Parents urged to be vigilant as missing children reports climb
The Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA) is cautioning parents to keep closer tabs on the whereabouts of their children as reports of missing minors appear to be gradually increasing.
In an interview with The Gleaner on Wednesday, Lesia Bhagwandat-Vassell, deputy registrar of CPSFA's National Children's Registry, also urged parents and guardians to maintain vigilance during the summer holiday period as this is usually when incidents such as house fires and drownings tend to occur more frequently as children are left unsupervised.
Up to June, 559 of the nation’s children – the majority of whom are girls – were reported missing, with 194 (or 35 per cent) of them still unaccounted for.
The majority of the 364 children who have returned home were said to have done so of their own accord.
Bhagwandat-Vassell is concerned that the data is indicating an upward trend that could soon come to match or surpass pre-pandemic records of reports of more than 1,500 cases of missing children in a calendar year.
There were 952 missing children last year, 785 of whom were girls. Two children of the overall number of missing children were recorded as deceased and 649 children were returned home.
In 2020, as COVID-19 began affecting Jamaica, the number of missing children reports fell to 1,066, coming from 1,543 in 2019.
Bhagwandat-Vassell noted that the data also suggested that the lockdowns associated with the pandemic caused a decline in such reports and that now that lockdowns are no longer happening, the figures are rising.
To date, the year with the most reports of missing children is 2013, with 2,206 cases.
Bhagwandat-Vassell explained that a child may go missing for several reasons. Some children, particularly younger ones, may wander off and become lost. In other circumstances, a child may be kidnapped or abducted, possibly by a stranger, but sometimes by people they know and trust.
Others choose to run away or go missing because they are exposed to abusive family circumstances where they are subjected to all forms of child abuse and extreme parental neglect.
In other cases, youngsters are discovered to have caved to peer pressure as a means of “fitting in” or are seen to have a pressing desire for freedom in order to escape their parents’ strict rules and guidance.
The recently held Ananda Alert Youth Forum in May 2023 also saw youth raising many other points such as the impact of stress, feelings of being overwhelmed, and feeling pressured by the high expectations from others as well as mental health factors that were contributing to children’s decision to run away and needing to “get away” or to “be free”.
Bhagwandat-Vassell called on parents to avoid leaving their kids at home or in any other space by themselves, irrespective of their age or maturity level.
Instead, she implored them to enrol the children in summer extracurricular activities, Vacation Bible School (VBS) programmes offered by churches, community centre activities, or to make arrangements for them to stay with a relative – such as a grandparent – or enlist the assistance of a trusted friend to supervise them.
“It might be a little costly, but at the same time, what do we prefer? The cost now or the pain later?” she asked.
... Creating a safe space
Bhagwandat-Vassell also emphasised that it was the responsibility of parents and guardians to ensure that the home is a safe and secure environment, particularly after recognising that their child is having difficulties.
Seek help from a therapist right away, she advised.
“You know us, as Jamaicans, we tend to say that we’re going to sit down and watch it because the child might change, [but] we’re saying to seek help, reach out for help, [and] don’t wait until the child leaves or ... until it gets out of control,” she said, noting that the CPFSA is available to assist in giving parents guidance.
She also encouraged parents and guardians to talk to their children about the risks and the dangers present in society “because in their eyes, they are seeing it as ‘I’m just leaving mommy and daddy’s home because the environment is too strict’, but they are not seeing the dangers that are out there, so ... we need to engage the children in conversations to let them know of the dangers present out there for a vulnerable child,” she said.
She further advised adults to talk about what safety looks like in different settings, including at home, on the road, and online, particularly because strangers may try to lure them into meeting in person.
“Know where your child is at all times and with whom,” she said, adding that no child should be sent to places alone but must always be accompanied by an adult.
Approximately 40 per cent of the missing children normally return home within three days.
When children are located and/or returned, one of the standard outcomes is that the child and their parent or guardian will be provided with counselling. Many children are reunited with their families and are allowed to remain at home after being located, but in a small number of situations, investigations reveal that finding alternative care arrangements for the child is best considered.
Children are not always ready to disclose where they have been, who they have been with, or what has happened to them. They are often fearful or even too embarrassed to speak about the experience. Though some have reported just going out with friends, meeting up with ‘friends’ from social media, some have experienced a variety of sexual offences committed against them as well as being drugged, the agency reported.