Adults to blame! (THE BIG INTERVIEW)
Sun, September 09, 2012 - 9:00 AM
In this week’s Big Interview, former magistrate in the Juvenile Court, Faith Marshall-Harris, speaks out on issues relating to truancy, deviance among the youth, parenting problems and what she sees as some of the ways forward in addressing them.
Marshall-Harris spent a decade on the Bench, including the last six in the Juvenile Court.
Today, the attorney-at-law is also a legal consultant to Government, funded by UNICEF and UN Women (formerly UNIFEM), working on reformation of the laws relating to family and children. She is also involved in developing a protocol for the mandatory reporting of child abuse.
She spoke with SUNDAY SUN Editor Bryan Walker last Friday, and started with a study she began, before leaving the Bench, on the predisposing factors involved in juvenile crime.
I am now editing the final version of that study. It was designed not to just tell us what we already know – that drug use is having a big impact on our young people. What the study sought to do was to see . . . how often it was a result of use in the home, on the block, at school . . . .
So what has your research found?
Marshall-Harris: In the time I was dealing with it [in the court], I found that 80 per cent of the youngsters I saw either had used drugs, had experimented with drugs, or lived in an environment where drugs were available.
One of the big factors resulting from this was truancy and hanging out with the people who used drugs and the desire to be with them. They may dress for school, but the children will drop off by Marl Hole [Gap, St Michael], or Dark Hole in Deacons Road . . . .
This may not be drug-related, but in the Fairchild Street Bus Terminal and at a link point in Eagle Hall, a lot of the juvenile offending occurs in those two places . . . . You have the quiet nice boys who are trying to avoid the crowds, and then you get the gangs who will be trying to pull off their watches, take away their schoolbags or anything that looks expensive . . . .
What effect has the block culture had on our young people’s behaviour and actions?
Marshall-Harris: Marijuana seemed to be so widely used that for a lot of our young people, it became a rite of passage. They didn’t have to buy the marijuana, so a lot of them started use through that. Some appeared in court at 11 years, but in their evidence . . . they started smoking at eight or nine. That was a direct effect.
The other indirect effect was a lack of interest in any form of discipline.
How was this manifested?
Marshall-Harris: In dress, attitude, desire to go to school . . . . A form of delinquency would develop. One of the main things parents complained about was the inability – especially among the young fellows, but the girls were also beginning to do it – to get them come home. Some just remained on the block, it could be for days; some 13 [and] 14 years old were coming home at 2 o’clock in the morning and [parents] couldn’t tell them anything.
However, that adherence to the block culture came out of the fact that a lot of the parenting was lacking. A lot of our parents didn’t express the love, affection and care you would want, so the children go to the block where there are fellows who appear to care. Those fellows are actually filling the void of what youngsters want – they want mentors, they want role models, they want to learn, especially in cases where the fathers are absent from homes.
We have talked about this problem for so many years. How do we solve it – destroy the blocks, or focus on the family and home?
Marshall-Harris: You can’t destroy the block now. What you can do is have a countervailing force where you start to educate your parents that this is what you get when you don’t do what you should.
Recently, coming out of a court case, it was said that the law relating to truancy, under the Education Act, had no bite and needed updating, where a parent could only be fined $50 for keeping a child away from school for almost an entire year. You’ve worked under this law, what is your view on this?
Marshall-Harris: I agree that aspects like that need serious upgrading, because frankly, that is almost not worth the judicial time to deal with it. But in our society, these things are always multifaceted, and quite often you will find that their not going to school is associated with a parent who is suffering some deprivation.
If not suffering a financial deprivation, certainly suffering from a lack of parenting ability. So it can be almost counterproductive to say haul a parent before the court and fine them a large sum of money and say let that be a lesson to you. That does not necessarily mean the matter is solved . . . .
I have noted a recent case where a mother has been rightfully charged for not sending the child to school. However, in my view, and according to our norms and practices, that matter should not have been in the newspaper. Juveniles offences are dealt with in camera and juveniles are not exposed to the glare of publicity. By simply saying [you are] not calling the boy’s name does not help.
But the child was not on trial. It was a case of the mother breaching the law.
Marshall-Harris: Anything to do with the child should not be in the paper! I saw a headline which said he is a con man at 13. How do you do that to a child?
Under the Rights Of The Child provision, we have a duty to protect him from that sort of negative publicity. Whatever that child has done, that part of it should never have been in the newspaper. You cannot talk about turning around the life of a child after it is labelled a con artist in a newspaper!
It is for the judicial officer to tell [the newspaper] what aspects should be printed and what [should] not. The moment you say here is the mother’s name, here is where they live, you have basically identified the child in a small society.
Are we failing our children when we fail to check up on why they are absent for such prolonged periods from school, instead of waiting for the court stage to discover what is happening?
Marshall-Harris: Like everything else, I suspect the system lacks the human resources . . . . I found this while I was in Juvenile Court. You have so few officers doing these things that sometimes the amount of monitoring is not really very good.
However, there are very few schools in Barbados where that would escape their attention. Quite often, the schools would complain that as soon as they saw a pattern of absences, they would send a letter or try to call the parents. Very often, the children who didn’t go to school had parents who did not heed any calls from school authorities.
A lot of our parents are actually ill-equipped to be parents. The conception of children in Barbados is very casual in many cases. Mothers would be in court trying to get maintenance and barely knowing the man’s name, where he lives or where he works.
Therefore, out of these very loose relationships you are getting parents who are going to struggle on their own to guide the children, they themselves often being children too.
But this is not new to Barbados, but the difference was that we had grandmothers in the past who saw it as nothing to raise grandchildren. Nowadays, our grandmothers, very often they are partying too.
The extended family is not what it used to be, so you have a lot of children coming before the court who need that kind of help, and the parent who needs that kind of help.
What can be done about perennial lateness? Do we need more truancy officers?
Marshall-Harris: We do, but apart from that, a paradigm shift is required. I am very proud of the fact that Barbados can offer education free of direct cost to the individual. However, we have to remind parents this is not just freeness; we taxpayers pay for this thing of value.
The attitude I saw in the court towards getting to school and getting there early or late, doing homework, going to school at all, it was not really a big thing.
Also, a lot of the parents’ priorities were completely out of whack. A lot would say the child couldn’t go to school because it didn’t have any school clothes, yet they would come to court dressed to the nines. The child would have certain things you think they could do without, but the priority for the parent was not to buy the school clothes. It was perhaps to jump in Kadooment, or ensuring they could take the child to Chefette . . . .
Speaking of Kadooment, what was your reaction on seeing the photograph of a child gyrating behind an adult on the streets, with others looking on?
Marshall-Harris: Totally disgusted, as most right-minded Barbadians are. But don’t let us get carried away, we have seen similar things years ago; it is not new. Our problem is that we have failed to deal with it, so that now it has become a bigger and bigger problem . . . .
Those persons who think it [such wukking up] is their culture are quite free to consider it [so]. My concern is that when children start to do stuff, don’t worry to have this big outcry; that is the path to which you have led them. Don’t keep saying, ‘How the youth get so?’; it is you, the adults, who have them so.
How do you deal with this matter?
Marshall-Harris: The law is there but the law is not the answer to all things. We have a number of laws that control what we do with children. We are also signatory to the Rights Of The Child Convention which require that we do not expose children to overt sexual displays.
The head of the Child Care Board considered it abuse and vowed to report it to the police . . . .
Marshall-Harris: Yes, what I saw there bordered on child abuse, because at the end of the day, the child is somewhat helpless in that situation. At the age of six or seven, that child cannot help but re-enact what it sees from what it is encouraged to do.
Under what law(s) can those adults be charged?
Marshall-Harris: I am not speaking in any definitive way because I am not the one doing the charging, but under the Protection Of Children Act CAP 146A, any person who takes or permits to be taken any indecent photograph of a child, distributes or shows any indecent photographs of a child, has in his possession indecent photographs of a child, whether or not with a view to they being distributed, or shown by that person . . . is guilty of an offence.
The person is liable on conviction by indictment to five years in jail or two years summarily. The question is: is it an indecent photograph?
Looking at it on the surface, I see it purely as child abuse, because the child is introduced to something that is unpleasant, decadent . . . .
What type of psychological impact could it have on the child?
Marshall-Harris: It may not have a huge impact if the child doesn’t remember the incident, but if it is part of a general and repeated activity, I can tell you what impact it could have based on a child I had in court.
The child was engaging in a lot of sexually explicit activity at school – students would pay to see this boy perform sexual acts on other boys or girls, and also masturbation. He was about 12 or 13, a slow learner who couldn’t cope with the academics, and this was his way of getting attention.
When you questioned him, you realized that he did this because he saw these actions on ‘blue’ movies that his mother and her boyfriend regularly watched at his home. So he came to school and practised, and realized he could make pocket money out of showing what the people did in the movies.
How did you resolve this?
Marshall-Harris: Basically, I had to separate him from his environment and also take him out of that school because that was contributing to it.
It was a school where he shouldn’t have been. We also did a lot of counselling, but I didn’t put him into [Government Industrial School] because what he was doing was almost involuntary and he could not even tell the difference between right and wrong in that sense . . . .
I have spoken to social workers who are concerned about how many times they go to do an interview at a home and they see the whole family sitting watching “blue” movies.
What do you see as the main priority we need to fix in terms of children and parenting?
Marshall-Harris: Before I left the Bench, I was assisting the Ministry of Family with a training of trainers parenting programme since 2008 where a number of persons would go out into the community to train parents. I’m not sure how many have gone out . . . but I am wondering if an expansion of such a programme wouldn’t be helpful . . . .
[We need to] expand PAREDOS, any of the agencies that can do parent counselling; I think that can make an impact. We need to expand the Child Care Board – we need more child care officers; we need more psychologists. We need places of safety, and we need to make sure that special needs children are in special needs institutions.
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