Undiscovered jewels waiting to be explored!
That’s how Government Industrial School principal Irwin Leacock describes young people, particularly those who are institutionalized, but considered deviant by society, and punished for their actions.
“We do not like to take the time to find out their strengths, but we are good at telling them what they are doing wrong,” Leacock said.
He opts to take a different view, seeing the young charges at the Government Industrial School as “undiscovered jewels”, who are really resilient and able to weather challenges that may cause others to cringe.
“When you hear some of their stories, you have to ask how they survived, but, too often we concentrate on the negatives,” the principal stated, highlighting this as one of the major challenges faced when dealing with juvenile justice.
He contended that a significant number of children who were regarded as deviant were dealing with substance abuse issues; but when detoxified, the real child came out.
“That is when you see what is possible. The one thing we try to achieve is to find out the child’s potential; what they are good at,” he indicated.
These are among the key areas Leacock wants to see addressed as Barbados starts the process of redefining its juvenile justice system, starting with a National Juvenile Justice Conference next week.
Leacock wants to see a revamping of the juvenile justice system from its present structure to one that recognizes and acknowledges the various challenges and issues faced by some of those who come into the system.
In speaking to the challenges governing the present system, the principal noted that at the operational level, the laws governing the juvenile justice system in Barbados –– the Reformatory And Industrial Schools Act, 1926, and the Juvenile Offenders Act, 1932, were outdated, and “out of touch with today’s juvenile offenders”.
He added that the sentencing structure also needed to be modernized, to move away from the minimum three-year sentence, with younger offenders getting the maximum of five years –– taking them away from the family setting.
The principal lamented the fact that Barbados’ present system still had the tendency to put children in custody, despite the existence of the divergent programme [designed to channel children away from the law courts through the establishment of agencies]. He explained that after a child’s first contact with the police, there were agencies designed to intervene, such as the Juvenile Liaison Scheme and the Probation Department.
“When a child comes into custody, it should be because all other strategies have been exhausted,” Leacock stressed, noting that a court appearance and detention should always be seen as a last resort.
But, he charged, the system in its present structure, tended to place children in custody, and that while for some it might be beneficial as it offered structure and time to reassess, for others the same could not be said.
In 2013, 21 children, 12 males and nine females, were sentenced to custodial care at the Government Industrial School, ranging around age 14.
The principal added that while the public clamoured for punishment for juvenile offenders, research had shown that they had high needs for medical and psychological care, in addition to those needs that had caused them to offend in the first place.
Leacock used the example of juveniles, particularly females, who were detained for wandering.
“Some of these children live in precarious circumstances and make poor decisions to cope,” he stated.
At present, the most common offence for which children were remanded to the Government Industrial School was wandering, with females accounting for 53.3 per cent of the cases, and males 18.3 per cent.
He charged that there was a significant level of incestuous behaviour occurring in society, where young women were the victims of sexual abuse. As a result, he added, some of those girls turned inward while others responded by acting out
“Wandering attracts a charge which covers and camouflages other issues, especially with female offenders,” Leacock stated, noting society often stereotyped girls who ran away from home as being sexually active.
He noted, however, that when investigations were carried out, most of them were running away from situations within the very households in which they lived.
“But, we here in Barbados do not like to admit it or discuss it,” he claimed.
He added that while wandering was one of the main offences juveniles faced, authorities were becoming more concerned about rising numbers of young people being brought before the court for violent offences.
Leacock said it was important that all stakeholders recognized children were a part of a society that was dynamic and changing.
“Everything a society goes through, the behaviour of the children will be parallel. Therefore, if you have violent offences in the community, it would also be reflected in the behaviour of children,” he said while stressing that the young people merely mimicked the behaviour they saw.
He added that while troubled children could be found in many households, some children had better support systems; and their families had the means to provide proper interventions.
The one thing which he wants all stakeholders to consider, going forward, is to stop treating all unacceptable behaviour in a punitive manner.
The principal stated that a reformed juvenile justice system needed to place more emphasis on dealing with the backgrounds and risk factors that caused children to be brought before the law courts, rather than on their presenting behaviour.
“We are having victims come into custody. Yes, they infringed the law and indulged in behaviour which is against the law, but young people are prone to mistakes; mistakes made when they are trying to cope with horrible circumstances,”
the principal lamented.
The National Juvenile Justice Conference is scheduled to take place from April 21 to 23 at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre.