On the back of Child Month in Jamaica, Fight for Peace Country Lead in Jamaica, Kellie Magnus lays out the considerable challenges that face children and young people in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the power of a collective approach to these challenges, and what is required for our children to soar.*
Child Month in Jamaica this year was given the acronym SOAR: Strive to Overcome Adversities with Resilience, but it takes work to translate that momentum into the sustained, coordinated effort that drives change in young people’s lives.
The scale of challenges facing our children makes us hungry for a quick fix – a single programme, a snappy slogan that can make things right. COVID-19 has made it clear that there isn’t one, and has highlighted cracks in the systems meant to serve children.
High on the list of COVID-19 fatalities is the promise of childhood itself. On top of our ongoing challenges with low educational outcomes and violence, children are struggling with isolation due to the disruption of their regular routines. This has led to increasing levels of inequity in access to education and recreation, a higher risk of physical violence and more anxiety and depression among our children.
These challenges threaten the feeling of safety and security to which all children have a right, and the intellectual and emotional development that sets them up for adult life. COVID-19 has sharpened the inequities and inadequacies etched into the landscape of Jamaican children’s lives. That gives us the opportunity to look at them honestly. We see the inequity starkly in our education system.
Take the case of 17-year-old Lerone**, in Parade Gardens. A year ago, he was an avid athlete looking forward to sitting his CSEC examinations and graduating from high school. His school had no classes, online or offline, for six months. When the sessions finally started, he struggled to get a device.
“If I could just have access to online school regularly, I think I would be able to do well with my subjects,” he says.
RESILIENCE AND SUPPORT
Lerone’s resilience is what keeps him moving forward. We owe him more. We owe him a system that can provide him with the support he needs and deserves.
We see the inequity and inadequacy again when we look at social services which are under-resourced to meet the accelerating demand for services. With much of their intake processes dependent on face-to-face interactions, accessing services is now slower than they were before COVID-19.
“A lot of parents don’t ask for help because it’s so hard to get through,” says Michelle Harrison. “The information isn’t clear. The overlapping roles of agencies is confusing. And when they do get through, they are sometimes made to feel guilty because they can’t provide.”
Michelle is one of the psychologists on the Fight for Peace team in Jamaica who interacts daily with children and parents. To hear Michelle tell it, the emotional support for young people and parents is where we see the inadequacy writ large. Children and adults facing challenges need support to release their frustrations and negative emotions, to learn effective coping strategies, and to build their confidence to seek help. Some need access to long-term individual and family counselling.
As an NGO, Fight for Peace coordinates activities delivered by a Collective of partners – UP Unity & Peace – which gives us the flexibility to offer a range of services that can help the diverse needs of young people and their parents. But no service is more needed and less available than psychosocial support.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
There isn’t a single programme or agency that can help families facing challenges like these. It literally takes a village – one that has children and young people as its priority every day of the year.
When services are accessible, and young people and parents have support to access them, the results can be amazing. Like the young adult in Denham Town who went from being detained by the police, to launching his own cookshop in a few months – because his entrepreneurial spirit, drive and resilience were supported by a social worker’s commitment to helping him find a way through. She counselled him by telephone, helped him to work through his anger, and connected him to a grant opportunity offered by the Jamaica Social Investment Fund.
If we really want children to soar, we need a transformative strategy that takes us well beyond Child Month. One that provides meaningful investment into the social support services at both a national and community level. One that requires and provides an organised approach between all actors in the child development and protection space. One that prioritises accountability, holding adults and agencies responsible for doing their jobs and reporting results. One that addresses root causes and embeds solutions within community spaces.
*This blog post is an edited version of a longer form article originally published in the Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner.
**Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.