Curbing teen runaways: What is the government doing?

As the government works on establishing new measures to address the issue of children running away from home at what appears to be an alarming rate, the Minister of Social Transformation, Samantha Marshall, said the public needs to play a more active role in finding solutions.
She said the government recognises it is a serious issue and plans to hire a child psychologist, among other things, in the very near future. “Yes, we are limited with resources but we do offer services and people tend not to utilise the services until it gets to the worst case scenario and we are trying to deter that from happening. We are now focusing on engaging more counsellors and, even on contract, child psychologists. We are going to be advertising for that in the New Year,” she revealed to OBSERVER media yesterday.
Minister Marshall said such an individual will most likely not be from Antigua and Barbuda. She explained that this is because there aren’t many professionals here with this particular expertise. “We only have one or two main psychologists here who are fully engaged at the Clarevue [psychiatric hospital] and providing other services within the Government, so it is somewhat difficult. We did have a discussion with one, and recently we made an agreement where they would be able to assist us with some. But we know that there are a lot of matters that require that, so we need someone else to assist,” she elaborated.
OBSERVER media raised the issue with the minister in the wake of several teens running away from home, many of whom are still in school and who have run away before. Some are living with their parents, others are in foster care and some are in care and protection centres – with none of these institutions seeming to have a grip on the situation. Just last week, 13-yearold Dana Francis ran away from the home where she’s staying, while 16-year-old Ashwana Mills ran away in late November. Prior to that, Davincia Roy ran away, and so did Andre Donalds. Joan Walter, 17, did likewise this past Saturday, December 8. Shaniqua Joseph ran away from her father’s home but showed at her mother’s home yesterday morning. Those are just a few of the teens who were reported missing in recent times.
So far, police sources said there have been more than 15 such reports for the year. Many of those cases involved teens who ran away before and were already receiving help from the various state agencies and non-government organisations. Marshall said many people in the society seem to believe the ministry isn’t doing much to address the problem, but this is not the reality. “There are times when people are of the view that we do not do anything, but if we do not get the information then we hit a block wall and it is harder for us to really assist them. But at the same time, as I said, counselling after the fact is voluntary. They have to be willing to come in and do it, and if they don’t come then we have this recurrence,” she said. When asked to elaborate, she indicated that parents drag their feet when it comes to reporting that a child has run away, instead waiting until the problem has reached “crisis” stage before seeking intervention.
“I think that in some instances the family would have an idea where the child went, but number one, families are embarrassed when it happens, so they are hesitant to make that call. Number two, sometimes they have an idea or believe they have an idea where the children may go and they hope that the children will return, and when they don’t return within the time period they anticipate is when they sound the alarm,” she reported.
Once the child returns home, another problem rears its head, and that is, parents withdraw from counselling, do not take the child for counselling and for the other services being provided, and they become non-cooperative. Marshall said it is difficult for the police or other authorities to take action against anyone for “harbouring” the children, which is a criminal offence because in the majority of the cases, the child is found in a public place, or in an abandoned house and they do not divulge any information as to where they were or who they were with. She added that although people within the communities know, they choose to remain silent. “So what you have are groups of individuals, or individuals who may go out trying to assist, but although you may find the individual you’re still left with the problem. And the families, once they find the child, do not come back in for additional counselling, and that is necessary to allow the stability and to really find what is the real issue and to address the issues.”
According to Marshall, who is also a lawyer, the authorities cannot simply lock up the parents or children, or force them to engage in counselling. “You cannot lock them up and force counselling. It has to be a voluntary situation. You have to have that opportunity to be able to encourage them to do so, and it is necessary not just for the child, because people assume the child is the one with the problem. Yes the child is the one who manifests the problem, but there is a problem within the family structure that needs to be addressed. “And so, when we do the counselling, the counselling is aimed at not just the child, although you may start with the child initially as you try and ascertain what are the issues, it is really a situation for counselling for the whole family,” she said.
This is where Marshall emphasised that the public can get involved in looking out for each other, reporting what they know and helping each other in many other ways. “We have to help them and it’s not just the government who has an obligation to help, we are asking families, communities, churches, to come out and give the support, non-profit organisations, it is not about bashing the government. It is about looking at the situation where we can find out the real help that is needed for these individuals and try to give them the help,” the social transformation minister appealed.