For the sake of our children

There was much food for thought coming from Barbados’ Director of the Criminal Justice and Research Unit Cheryl Willoughby as she addressed the annual stakeholders’ meeting of the local charity, My Child and I, yesterday.

Mrs Willoughby spoke on issues related to parenting, family life, juvenile delinquency and criminality, general behavioural problems and child abuse, among other areas. She spoke from the vantage point of considerable knowledge gained not only from her academic training in research and sociology, but also from her experiences as a former member of the Royal Barbados Police Force.

Mrs Willoughby stressed the need for men to play an active role in the lives of their children. The father’s presence, she noted, was critical when taken into consideration the increasing deviant behaviour among our nation’s children.

“Men play a pivotal role in the care, protection and socialization of their children, and by extension their families. It does not matter the characteristic of the family, whether it’s a married union, a common law union, a visiting relation; it does not matter, as long as the male is actively visible. And I want to underscore the word ‘active’ because some of them are visible but they’re not actively involved in the lives of the child,” Mrs Willoughby said.

It is advice that all men should take to heart, especially those who neglect their paternal responsibilities and seek to place conditions on the extent to which they are willing to play an active part in their children’s life.

Often, we express alarm, dismay, anguish and all sorts of emotions when our children go the road of deviancy, without linking the dots between their behaviour and our adult irresponsibility.

The professional noted that girls also provided concerns but was adamant that research had shown that it was our society’s boys who were at greater risk.

“Hence, my cry this morning for the emphasis to be on our males. Yes, we tend to want to work with mothers and girls but it is our boys who are having significant problems, both in schools and in our communities,” Mrs Willoughby pointed out.

There have been recent cases reaching public attention of children dying following allegations of abuse in their homes. There have also been cases of children committing suicide as the last resort to escaping such domestic abuse. Taking into consideration the findings of the researchers, these occurrences are not surprising and are seemingly likely to continue if they are not addressed as a matter of urgency.

Research showed that neglect was the common form of abuse of children in the island and was most prevalent in the five to 11 age group. Boys, Mrs Willoughby noted, were more likely to be neglected than girls.

“Parents were the persons mostly responsible for neglecting children in 95 per cent of cases that we saw. They were also the ones more likely to be physically abusing children. Mothers were guilty of physical abuse and neglect in the majority of cases of parental abuse,” she said.

Recent instances of mothers being investigated and criminally charged in connection with allegations of abuse of their children tend to give added credence to her assertions. In most cases, defenceless children fell victim to those closest to them, whether parents, relatives or close family friends. The rape of young girls, especially those in their early teens, was cited as a major issue.

If one takes into consideration the scars that can eventuate as a result of the treatment meted out to many of our young boys and girls, subsequent adult criminality and perpetuation of a culture of abuse seem inevitable.

But despite the many saddening aspects of the findings by the Criminal Justice and Research Unit, most depressing was the response of the court system that one would expect to be in the vanguard of ensuring or facilitating the protection of our nation’s children. Mrs Willoughby revealed that a large number of cases reported to authorities were being dismissed or the perpetrators were given reduced sentences.

She did not state the circumstances under which such cases were dismissed and of course an accused is always presumed innocent until proven guilty. But it would be interesting to learn why such cases were dismissed – whether for lack of prosecution, the victims reaching the age of 16 and discontinuing the cases, unavailability of files, or other circumstances. Particularly damning, though, was the revelation that perpetrators were being given reduced sentences for offences against young children. Within the context of sending a message to those who would do our children harm, that finding seems rather incredulous.

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