JIS News

The Office of the Children’s Advocate (OCA), has made strides in promoting and protecting the rights of the nation’s children, in terms of investigating complaints made by and on behalf of children, providing legal representation for them, among other things.
Children’s Advocate, Mary Clarke, presenting the OCA’s 2007/08 annual report at the final in a series of consultations with church leaders held yesterday (Nov. 5) at the Alhambra Inn in Kingston, said that there was an increase in the number of complaints received by her office during the last financial year.
“Last year, we had an increase in the number of complaints and the increase was due to our public education programme. We received a total of 333 complaints involving 337 children. A lot of complaints were against individuals. We did in many of them, preliminary investigations, and referred them to the relevant authorities, but there were a number of complaints that we had to investigate ourselves,” Mrs. Clarke informed.
Of the complaints, she said 55 per cent were made against males. Those which were made against agencies and institutions of the state had to do with policy decisions, inaction or slow response, she pointed out further. “There were a number of complaints against educational administration and disciplinary matters,” she said, noting that less then five per cent of the complaints were made by the children themselves.
The Children’s Advocate further informed that the OCA had to intervene on behalf of children in many education institutions. In 15 cases, the agency was able to get schools to accept, on a conditional basis, children they had put out. In addition, the OCA was also able to secure compensation for children who were injured at school.
Another function of the OCA is the provision of legal representation for children, who have been brought before the courts. Mrs. Clarke noted that the entity’s lawyers represented children in 54 cases. “We have two lawyers who serve the courts across Jamaica so you can imagine what that means. They made appearances at different levels of the court – Resident Magistrates, Family Court, the Children’s Court, and the Circuit Court. They had to deal with so many matters before the court – sexual abuse, care and protection, custody, maintenance, physical abuse, assault occasioning body harm, uncontrollable behaviour, child offenders,” she informed.
Mrs. Clarke further noted that the office also made representation for children who needed legal aid council, and were successful in about 10 cases. The office also advocated for bail on behalf of children who were detained. “We were successful in seeking and achieving bail for about 22 children. The officers also found it necessary to seek and secure counselling for children who appeared before the court, who obviously needed some detoxification or other programmes,” she said.
The OCA’s report, which was tabled in Parliament on Oct. 28, also pointed to several issues which surfaced, regarding the appearance of children in the court. The greatest limitation, Mrs. Clarke pointed out, was the fact that children were often unprepared for court.
“They haven’t got a clue what court was all about, what to expect, what they were going to be asked. They were at times, they said, really intimidated, and you know what happens when you have a court case with that kind of fear and intimidation, especially when its comes to sexual abuse cases, where you are bringing four and five year old children to court, and they are being asked to retell what happened. I want to see happening in this country, a change in the whole criminal justice system as it relates to children,” the Children’s Advocate stated.
She said she was grateful for the existence of the Centre for Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse, (CISOCA), noting that she wanted to see centres accessible to every child in Jamaica. “I want to see social workers assigned to children to prepare them for court adequately; to accompany them,” Mrs. Clarke said.
She pointed out that as part of the OCA’s regulatory functions, the agency also responded to calls relating to the mental health of children and adolescents. “We sent out our research officer to investigate. We met with doctors and various institutions and then we had meetings with the Ministry of Health, the relevant authorities, and we were assured that they were aware of some of the problems, and the matters will be addressed,” Mrs. Clarke said.
She noted that the OCA was informed that there were plans to regionalise more mental services by having a unit at Cornwall Regional Hospital in St. James. “We have child guidance clinics across Jamaica but they are not enough, and when we investigated, we found children with mental health problems at Bellevue hospital in Kingston and Bellevue was not created for children,” she pointed out.
According to Mrs. Clarke, the OCA’s greatest area of impact this year is the review of systems in the correctional services with regard to children. “We kept getting several phone calls about children in the Fort Agusta Adult Correctional Centre for Women.I went out to Fort Agusta myself and investigated and found out what it was like,” Mrs. Clarke noted.
She said the OCA met with the Commissioner of Corrections on two occasions to discuss concerns and the Correctional Services has taken steps to improve the plight of children in the institution. Psychological assessments, medical examinations, individual and group counselling will now be undertaken by the Correctional Services.She said the OCA also has a mandate to consult with children and “last year, we consulted with some 500 children across Jamaica. I was pleased when they wanted to ask questions, to share their problems,” the Children’s Advocate said, adding that out of these consultations, it was found that children had problems with very harsh disciplinary practices, while the lack of parental support in education also surfaced.
“We are hoping that after our consultations with children, we see and find more children coming forward to report on their (own) behalf,” Mrs. Clarke stated.
The consultations with church leaders themed: ‘Together we can make a Difference,’ forms part of the OCA’s public education programme, aimed at forging new partnerships with key groups within the society to promote children’s rights and encourage better treatment of children.