CHAIRMAN of the Violence Prevention Alliance (VPA) Professor Elizabeth Ward is concerned that the novel coronavirus pandemic has diverted attention from more serious and violent crimes against children.

This follows data which indicates that one in five individuals who present to emergency rooms in Jamaica for violence-related types of injury are children under age 20.

Professor Ward told the Jamaica Observer that the Jamaica Injury Surveillance System (JIIS) – the Ministry of Health and Wellness’s data collection system in the accident and emergency hospitals – covers nine of the largest hospitals.

In 2020, according to Professor Ward, the total sample size for violence-related injuries was 6,916 individuals, for which approximately 20 per cent were children under the age of 20.

“More violence is happening in homes and more serious violence like stabbings are happening in homes. You usually say this happening on the streets but with COVID and curfews they’ve moved inside, and then what happens when they move inside is [that] the women and children are more exposed,” Professor Ward said.

In relation to violent injuries, Professor Ward told the Sunday Observer that the most common injuries in children stem from fights or child abuse. However, the VPA chairman said when the sample is separated by male and female, sexual abuse is more prominent. Of the 6,916 who presented to emergency rooms in 2020, Professor Ward said 2,476 were women.

“What we mainly see in children is fights. The other thing we mainly see in children child abuse. Those are the two main things we see in children. However, when you begin to look at girls, what comes into the picture now is sexual assault. Among boys, the circumstance is fights. We do get a few robbery-, burglary- and gang-related injuries. Also, not all sexual assaults are in girls,” Professor Ward said.

In addition, Professor Ward told the Sunday Observer that the latest Women’s Health Survey, which had a sample of women between the ages of 15 and 64, highlight that 80 per cent of our children have experienced or witnessed violence and 60 per cent of children experience violence at school.

Professor Ward said that survey points to one in four women experiencing physical or sexual violence from a partner or non-partner. She said one in five girls also experience sexual abuse.

“Most of the people who did the sexual abuse among the children were known, with over 43 per cent of them being friends or acquaintances and 15 per cent of them being family members,” Professor Ward said. “

Consequently, the VPA chairman is calling for a review into the way agencies respond and provide treatment, and for interventions to be adapted so as to better suit the COVID-19 environment.

“Studies show that majority of adult perpetrators had actually witnessed violence in their communities and homes. What the data represents is adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which shows that when you grow up you’re twice as likely to be engaged in violence if you were exposed to it at a young age. You’re also likely to have an increased level of mental health issues, alcoholism [and] even chronic noncommunicable diseases increase because of high-level exposure to violence,” Professor Ward said. “When looking at prevention you have to realise our population is seriously traumatised and all our prevention programmes need to have a trauma management component. We need to move away from punishment. The data shows us that punishment modalities such as boot camps and other types of military experiences do not reduce the engagement in violence. You have to treat the trauma in these persons.”

The VPA chairman said an appropriate and cost-effective response is to reduce children’s exposure to violence and intervene early with appropriate multilevel interventions.

“There is a programme we have called ‘Safe Dates’, which teaches people how to go on a date, how to have a relationship. There is ‘Stepping Stones’, which looks at communication and relationship skills. Children First runs a programme called ‘MAN’ (Male Awareness Now) which helps males deal with issues, anger and how to build up self-esteem and further their educational levels. There is also the Coalition for Adolescent Leadership Training done in the north-east parishes which takes boys, puts them with male mentors, and deals with issues of sexuality and gender. These interventions have to be timed to big changes in the children’s lives – going into high school, puberty, when you’re leaving high school and going to tertiary education. If you could do these programmes and do them well, the evidence is there that they work. [But] these programmes that work can’t be just one intervention – they have to have multiple inputs into the programme,” Professor Ward said.

Meanwhile, Professor Ward also called for more effective case management in children who are victims of violence.

“There needs to be more risk assessment on victims to ensure they get the type of intervention they need. We have child and adolescent clinics but in some cases the clinic is open once or twice a month in rural parishes, while in Kingston the clinics are opened every day of the week. So you should be really having weekly clinics but there is need for more supervisory level staff – child psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers. If we have as many children who’ve reached hospital they should be case-managed and screened and treated accordingly.,” Professor Ward said.

She added: “We have the clinics but we need more routine hands, and not just projects. We are paying for it with the impact – mental health issues with children, parents and families. There is more frustration with people stuck at home. All of these things worsen mental health issues and increases opportunities for violence.”

Jamaica Observer