Thu | May 23, 2019

Khadijah Williams | Child protection: Self-protection and the role of parents

Published:Tuesday | May 14, 2019 | 12:22 AMKhadijah Williams/Contributor

With the latest reports of two girls, eight and 11 years old, missing and later found to have been murdered in Jamaica, the general discussion has been around how the community, including parents, adults, schools and the police, can play a more critical role.

The role of community members looking out for children cannot be underestimated. I, however, would like to add to the complexity of this discourse: the element of children engaging in self-protection and what this requires if we were to holistically work to safeguard them. I will focus on the participation of parents and caregivers as the primary educators and caregivers to facilitate the development of children’s capacity, and suggest the need for a deeper level of intervention.

Sadly, in our Caribbean context, we have held simplistic views about children which we seem to be paying for today. A view that children do not have agency, that adults always know what is right and best for them, they should be seen and not heard, that children should not question adults’ authority, and the list goes on. This practice of devaluing the worth of children is far more prevalent in rural communities, where upholding ­traditional values is more pervasive. As a result, ­children miss ­opportunities to take safe risks that help them to develop decision-making skills, they are rarely, if ever, consulted on ­matters that affect them and are left to be innocent bystanders on matters that are critical to their welfare.

As a child protection specialist, I have worked with hundreds of children who have been abused and neglected. What has stood out clearly for me over the years is that the children involved, if they, first, had good relationships with their parents/caregivers and, second, if they were engaged in discussions with parents and caregivers about their own safety, could have been more prepared and actively involved in stopping the abuse, or at least reporting it much earlier.

The following areas at the micro and macro levels need to be addressed for us to truly facilitate the safeguarding of our children and help to build their decision-making and self-protection capacity – for both them and their parents/caregivers.

FAMILY LIFE

Another harsh reality is that our Caribbean family systems are breaking down due to increasing divorce and separation rates. The home that is supposed to be the safest place for our children is under great threat. Parents are too busy or too absent (mainly for justifiable reasons of earning income) to tune in to their children’s needs and challenges. Parents should be available, empowered and supported to have ongoing discussions with their children about all matters involving them. Home should be a comfortable and safe space for dialogue and close relationships with children, where they feel safe to communicate issues ­affecting them.

Despite family systems breaking down, mediation between parents needs to take utmost priority in such a way that children are not used as pawns in failed relationships, to the extent that the children become self-destructive. Children must feel confident to speak to both parents about their welfare. Despite the circumstances surrounding the adult relationships, children should have access to their parents, who they value above everything else. The home should be the place for children to learn that violence is not acceptable in any form and that healthy expression of feelings is acceptable, and parents are the best teachers and role models in this regard. Here, there are great implications for the Family Court, ensuring that children are the least casualties of adults’ decision-making.

Saying that parents should listen to their children is not as simple, however, as the capacity of parents/caregivers needs to be strengthened. By this, I suggest that parenting should be an integral part of our education system and community outreach programmes, where learning the art of actively listening and tuning in to children is developed incrementally, which can then become second nature. There is no quick fix here, as this requires time and a shift in how childcare is viewed.

EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT

Parent education remains a priority, given the increasing rate of teenage pregnancy, among other factors. New ways of engaging parents need to be explored. We have acknowledged the fact that the parents most sought at school do not attend parent-teacher meetings, but the practice is continued to have meetings without exploring new strategies of engagement. Public-sector interventions, which include school social workers, community workers, and other professionals going into communities and meeting parents where they are, so that the messages of effective parenting and safeguarding children reach them, requires further support. If the parents are on social media and at the bars, then that is where we should be as child advocates.

On a large scale, through public-private sector partnerships, the hotel industry, for instance, where many parents work and spend time away from their children, should be targeted to host parenting sessions and negotiating for time off from work to attend school events.

With the strengthening of these areas, for a start, we can see where children and parents’ relationships can be transformed in more positive ways to facilitate open communication, so when children sense danger they feel safe to speak; higher self-esteem, so when they are targeted for grooming by predators, they will not be too easily flattered and manipulated.

The issue of safeguarding children is indeed a complex issue that needs to be constantly examined and interrogated. As indicated earlier in this article, I have seen where children could have protected themselves from harm because they have been built that way – with a great ability to detect disingenuous, dishonesty and threat to their safety. However, our culture in the Caribbean stifles this natural ability and will require a cultural transformation regarding how we see children, and how parents internalise their role as primary agents of childcare and protection.

Dr Khadijah Williams is a Trinidadian child welfare and protection educator/consultant based in Jamaica, at Village Academy (School of Agriculture), St Ann. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.