by Julia Rawlins-Bentham
More children in Barbados are charged with wandering than with drug possession, burglary, grievous bodily harm, rape, robbery or theft.
However, the number of children, mainly girls, charged for wandering, falls second in number to those charged for assault.
Senior Police Superintendent of the Southern Division, Eucklyn Thompson, said that while 123 children were charged for assault between 2008 and last year, 55 were charged with wandering during the same period.
Between 2008 and 2012, 24 children were charged with grievous bodily harm; 21 for burglary; seven for rape; six for robbery; five for theft from the person; 36 for other thefts such as finding property and taking it and not returning it to the owner; and 27 for drugs possession.
Thompson revealed these statistics during the annual 11-Plus programme titled, In the Winners’ Circle: Making the Right Choice, which was hosted by the National Task Force on Crime Prevention and Magistrate Barbara Cooke-Alleyne to target children preparing to enter secondary school.
Cooke-Alleyne also confirmed that wandering was very prevalent in Barbados.
“Throughout the jurisdictions of the court you would find that each person dealing with juveniles has quite a high percentage of wanderers mainly among the girls,” she said.
She explained that wandering was a crime that only children between the ages of 11 and 15 could commit, and involved them being somewhere without permission.
“They [the child] left home for school and never got there that day. That is wandering. A parent saying, ‘no you can’t go to a Calvacade or a fete’, and you went there — that is wandering. It is going someplace without proper guardianship and permission,” the magistrate pointed out.
She added that the offence was also more prevalent in the home among girls than boys, with some of them opting to leave because of what was happening there. For example, they may be sexually abused, or they were exposed to sex at an early age and leave home to continue in their sexual activities. In the case of the boys however, the main reasons for leaving home are usually gambling, cock fighting and a small percentage who are involved in sexual activity with older females or males.
The magistrate stressed that children needed to know they could and would be charged for leaving home without their parents’ permission, or without them knowing where they were going.
“Your actions at age 11 will have very serious consequences so it is important to make good decisions from now… Some children don’t know the crime of wandering exists. Some feel, ‘if I go to the fete, she [mummy] will just beat me when I get home’, not realising that they committed a crime. So they need to be aware first of all that it is a crime and there are consequences for that action,” the magistrate cautioned.
She explained that when a juvenile was reported to police as missing, there was a fast response by lawmen to locate the child, his or her friends and the family connections.
“When they do find the person they investigate and find that it is a true case of wandering they will talk with the family to see what is going on. The next step is that they might have that child charged and brought before the court,” Cooke-Alleyne pointed out.
However, she explained the court action was not always an automatic move as the police also had the option of referring the child and its parents to the Juvenile Liaison Scheme for counselling and to determine the root cause of the problem to avoid them going to court.
But, she stressed that if that behaviour continued the child could then be charged for wandering and taken before a magistrate.
“If they admit to wandering, we will do certain tests. With the females we do a pregnancy test because we want to know if they are sexually active. They might admit, or they might not admit that. We also do psychological and psychiatric tests to see what is going on in their heads to see why they are behaving in this manner.
“We have a social enquiry report to see what is happening at home, at school and the church life as well. We try to get a full picture of what is happening with that child,” Cooke-Alleyne explained.
She added those reports would present several options as to how that child should be dealt with, but noted that the parents could also have input in the final decision if it is the first time the child was charged.
“Most times the parents are near tears or crying, and want the child to come home with them when that might not be the best thing for the child. [But], you follow the law to the letter and put the child on a bond to go home with its parents. But the second time it is the court’s decision,” the magistrate stated.
In the first instance, a child’s options could include probation for a two to three-year period during which he or she would be subjected to random drug tests and pregnancy tests, and required to attend school.
However, despite the chance to turn their lives around, Cooke-Alleyne lamented that there were still repeat offenders, especially among the girls.
“Once they are sexually active they try to continue along that road, and they need to meet whoever this person is that they are involved with. Most times they would not tell you who this male partner is … and it might be that they are older,” she said.
Boys also wander from home on occasions, and do so usually to avoid school for a number of reasons. Reports conducted on males indicate that they shied away from school because they were not academically inclined and felt embarrassed to be there.
“They leave home in uniform but they don’t get there,” she lamented.
A default on this probation will result in the child being committed to the Government Industrial School for a set time; a minimum of three years and a maximum of five years as outlined by law.
“I know that seems harsh in relation to adult sentencing, but that time period allows you to rehabilitate that child. Perhaps they committed the crime at 14, in five years they would come out at 19 and will be going back to the home environment as an adult. If you send them back there in six months the same problem will recur,” the magistrate indicated.
She added that the GIS was equipped to deal with children regardless of their crimes, making sure their education continued whether in the realm of academia or vocational training.
“You would still get psychological counselling, and at the stage of going home prepare the family and [the child] for going home. The whole healing of the child takes place in those years. It takes years and not just six months,” she explained.
Magistrate Cooke-Alleyne noted that while some children continued to be involved in deviant behaviour after their release, others furthered their education at the Barbados Community College, the University of the West Indies and enrolled in vocational training after leaving the GIS. Others, she disclosed, were working in the public and private sectors.
However, the magistrate has urged parents not to wait until it was too late to seek help for their children.
“There is the Juvenile Liaison Scheme, the police and the Probation Department,” she said, adding that magistrates also gave assistance.
“Just keep talking to them [the children] and hope that your voice would register in their head and not the peer pressure. Keep praying. But they need to be aware that it is a crime [wandering] and that they can be brought before the courts for it,” she warned.