Parliament,” she points out.
“One thing that I have to do at all times is ensure that the voices of children are heard and so I have to consult with the children. If the complaint comes to me, I am the one who can lodge an official complaint against another authority on behalf of the child,” Mrs. Clarke explains.
In addition, she says her job will also include handling complaints about government bodies which work with children, such as hospitals and the criminal justice system. “If there are complaints I will have to handle them. I can also provide representation for children brought before the law, such as legal aid, and I can bring proceedings, other than criminal proceedings involving law or practice, concerning the rights or best interests of children,” she notes.
The Children’s Advocate is empowered to intervene in any proceedings before a court or a tribunal involving law or practice concerning the rights of children. Mrs. Clarke says that given this, the office will have to be staffed with at least two lawyers.
She informs JIS News that particular attention will also be paid to developing a system of early detection for children with disabilities, working in tandem with the Disabilities Foundation and the Early Childhood Commission and other related groups.
“I think that is something that will be very important, because if you can have early intervention, a lot of them can be adequately developed to achieve their full potential and so you will be upholding their rights, because if you have early intervention, identify their disability, which could be major or minor, provide the education that they need, then you will be protecting their rights to an education,” the Children’s Advocate says. Noting that she is mandated to have the “input of children in all (her) activities”, Mrs. Clarke is appealing to citizens to co-operate.
“For the effective functioning of the office, I am going to need the full co-operation of the citizens of Jamaica. For example, in carrying out an investigation I am going to need them to provide accurate and timely information. If I am going to meet with children, I am going to need the parents to agree and give their children permission to go to a venue to meet with me. So it’s in partnership that this office will become effective and efficient,” she tells JIS News.
Mrs. Clarke has played a vital role in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which led to the crafting of a National Plan of Action for Children and the formulation of a National Policy for Children in 1997. Out of this was born a Task Force and Monitoring Committee to drive the legislative process, which led to the enactment of the Child Care and Protection Act in March 2004.