Office of Children’s Advocate seeking Armadale survivors


On May 22, 2009, a horrific fire at Armadale Juvenile Correctional Facility in St. Ann killed 7 girls and injured 13 others. In this state-run facility, 23 girls shared one room with seven beds. They had limited access to sanitation facilities, were confined indoors for the majority of their time and were provided with very little in the way of education, stimulation or regular, nutritious meals.

The seven deceased were named Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, Rachael King, Kaychell Nelson, Shauna-Lee Kerr, Georgina Saunders and Stephanie Smith and were all between the ages of 15 and 17. The fire was allegedly started by a guard who set it in response to being rejected by one of the girls. The injustices of this situation are innumerable, starting with the fact that the majority of these girls were confined because the state declared them “uncontrollable”. This term, which the government has since promised to strike from the legislation, allowed judges to remand youth to custody for minor “offences” such as running away from home. Further to this unjustified and arbitrary designation by the state, according to reports, the girls had been “locked down” for three weeks and could not escape because of this.

The conditions in the facility also contravened international law as they did not meet the United Nation’s Beijing Convention, which sets out minimum standards of care. (Read a report on the issue from Jamaicans for Justice here).

Last year, I did a report on juveniles in state care for 18 Degrees North (skip to second clip in link) and during my research, met one of the survivors of the fire, Candene. She is beautiful and brave and humbled me with her courage. She now makes her way through life with thick scars on her arm and burdened by the trauma of the fire and seeing her friends perish. She also advocates for herself and her peers. (Read a report of the fire from a survivor here.)

Jamaica’s Office of the Children’s Advocate is now seeking compensation from the government for the victims of the fire. It seems they have been reaching out for several months now, with newspaper advertisements and perhaps other means, without success. I know from my research that it is hard to locate these girls, as many do not have regular access to a cell phone or live in rural areas. In addition, their justified lack of trust in the government likely means they are reluctant to contact a state agency. However, they are due compensation and justice, although I suspect that no apology or monetary figure could ever make up for what they experienced.

I was able to speak with Nicole Wright, a lawyer with the Office of the Children’s Advocate. She told me that to date, NO girls represented by the OCA have received compensation. The OCA is in the process of going over previous similar cases, drafting estimates and presenting them to the Ministry of Justice. So far, the Ministry has rejected all of the OCA’s proposals. They are “far less than what we have asked for,” says Wright. “We have not settled any yet and we are not accepting” the figure that the government has come back with, she says, adding that it is a challenge to quantify the damages and trauma the girls experienced.

Wright admits she is having trouble locating some of the girls, some because their phone numbers have changed, others have moved, and some just don’t want to deal with the state or they are concerned about people in their community thinking they will receive a lot of money. “That is very disturbing to me,” Wright says.

By the numbers, there were 61 wards at Armadale when the fire occurred; 23 in the “office dorm” and 38 in the “cottage dorm”. The OCA is currently representing five of the deceased, and 55 girls in total. It has filed claims for 33 girls (some have signed the witness statements but some have not been located yet) and four other girls are represented by private lawyers. Two girls represented by private attorneys have received compensation. The trial will occur between July 7 and 18 of this year.

If Ms. Wright could talk to the girls she cannot locate, here is the message she would give them: “We would love for you to come in and talk to us, even if you are not interested (in compensation),” she says, adding that the OCA was established to represent children.

I leave you with this message from the equally brave and beautiful Moira Morgan, who founded The Griffin Trust, has worked closely with many of the survivors. Moira has taken them in like they are her own family, unconditionally. I also interviewed Moira for the piece I did and her commitment to these girls and her fierce drive to protect them was evident in the tears she shed during the interview.

I am putting a shout out to all my Armadale girls those i met at Diamond Crest and those i never got to meet. on a very serious note all the girls from both dorms who need to contact the Office of The Children’s Advocate, urgently……. Call 948 3771 ask for Nicole Wright,

All the girls have an entitlement to some compensation, and the packages are now being worked on……. but you need to sign up with the OCA NOW… they have a close off date of tomorrow for your registration, after that it will take longer again to sort it out. Call them on

Some of you know some others, please come forward……. you can call me on 868 **** ……… Don’t lose out and don’t let others lose out…….. even if you never like them
Candi Cane, Sherice Osheen Flemming, Lafaine Smith, Erica Blackbeauty Samuels, Samantha Meggo, Ashanti Ukkubit Sotightlyblessed, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD…. THIS IS FOR REAL……

Cuso International facing shortfall


I have been a volunteer with Cuso International for almost two years now in Kingston, Jamaica. In addition to the work we carry out on-the-ground, we are also responsible for raising funds to help support the organization. I have just been alerted to the fact that Cuso is facing a $100,000 shortfall for the fiscal year, which ends March 31, 2014. And I would like to continue to try to do my part to raise funds to support this wonderful organization. I have raised some of the $2,000 we commit to, but still have a ways to go. Please visit my personal fundraising page and donate if you can. You can learn more about me and what Cuso does around the world.

Over the past couple of years, Cuso (along with many other groups in the international development realm) has faced financial uncertainty as the Canadian government reconsiders its foreign policy and its larger role on the international stage. Of late, the Harper government is shifting its foreign policy such that it is fueled more by economic interests than with previous administrations.

I am biased, of course, but I strongly urge you to donate to Cuso so that it can continue the wonderful work it is doing around the world. Thank you in advance for your support.

Some R.Kelly on way to work


My route to work consists of one coaster bus and then a route taxi at a cost of $100 each (about $1.00 US). Lately, because of a crackdown by police on PPVs, (public passenger vehicles) they have been less insane and more placid. This means less night-club decible-level music blaring, less aggressive driving and less tinted windows. I almost miss the chaos but appreciate the relative increase in safety and predictability.

The route taxis, however, have still not been subjected to a crackdown, so they remain rickety and continue to careen and swerve down Kingston’s main roads. It has become a habit for me to lock the door if I am squished against it, since five or sometimes more people are packed in, thus testing the capacity of the vehicle.

In any case, this morning I was treated to luxury: a clean, new route taxi with tinted windows, air-conditioning and a television playing R.Kelly/Isley Brothers videos. Lovely.

“A Bloody Mystery”


A Bloody Mystery

Bloody-baby

Yesterday’s front page of the Jamaica Observer featured this headline and picture. It was certainly eye-catching. And then I read the story and was creeped out. According to parents Linval Grant and Vicky Forrest, their twin girls (aged 17 months), have woken up bloody, bruised and with bite marks on their skin. In addition, the family has seen “baby sized” figures in their home.

From a journalistic point of view, I cannot understand the newsworthiness of such an article. It seems more voyeuristic than anything. This is a destitute family, living in a “rotten” home that is infested by rats and even mongoose. Towards the end of the story, the family says it needs money.

Would this story have been written or made front page if it had been a wealthy family? I’m not sure. The newspapers here seem obsessed with portraying people from lower socio-economic classes in a certain way that is voyeuristic and reinforces the notion of the poor as “the other.”

We will likely never know the explanation behind these strange occurrences in this story. Maybe the Observer will follow up, maybe they won’t. Perhaps people will even offer support after reading this story. This has happened before and can be one positive outcome of the media focusing on the plight of poor people.

One could even argue that this article was written in a relatively respectful way in that it tells the story in a straightforward manner, ie it is taken as fact. However, this is also a drawback as there is no verification, no clarification, no other voices that could lend possible explanations. As a result, the audience is left wondering about the point of the story and left to fill in the blanks.

In any case, I am preparing to do some media training, so thoughts of newsworthiness and media ethics are on my mind. This article certainly provides some food for thought.

Children’s Treat in Jacques Road, Mountain View


Yesterday, dozens of children in the community of Jacques Road in Mountain View turned out to enjoy a bouncy castle, mini-merry-go-round, some presents and good food. Hosted by the Jacques Road Parenting Association, the treat for the neighbourhood’s children was held at 63 Mountain View Avenue in partnership with the Social Development Commission and other contributors such as Lasco and the Bashy Bus. CB Chicken and Food for the Poor provided generous donations of food for the children. The Tax Administration of Jamaica were also present to register people for a Taxpayer Registration Number, which is an important component of citizenship in Jamaica.

The community of Jacques Road, under the leadership and guidance of Ann Marie Lynch and Pastor Francena Pryce, has made great strides in reducing crime and violence, poverty and teenage pregnancy. Pryce and Lynch have worked hard, and they also attribute the positive changes to the presence of Youth Opportunities Unlimited, which originally started working there in 2003.

Yesterday’s event saw hundreds of people from the community attend to watch the children have some fun and enjoy some treats they don’t usually get. And there was no mistaking their delight: shrieks of joy, smiles and even patience as they waited for their friends to finish their turns on the rides.

I was also able to catch up with Jovan, a talented young poet and writer who continues to practice his craft while working at Burger King since November. He is one of the community’s young leaders and continue to work hard to achieve his goals.

In addition to this children’s treat, Jacques Road is celebrating a milestone with the founding of its Parenting Association. It will also officially open its Internet Cafe this Wednesday, which was built in part with help from the Canadian Navy, and celebrate its new and improved Homework Centre. Stay tuned for a report on this and enjoy your Sunday.

Kingston’s roads blocked, not for Kartel’s trial, but for hundreds of children


Yesterday I had to venture downtown to collect a document. As I wrote about yesterday, the murder trial of dancehall artist Vybz Kartel is ongoing, with the verdict expected any day now. (It is suspended today:

As a result, police have blocked off roads and are standing around on corners and setting up tents on roofs and carrying high powered weapons. Or at least this was the way the media presented the situation yesterday.

However, as I made my way down the narrow streets, it was eerily calm and quiet. I’ve never seen it so peaceful downtown, in fact. It is usually a lively, crowded place full of office workers and vendors. There was definitely a strong police presence surrounding the Supreme Court, but the barriers had been taken down. Perhaps this was an attempt to de-escalate the situation, or perhaps it was in response to the fact that it seems the decision will now be delivered next week and today deliberations are suspended, as indicated in the tweet above.

In any case, I retrieved my document and walked over to the Supreme Court to see what was going on. Not much, actually. It looked the way it always does. I then caught a route taxi out of the downtown core, and quickly hit some major traffic. Vehicles were at a standstill, which is not unusual, but I saw the cause: hundreds of children in navy blue uniforms walking, holding signs, chanting and marching.

I abandoned my taxi and started to walk with them. It turns out it is Founder’s Week for the Scout Association of Jamaica. I chatted briefly with one woman walking beside the children, who were walking in rows of three, holding hands and sweating in the sun. They were on their way to the Governor General’s residence and had been walking miles. Literally miles in dark uniforms in the mid-day sun. In any case, it was a delightful diversion and quite a sight to see- hundreds of children walking on Kingston’s main roads, blocking traffic. This is a preferable alternative to roads being blocked by barriers that are erected in anticipation of confrontation between Kartel supporters and authorities should he be found guilty.

Kartel trial set to end any day


Streets are sealed off downtown and police are forming barriers with their bicycles in order to block citizens from getting close to the Supreme Court. The reason for this is that the trial of Adidja Palmer, more commonly known as dancehall artist Vybz Kartel, is set to end any day now.

Kartel is on trial for murder and has been incarcerated for 30 months. Although he comes from a relatively comfortable upbringing in Portmore (which is the equivalent of a suburb of Toronto), Kartel is like a folk hero to many people in Jamaica. To be specific, he is a hero to people who don’t come from the wealthy “uptown” neighbourhoods, to the people who don’t trust that the police have their best interests at heart. And despite the fact that he has been incarcerated for over two years, his music remains popular, blaring from coasters and taxis and new singles being released at a torrid rate. (In fact, he put a triple album out late last year).

People are already gathering in anticipation of the verdict and some are picking fights with police. Their comments (from the Gleaner article) are telling:

“Kartel! Kartel! World Boss rule di place!” screamed an elderly woman, as police personnel armed with high-powered weapons and pepper spray came out in their numbers, seemingly well prepared. Some civilians, including attorneys, complained that the law-enforcement officers were overreacting.

The shouts of the numerous fans who gathered in downtown Kingston to pay homage to the incarcerated entertainer under punishing heat grew louder as the cops pitched tent on the roof of the Supreme Court, with high-powered weapons in hand.

An elderly woman complained that there was no reason for the large gathering of fans or police as the embattled entertainer was not as big in stature as the senior Coke.

“Him no big like Jim Brown, so why should so many policemen come out?” she said.

Commentators state that the trial is more about fighting “Babylon” and the “system” than it is about Kartel himself. And this seems to be true, judging by the type of people showing up downtown (tattooed, bleached young people). Read a couple of perspective here and here.

Whatever the verdict, let’s hope that downtown remains peaceful, wherever the world boss ends up.

JSPCA


I’ve been trying to write a coherent blog post for too long this morning, but it’s not happening. The reason is that I’m thrown off today by what I witnessed early this morning. I was returning from a workout (under the moon and stars at Jamaica College) with a running group. We received a plyometrics training workout from a strength and conditioning coach from London, who is in town training some Jamaican athletes.

In any case, I was almost at home, running on Hope Road, when a black and white dog darted out in front of me. It came from a side street out of nowhere, and unfortunately, a Jamaica Defence Force truck slammed into it. The sound was a loud, sickening bang and then I saw the dog trying to get up from under the front right tire. It eventually bounced back up and sprinted away, back into traffic. It seemed ok, but I don’t think it is. Adrenaline was probably numbing the pain, enabling it to run away. I am still deeply disturbed even though this happens countless times every day in Kingston.

There are thousands of stray dogs, skinny and listless, in Jamaica. It is heartbreaking. They lie around on the sidewalks, scavenge for food and generally leave people alone because they are too malnourished and starving to interact with people. The Jamaica Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tries to do its part, but it just can’t keep up.

The JSPCA has been around for more than 100 years and helps over 300 animals per week, according to its web site. The shelter is located right near Half Way Tree (near my apartment actually, in fact, sometimes I hear the dogs barking) and is equipped with a maternity ward, an isolation unit, a laboratory and surgical suites. There are also four vet techs and three veterinarians on staff. They do some good work. If you want to donate or volunteer, click here.

Police forces still protecting planation masters in JA, says Police Superintendent


In terms of socio-economic status dictating who floats to the top, who settles at the bottom and all those who rest somewhere in the middle, class competes with skin colour here in Jamaica. That is to say that where you went to school, what your parents do, how much money you have, what car you drive, what parties you go to and what your job is are factors that are just as, if not more, important than skin colour. I have been in numerous meetings during which, upon introductions, people question one another about their provenances. There is then a moment of appraisal as people decide where their new acquaintance falls socially and then everyone behaves accordingly.

Of course, this is not unique to Jamaica. Neither is the fact that people do not like to talk about it. That is why these statements from a high-ranking officer are so remarkable. Superintendent of Police Fitz Bailey the other day spoke bluntly about this phenomenon, as it has proven detrimental to vulnerable members of society.

Read the full article here from the Gleaner.

Senior Superintendent of Police Fitz Bailey, in charge of the St Andrew Central Division, believes classism in Jamaica is an obstacle to the nation achieving justice and tranquility.

Bailey, who was a guest speaker at the Peace for Champs devotion held yesterday at the Church of God in August Town, St Andrew, reflected on the reason for the existence of the police force.

“The situation of the police force being created to protect plantation master still exists, and we have to change it,” said Bailey. “We see where (there is) inequity in the distribution of wealth, and there was never a time where we saw equal distribution of wealth. The minimum wage can hardly do anything for those who earn it.”

He added: “Every citizen in this country needs to be appreciated and feel a sense of belonging. Jamaica is not at peace; we are in a state of war. It’s about people understanding their purpose and being a part of society.”
Said Bailey: “We cannot have a just society where there is disparity.”