By Dr Oswald R. Thomas
On March 1, 2012, a Caribarena.com headline: “Education minister has little to say on deportation caught my attention.” The story detailed an 11-year-old child who was ordered deported to his homeland of Jamaica. The minister was at the time attending a conference in Suriname when she posited to caribarena.com that “the law will take its course, and she has nothing to add from her youth affairs portfolio.” The hon. minister took the stance the decision to send home the 11-year-old boy “is the judgment of the court.”
According to the facts, the primary school student appeared before Chief Magistrate Joanne Walsh on Monday (2/27/12) and pleaded guilty to two counts of larceny. It was also stated that this was the young man’s second appearance for the same offence and his attorney, Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin, told the court that the child’s parents were fed up with him and had no interest in affecting the court’s decision.
Not surprisingly, this story got the local media's attention.
“Media reports (Observer and The Gleaner) quote Magistrate Walsh as saying, ‘He is already broken into being a thief. If his own parents can’t cope with him, why should the state cope with him? It is obvious that he does not listen to them (his parents)… I am seriously contemplating on sending him back to Jamaica and he can steal there.’ It was also stated that the child came to Antigua to visit his parents and overstayed and his status was never renewed.”
As a mental health professional who has spent a considerable portion of my professional life attending to young people's needs, around issues of self-development, empowerment initiatives and healthy coaching, I firmly believe in the home, community and state establishing positive approach plans to help teenagers believe in themselves, pursue their hidden dreams and, more importantly, never lose sight of core values of faith, hope, personal responsibility, collective goodwill, compassion, perseverance, courage, honesty and hard work.
Because our youth represents both the present future and the future good, there is no excuse for our obvious lack of a culture for collectively raising our children to reach their maximum potential, in any desire for self-fulfillment, great or average. Against my doctrine of empowerment, I agree with the minister of education that she could not speak on the matter adequately since her ministry does not have the human resources nor was designed to develop the institutional capacity to respond to teenagers in crisis.
Perhaps Dr Jacqui Quinn-Leadro should have redirected the media to seek answers from the minister of Health and Social Transformation in the spirit that, as a government minister, she is duty bound by collective responsibility.
The good judge's decision appears on the surface to be insensitive to the larger picture of moving beyond the confines of the law to creatively think of solutions designed to filter out negativity and turn punitive consequences into child consciousness opportunities that place teenagers on second chances pathways. There was no mention that the judge relied on a report from the probation department or ordered such a report before making her decision.
I think this situation is reviving the urgency for Antigua and Barbuda to establish without delay a “Family Court” to address these and other issues faced by families. Family court judges are not only trained in law but in such areas as domestic violence, child support, marriages, divorce, custody, and range of human related concerns that plague family life.
Such wider exposure to the full realities of family life serve to provide judges with options for interventions when laws are violated by teenagers, other than simply resorting to callous act of deportation, especially when the rationale of transferring the problem of stealing to another Caribbean country is offered, as opposed to how can the state help to raise successful, happy and holistic teenagers. It is sad that the judge did not see that this young man needed far more than deportation.
More than the need for a Family Court in Antigua and Barbuda, this case highlights another important issue. That is, to what extent is this 11-year-old entitled to enjoy some form of protection under our constitution as well as the protections of the United Nations convention pertaining to the rights of the child? If this child's parents are in Antigua, to whom is the judge deporting the child?
Perhaps the good chief magistrate should have considered making this child a ward of the state, while making sure that parents maintain their responsibility to provide for their child, regardless of the young man's illegal behaviour.
The ministry of social transformation could have stepped in via the Citizen Welfare Division to place the child into foster care and seek a further order from the court to have parents pay child support to assist with meeting the needs of the child while in foster care.
When I worked with the Ministry of Home Affairs, Citizens Welfare Division, there was one case where a 15-year-old Antigua child was sent to visit her father in the northeastern United States. Soon thereafter, her father was arrested for child abuse and was removed from the home. The child was made a ward of the state and the state petitioned the federal government for a green card and placed her in foster care. After the child was able to contact her mother and indicated that she wanted to return to Antigua, the mother came in to see the welfare officer and the Citizens Welfare Division made representation on behalf of the mother, and the government of Antigua paid to have one of its citizen return home.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child can't be ignored by the court when judges are asked to decide the fate of children. These rights underscore that children must be given the social space to develop their full potential, free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. It reflects a new vision of the child. Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights.
The Convention offers a vision of the child as an individual and as a member of a family and community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development. By recognizing children's rights in this way, the Convention firmly sets the focus on the whole child -- UNICEF (2011). Perhaps the good chief magister should begin to focus on the welfare of the whole child the next time a law-breaking teenager is brought before the court. Doing anything less rejects the notion that it takes a village both to raise and break a child.
March 15, 2012