Were there a proven handbook for the raising of children that guaranteed perfect outcomes, it would be a best seller.
Some Christian fundamentalists may argue that the perfect guide is the Holy Bible, but even the Holy Word does not make guarantees that the children will grow into ideal adults.
We in Barbados are challenged with increasing levels of delinquency by children, young adults, and even older members of our society. And as much as we would like to deny it, in most cases, children who come into conflict with the law or “acting out” are the products of some kind of trauma in their lives.
The debate that currently engulfs us surrounds the treatment of children, both boys and girls, who are under the care of the state in the Government Industrial Schools (GIS).
While focus has been on the girls due to recent escape attempts and allegations of abuse, we have been informed that claims of mistreatment have been levelled about the state campus for boys.
We have come to accept the status quo that GIS is the place to send young people who may be criminally bent or are uncontrollable, to have them “straightened out”. Disclosures, though, in recent months have alerted the public to the fact that “runaways”, who want to escape conditions at their homes and who themselves may be victims of abuse or neglect, were being treated not as victims but as quasi criminals.
The current debate has also caused the public to be sensitised about the origin and reason for GIS’ existence. Many of us are alarmed that these industrial schools and the legislation surrounding their existence dates back to a period we would all rather put behind us.
The allegations of mistreatment, accompanied by outdated modes of discipline, including the placing of children in cells in a state of nakedness, serves to shame us as a civilized society.
Victims of human trafficking are no longer viewed as complicit in these activities which can range from prostitution to domestic servitude.
Many of these women who end up working in strip clubs or on the streets are not charged when authorities hold them. They are recognized as victims. So why are children (boys and girls) who are seeking to escape troubled homes or are the victims of criminal activity such as rape and physical abuse, treated as “criminals” and charged with the crime of wandering?
When we examine the history of industrial schools, it is appalling that we have maintained such institutions with their origins in such an unenlightened period.
In Ireland, for example, industrial schools were established for “neglected, orphaned and abandoned children” with more than 5,000 such children by 1884. In England, the 1857 Industrial Schools Act was “intended to solve problems of juvenile delinquency by removing poor and neglected children from their home environment” and placing them in these schools.
While the industrial schools provided some reform, it is documented that they were “notorious for the rampant sexual, physical and mental abuse” at the hands of religious groups that ran them for the state.
This is 2022 and we in Barbados have the capacity to improve the conditions and the circumstances under which we care for our wards. They require counselling, love, and a feeling of self-worth so that they become worthwhile citizens of whom we can be proud.
We cannot afford to create a system in which wards of the GIS graduate to become adult wards of our penal system.
The Minister of Home Affairs’ efforts to try to get to the bottom of the debacle at GIS is commendable and we hope that implementable solutions are forthcoming at the end of the process.
We believe that children should be extended the same rights and protections as adults who find themselves in the court system. We also believe that there needs to be a greater focus on education and reform of youngsters at GIS. But most important, greater resources must be allocated to projects that keep children out of the juvenile justice system.
As a country that seeks to be recognised as enlightened and caring, we do not want the situation at GIS to become a blotch on our national reputation.
We must address the matters, not simply for window dressing but because we truly want to do good by our young citizens.