Kellie Magnus | It will take a village and sustained efforts to help children soar
May is chock-full of themed days that remind us of our commitments to children and youth, which are great for generating attention, for smart photo ops and high-traffic social media posts. The month is branded Child Month, topped annually with a catchy acronym. This year’s is SOAR: Strive to Overcome Adversities with Resilience. But it takes work to translate that momentum into the sustained, coordinated effort that drives change in young people’s lives. The scale of the challenges facing our children makes us hungry for a quick fix – a single programme, a snappy slogan that can make things right. There isn’t one. COVID-19 has made that clear, throwing into sharp relief the cracks in the systems meant to serve children.
High on the list of COVID-19 fatalities is the promise of childhood itself. On top of our ongoing challenges with low educational outcomes and violence, children are struggling with isolation, disruption of their regular routines, increasing inequity in access to education and recreation, increased risk of physical violence and increased anxiety and depression. These challenges threaten the feeling of safety and security to which all children have a right and the intellectual and emotional development that sets them up for adult life.
COVID-19 has sharpened the inequities and inadequacies etched into the landscape of Jamaican children’s lives. That gives us the opportunity to look at them honestly. We can choose to, like a child, put our hands over our eyes and pretend not to see them, or we can choose to move past the cosmetic changes and slogans and address the systemic challenges that stand in their way.
We see the inequity starkly in our education system. Take the case of 17-year-old Lerone* in Parade Gardens. A year ago, he was an avid athlete looking forward to sitting his CSEC examinations and graduating from high school. His school had no classes, online or offline, for six months. When the sessions finally started, he struggled to get a device. On the occasions he was able to borrow one, sessions were cancelled at the last minute because no teacher was available. His mother lost her job after the WeCare application process closed, leaving the family with no clear option for short term financial support. Lerone has a daily challenge of motivating himself to find ways to get his class materials and study for his upcoming exams.
“If I could just have access to online school regularly, I think I would be able to do well with my subjects,” he says. He worries that the disruptions will get in the way of his dreams to join the Jamaica Defence Force. So he makes his way to the office of an NGO where he can get online. In a community where violence still claims more lives than the COVID virus, he has to navigate his streets cautiously to try to access help.
Lerone’s resilience is what keeps him navigating those streets. We owe him more. We owe him a system that can provide him with the support he needs and deserves.
We see the inequity and inadequacy again when we look at the social services meant to respond to cases like this. Our social support services like PATH and the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA) are under-resourced to meet the accelerating demand for services. With much of their intake processes dependent on face-to-face interactions, accessing these services is now slower than they were before COVID-19.
There’s the case of a 12-year-old boy attending a west Kingston high school, who was referred to our psychologist by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) as being a danger to himself. It took months of coordination between our psychologist, social worker, the JCF, CPFSA, the Child Guidance Clinic and the National Council on Drug Abuse to get the child referred into long-term support. The expectation that overburdened parents, let alone children, can navigate both their challenges and the maze of agencies providing services is rarely met.
“A lot of parents don’t ask for help because it’s so hard to get through,” says Michelle Harrison. “The information isn’t clear. The overlapping roles of agencies is confusing. And when they do get through, they are sometimes made to feel guilty because they can’t provide.”
Michelle is one of the psychologists on our team who interacts daily with children and parents. To hear Michelle tell it, the emotional support for young people and parents is where we see the inadequacy writ large. Children and adults facing challenges need support to release their frustrations and negative emotions, to learn effective coping strategies and to build their confidence to seek help. Some need access to long-term individual and family counselling.
As an NGO, Fight for Peace is coordinates activities delivered by a network of partners, which gives us the flexibility to offer a range of services that can help the diverse needs of young people and their parents. But no service is more needed and less available than psychosocial support. When the Jamaica Constabulary Force referred our psychosocial support team to an estranged couple, the breadth of challenges they were grappling with – and the risks that might have occurred had help not been available – were astounding. Their son had just been murdered. While dealing with their individual and collective grief, they had to, simultaneously, process the fallout of their own relationship, deal with other family members’ emotions to reduce the likelihood of retaliation, make arrangements for their son’s burial and work out practical arrangements for their safety.
TAKES A VILLAGE
There isn’t a single programme or agency that can help families facing challenges like these. It literally takes a village. One that has children and youth as its priority every day of the year. When services are accessible and young people and parents have support to access them, the results can be amazing. Like the young adult in Denham Town who went from being detained by the police to launching his own cookshop in a few months – because his entrepreneurial spirit, drive and resilience were supported by a social worker’s commitment to helping him find a way through. She counselled him by telephone, helped him to work through his anger and connected him to a grant opportunity offered by the Jamaica Social Investment Fund.
“Me get a lot a promise inna my life and them never come through like me see this come through,” he says. “The work weh me put in behind the scene nobody nuh really recognise, but at the end of the day me glad me put it in.”
If we really want children to soar, we need a transformative strategy that takes us well beyond Child Month. One that provides meaningful investment into the social support services at the national and community level. One that requires and provides for an organised approach between all actors in the child development and protection space. One that prioritises accountability, holding adults and agencies responsible for doing their jobs and reporting results. One that addresses root causes and embeds solutions within community spaces.
We can even recycle this Child Month’s acronym: let’s call it SOAR.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.
Kellie Magnus is the Jamaica country lead for Fight for Peace, a Spotlight grantee, funded by UNICEF to implement programmes in sport for development, behaviour change and parenting. She is also a member of Spotlight’s Civil Society Reference Group. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.