Their Day in Court: justice for kids in Jamaica

Keisha (not her real name) was worried that what happened to her would happen to her siblings. So the slight 10-year-old made the walk alone – even her mother didn’t know – through the alleys and streets of West Kingston to the closest police station.

Past the cinderblock houses capped with corrugated tin, past the tiny corner snack shops, past the local betting shop.

“I had to go because my dad did something bad to me,” she reveals in a soft voice. The young girl says she was raped by her father when she was six, and again when she was nine.

Keisha lives in Jamaica. While tourists may know only one side of the Caribbean country – the turquoise seas, rum and reggae – it is a diverse land ranging from bucolic rural rhythms to blue mountain vistas to edgy urban beats.

While Jamaica is rich in culture and history, it struggles with poverty and crime. With a population approaching three million – 30 percent of whom are children and youth – it has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Much of the violence takes place in Kingston, the nation’s political and industrial capital. It’s a colourful collage of modern buildings, colonial architecture, and the creative chaos of inner-city communities immortalized in the songs of music legends Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. These neighbourhoods can be dangerous, scarred by social problems and poverty of opportunity. And it is one of these so-called garrison towns that Keisha calls home.

Courting change

The alleged assaults against Keisha (the case has not yet gone to court) would be terrible enough, but the girl’s journey into the Jamaican justice system can also be traumatic. Too many cases fall apart when youth are too frightened to testify – and the children usually go back to the same community as their now-freed attackers.

“Children in Jamaica are, frankly, treated as just another witness, and they are often intimidated and don’t get through their evidence very effectively,” says Judge John McGarry, a retired superior court judge from Ontario who volunteered in Jamaica with Cuso International, a Canadian development organization.

“I sat in on a case, and I saw this 12-year-old sitting outside. Sitting across from her was the accused. There she was, having to go in and testify against the person who was staring right at her. She lasted about 15 minutes before she ran from the court room crying.”

During his volunteer placement, Judge McGarry worked with the office of the Chief Justice of Jamaica to learn about the situation of children in the court system, and make recommendations on how to better support youth. His ideas included children giving testimony on video, or at least behind a screen so they don’t have to look at the perpetrator. The suggestions have helped shape a new Evidence Act that will help make the process more child-friendly.

The government has also set up the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse, a one-stop destination for child victims. “They can go there with police, be examined, meet with a social worker, give their initial testimony by video,” says Judge McGarry, who has returned to the Caribbean at the request of the Jamaican government, to head the Justice Reform Implementation Unit. “I wish we had centres like it in Canada.”

A safe space

School is over for the day, and Keisha is at the West Kingston satellite office of the Victim Support Unit, in a cement building with no sign outside to let on what is happening inside. Her orange school shirt tucked neatly into her blue skirt, she sits in a small room with comfortable chairs. A plastic kitchen play set is in one corner, and in another two small cloth dolls – a mom and a dad – peer from behind a stack of books.

Keisha is talking to Jhodi Ann Bowie, a counsellor who offers emotional comfort. “You know that when your Dad is in court, he won’t be able to hurt you, right?” reassures Jhodi, a calm, warm but in-control presence.

“Because everyone there is watching me to keep me safe,” replies the girl, holding a pillow tightly in her lap.

“That’s what we’re all there for, the police, mommy, and me, we’re going to be there to protect you and to support you so you don’t have to feel as scared. And remember, anytime you’re feeling nervous, just take some deep breaths.”

In the past, there was little or no support for children like Keisha, so the Jamaican Ministry of Justice’s Victim Support Unit, the Office of the Children’s Advocate, Canadian agency Cuso, and Unicef created the ‘Children in Court’ program.

“We give the children emotional support through counselling sessions,” says Jhodi, a trained social worker. “We don’t coach them, we don’t tell them what to say, we just answer their questions and try to make them feel comfortable so they can give their best testimony.”

She gets out the wooden model of a court room, different coloured pegs with velcro on the bottom standing in for the judge, lawyers, police, defendants and witnesses. “So do you remember who this person is in the court?” Jhodi asks the young girl.

“The judge.”

“The judge, that’s right. And these are the police officers, they are the ones that will come outside the court room and call out your name. And one of these lawyers…”

“…is going to be with my dad.”

“That’s right, and the other one is working for Jamaica to try and show that your dad did what you said he did.”

Giving a voice to the voiceless

Onyka Barrett, originally from Trinidad & Tobago, is working with the Ministry of Justice, helping implement and standardize the kids in court initiative across Jamaica.

“You’re seeing how depressed children can get,” says Onyka, “you’re seeing how it’s affecting them because they no longer have self-esteem, they no longer have confidence in themselves. That’s why we support them, why it’s necessary to help orient them. To tell them what to expect.”

“And once they know that, it reduces the level of fear that they feel, and they are better able to speak and give their evidence in court. Having a program like this gives the witness a voice in justice being served in their best interest.”

For Tarik Perkins, a Jamaican community worker, justice in his country is also a development issue. “You can think of access to justice as the enabling environment for economic and social development. The poor need to have confidence in the system, that they can make a living and know there is recourse if they are robbed, or are victims of corruption.”

“With no security, no justice, it’s hard to start a business or to grow a business. And we need youth involved in the economy, that’s why we have this focus on children and young adults.”

Speaking in Trench Town, with Bob Marley’s old house on one side and a community reading centre on the other, Tarik sees potential in the children that are playing in the street. “When you think of poverty in Jamaica, you think of places like this…lack of educational opportunities, limited healthcare, depressed economy, crumbling physical infrastructure. But look around, there is a community library that is an oasis for children, a cultural tourism business, a greenhouse.”

“People are working hard here, there is an entrepreneurial spirit. You can feel the hope.”

Back in West Kingston, just a reggae beat away from Trench Town, Jodie is saying goodbye to the young girl after that day’s counselling session.

“Once you’ve finished in court, you are going to feel so relieved, because you will know that you don’t have to go back and you did your best and that’s all that matters. Do you feel nervous about going?”

“A little,” replies the girl, who hopes to be a doctor someday. “But I’m getting stronger already.”

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