Create seasons of love for children
Rosalee Gage-Grey’s wish is for Jamaicans to spread the joy beyond Christmas
She wakes up each day giving thanks for life and vows to make it better than the day before for the children of Jamaica, especially those in need of the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA).
She is Rosalee Gage-Grey, chief executive officer of the agency, and her cell phone is never shut down.
The children for whom she bears responsibility are numbered in the thousands right across the island, 2,000 of whom are housed in 50 government and privately run children’s homes, and all of which must operate according to the high standards and guidelines of the CPFSA.
The overall number of children in state care is just over 4,500 and has remained steady, but any decline is welcomed by Gage-Grey, as multiple agencies work to strengthen family bonds at home, creating a safe haven for children.
Unfortunately, children in need of care and protection are so numerous that some of the CPFSA’s officers are managing 100 to 200 cases each, way above international norms of 20 cases per agent. And no day is typical, as tomorrow’s duties may begin immediately after completing today’s, sometimes with a frantic call in the middle of the night for help, which requires immediate action.
Calls reporting deaths and violent abuse are the worst ones to receive, whether night or day, but the woman who has given more than 20 years to the agency (formerly known as the Child Development Agency – CDA) said putting a smile on the face of a child in desperate need of care and protection has driven her and the team to go above and beyond.
In fact, going above and beyond is their job description.
Last week, as Gage-Grey sat down with The Sunday Gleaner for a chat, she remained hopeful that the work of the CPFSA and the personnel will bear greater fruits under her watch, because she has seen too many children badly abused, disenchanted and forlorn, who have lost the will to live.
“There are too many of them. Just too many,” she said with sadness.
Gage-Grey started with the agency in 2003 as the human resource director, and before that she was a tax auditor. Once she stepped away, she realised that the management skills of both tax auditing and human resources made her transition relatively easy. And while it is not unique to be in the current position based on her previous work experiences, she was always drawn to the children.
“Once you get into child protection, it takes a hold on you, especially if you are a hands-on person. You go into the homes and see those children and you know that they need the love and support; it just grabs you. That is what has kept me,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.
“I have this passion for the Jamaican child, wanting to give each child the opportunity to live. More and more seeing the children coming into state care and seeing them traumatised is heartbreaking. One of the greatest challenges for me is when a child has lost the will to live and just wants out,” she stated.
That lack of desire to go on, often seen in the sad eyes of the traumatised children, is sometimes expressed verbally. It is a great source of distress for her.
“A significant number of children that come into care, needing care, require intensive therapeutic care,” Gage-Grey explained, noting that sometimes all the children from one family must be removed because of the situation.
Of late, a troubling trend has been emerging, said the CEO. Since June, increased calls have been made to CPFSA for intervention and placement at an average of 60-70 cases per month. Investigations are currently underway to determine the causes.
MULTI-AGENCY APPROACH TO HELP
The Ministry of Health and Wellness, Gage-Grey said, has been working to provide greater psycho-social and psychiatric care for wards of the state. The parent Ministry of Education and Youth has also been providing assistance through counselling services in schools, communities and directly to the children.
Given the high demands and needs, much more is required, but she is confident that the efforts now being made across multiple ministries and agencies will better aid this hurting subset of the Jamaican population.
The CPFSA boss is not surprised when videos emerge on social media of children exhibiting violent and other anti-social behaviours, as she has seen far too much of that among children in state care.
Treating with many of the behaviours presented has been challenging, as no two children are identical, even siblings from the same home.
“If you can’t see them as children, you really can’t help them. The behaviour they exhibit may be adult, but somewhere in there is a child who is in need of help,” she said.
“I remember a social worker out of the United Kingdom who was training with us said the level of disgust you have for a child is equivalent to the help the child needs. Sometimes the behaviours presented are so difficult that the level of help the child needs to be able to regulate that behaviour to be able to function normally requires deep, intense intervention,” said the wife, mother of two and grand dame of the government’s child service operations.
Even as CPFSA has the interest of children at the forefront of its entire decision making, the focus is also to strengthen families to allow them to care for their children. The National Parenting Support Commission is part of the multi-agency approach to assist this process. Only when it is absolutely necessary are children removed from the home.
The CPFSA also works to reunite children with families, especially at Christmas time. Sometimes, though, reintegration is difficult, as children occasionally return to environments with no boundaries, coming from one of structure.
IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON CHILDREN; THE COCOA PIECE MASSACRE
Gage-Grey said the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly hard on children, especially those in state care. Restrictions prevented parental visits, and, even when they were allowed, it was without contact.
Some children, she said, did not want to go back to face-to-face classes. She lauded the government for providing tablets for all children in state care.
One of the difficulties the agency faced was removing children from their school in cases where they had to be placed in state care in another parish.
However, when schools went online because of COVID, children were able to return to their schools in the virtual classroom. CPFSA is now looking at ways to keep children in their old schools.
One of the most traumatic events for the agency this year was the massacre of a young mother and her four children in Cocoa Piece, Clarendon.
“It was so difficult to watch body after body coming out of that house and watch the reaction from the crowd. It was a cross between a sigh and a groan. Adults were standing there in utter disbelief that something could have rocked such a small community like that, here, in Jamaica land we love, that a youth could have committed such a crime,” Gage-Grey stated.
“It tells us that we have to get it right for our young people. We can’t pretend that they don’t have needs to be addressed. Their ability to navigate and make meaningful contribution is going to be a direct reflection on how they were socialised, how they manage to get through school, and how the communities from which they come are able to provide the support they need.”
Jamaica’s high crime rate was having an impact on the children, she said, “and the sense of hopelessness, if we are not careful, will overtake persons, because they are just not seeing their way out.”
“Living in Jamaica for our children and young people is a very difficult situation,” she said, often questioning why people could be so cruel to children.
Gage-Grey said sexual predators who abuse children are almost always likely to get away when the victim is quite young, as it is often difficult for them to remember, especially years later.
The CPFSA staff has been trained to use art and play therapy to help children recall traumatic experiences in order to identify and punish the perpetrator.
Noting that the rate of abuse is extremely high, the CPFSA head said upwards of 1,200 cases of various kinds of abuse are reported per month, which has resulted in severe behavioural issues. Some of the young perpetrators of crimes were themselves abused, she said.
Her task must be hard.
“It is, difficult, but not insurmountable,” she noted, and, now as the year comes to a close, a little attention is being turned on CPFSA’s officers and workers.
They will gather to talk, meet and greet, share and help each other to cope on a job that can often take a toll on them.
This year’s social services conference was termed Case Conference, where everyone had the opportunity to weigh in on matters, with the hope of producing a reference journal.
CPFSA reports mirror the crime hotspots in Jamaica; for example, Westmoreland has a high crime rate as well as children in need of care.
GOING FORWARD …
Gage-Grey’s hope is to keep more and more children in familial environments, reintegrating them with families, and arranging adoptions.
She hopes the multi-agency approach will foster a better environment for the country’s children.
“This is the Christmas season, and a time when families come together and make a special effort to show love. I would want us to make every day a season of love for our children,” said Gage-Grey, the daughter of a dressmaker, who was born in Westmoreland and raised with community love and fellowship.
Almost 23 years with the CPFSA, she believes the route to the job was cut in her early beginnings. She hopes to make it better for those who will succeed her, and, most importantly, for the children who depend on her to right many of the wrongs of their lives.
Gage-Grey is up to the task, however long it takes, and is heartened by the bright lights she has already seen through an otherwise dark night.