‘Foster care, children’s homes will make them rebel’
BY PETRE WILLIAMS Sunday Observer reporter
Sunday, August 13, 2006
The practice of putting street-wise kids in foster care or children’s homes is futile and will end in rebellion, a clinical psychologist is warning Jamaica.
Dr Pearnel Bell, who practises out of tourist resort city Montego Bay in St James, also pleaded for a change of tactics to help street children rejoin mainstream society and give them a chance to live a normal childhood.
Bell suggested the establishment of multi-resource centres, designed to allow them the autonomy to make their own decisions regarding their care, saying that the practice of admittance to places of safety and/or foster care was simply "not going to cut it".
"These children find it very difficult to live in homes that often call for clear structure and boundaries in which they must operate," she said. She cited her own experience with street children who had fallen out of foster care because of their inability to adapt to such controlled environment.
"These cases are but a few of the many cases of street children placed in foster care who just could not make the transition to living in normal settings," said Bell.
She argued that the children had become accustomed to fending for themselves on the streets and making life choices without having to answer to adults. As a result, any attempt to take that away would end in rebellion.
"When they go on the streets and realise that they can make a living and become autonomous and independent, this is now where they remain on the streets. As children, they become in control and feel a sense of power in a sort of warped way," Bell, who has been practising for five years, told the Sunday Observer.
HALL… came up with the idea for multi-resource centres
"When the freedom and the independence that they acquire are taken away from them, even though they are in a better environment, it is difficult for them. (On the streets), they decide when they wake up, when they eat. All of that gives them a sense of freedom and that sort of freedom they don’t want to be taken away from them," she added.
Children’s advocate Mary Clarke agreed with Bell about the required approach to dealing with street children. Giving children the opportunity to make an input in their care is, after all, an important element of the Child Care and Protection Act, she said.
"The Child Care and Protection Act requires that, even as it defines the best interest of the child on which it is grounded," she said, noting that once the child was of "sufficient age and maturity" so as to be able to form his or her own views, then such views would be taken into account.
The 2002 National Survey of Street and Working Children estimated that the number of affected children could be as high as 6,448 at that time, with 20 per cent of them being boys. The report, prepared by Ruel Cooke of Worker Management Services Limited for the Ministry of Health, also made the distinction between "children on the street" and "children of the street".
Children on the street referred to those who work on the street but go home to sleep, while children of the street referred to those who work and live on the streets.
In Cooke’s survey, the majority of ‘children of the street’ (58.5 per cent) indicated that they wanted to return home, though less than 40 per cent of them were able, for one reason or other, to do so.
At the same time, the survey said that 19 per cent of those street children interviewed claimed to fear "no-one" and 10 per cent, "nothing".
It is against this background that the multi-resource centres - an idea of Elizabeth Hall, co-founder of the Committee for the Upliftment of the Mentally Ill (CUMI) Street People Programme in the resort city - has been deemed of particular importance.
Hall was also the first president of the Montego Bay chapter of Jamaicans For Justice, the human rights group.
Calling for the centres, Bell said their successful operation would depend on a raft of criteria, including centrality of location to allow for easy accessibility by street children. In addition, they would require:
. a staff of social workers, psychologists, counsellors and mentors;
. the inclusion of a dormitory facility to accommodate those children in need of a place to sleep; and
. the offer of meals as well as facilities of interest to children, including computer classes, karate and other sports as well as educational facilities.
At the same time, she said, the facilities would be run on a system of rules, even as those children served would get the opportunity to make their own choices.
"The centres would have certain rules, structures, boundaries. You know that this is the behaviour required, so now it is up to you to decide. The whole idea is to give them that sense of ‘I am making the choice’," she said.
In cases where children are extremely anti-social, they would have to be dealt with specifically, Bell said.
Funding should come through partnerships between public and private sector interests at the community level, where it was felt that such centres would prove most effective.
"Here in Montego Bay (for example), you have the business community and they should have a vested interest in having these children rehabilitated. It would be in the best interest of their businesses to help," she insisted. "Professionals could help too, by volunteering their services. But it would be a community effort, along with grant funding and governmental intervention."
The psychologist cautioned that the time to establish the centres was now, and failure to act would lead, inevitably, to a society in decay.
"They are children, and on the streets they are learning anti-social behaviour. They are learning to become criminals. They are learning that hard work is not important because they are learning how to beg their way through life. They are learning a range of behaviours, which, as they make their way into adulthood, is detrimental to society," said Bell.
"So you have these children on the streets who are going to translate into a society in decay. If we are having a group of children lacking the basic necessities germane to being a child, then you can imagine the kinds of problems when they get into adulthood, the problems that we are going to be facing. They need to be living normal childhoods," she added.
As if to support Bell, Cooke’s survey revealed that 35 per cent of sexually exploited children were doing it as straight "business", while 23.5 per cent were exotic dancers and 12 per cent escorts. Other services, including homosexual acts, were also "well represented", the report said, accounting for some 29 per cent of street children.
"The usual starting age for this kind of activity (sexual exploitation) is 13. The minimum starting age is nine. Their main influences for engaging in this line of activity are the attractive monetary rewards, an impossible domestic situation and the love of one’s body," it added.
There are also reported cases of street boys who become violent with motorists who refuse to have their windscreens cleaned by them for a cost.
Meanwhile, Children’s Advocate Clarke sought to give assurance that there was a sense of urgency in the formulation of a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate street children.
Stakeholders, including the CDA, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the St Andrew Care Centre, last met on July 6 to work out a mechanism.
"You have a lot of ad hoc, sporadic effort and it is not going to be easy to bring them under a comprehensive programme," Clarke said. "I am not going to rush and then what I do is ineffective."
Clarke pointed to the past when people had rushed and met with limited success, treating the symptoms rather than the source of the street children problem.
"We can keep treating the symptoms, but somewhere along the line we are going to have to treat the causes of the problem, because as soon as you take one set off the street, you have another set," she said. "We have to deal with causes and not symptoms. Children on the street is symptomatic of something else."