Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) welcomes the announcement by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information to review the government’s support for foster parents and implement improved monitoring measures.[i] While public announcements are easy to make, only their meaningful implementation will improve outcomes for children in state care. Any review must take significant steps – not cosmetic gestures – to finally make fostering a viable option for Jamaicans. We await action.
Children in state care must be a budgetary priority
Foster families receive a meagre subvention of $4,000 per month. Since 2008, multiple stakeholders have unsuccessfully requested its increase, along with improvements in the support system for foster parents. The power to achieve this rests with Cabinet, whose weak policy leadership and chronic implementation deficits, have stymied effective reform. Children are critical to sustainable development. They are as deserving of financial support as are other areas of governance. We note that a study by the Office of the Children’s Advocate (OCA) concluded that it would take an estimated $10,416 per month ($125,000 per year) to provide basic, decent care to a foster child.[ii] “The proposed increase must be meaningful and grounded in evidence – not a paltry token masquerading as reform,” noted Rodje Malcolm, Advocacy Manager at JFJ,
We recall that in 2011 the OCA formally recommended – for the second time – an increase in the subvention for foster families, which was not granted. However, that same year, Cabinet located the funds to increase their own allocation for the purchase of motor vehicles for ministers and other officials by over half a million Jamaican dollars per vehicle to US$35,000 (3 million JMD at the time). Cabinet noted that “cost…has been appreciating globally.”[iii] We call on Cabinet to apply similar logic to the children under its care, who must be a budgetary priority.
From facilities to families: fostering must be a viable option
In order for outcomes for children in state care to meaningfully improve, there must be a paradigm shift towards increased placement of children in family environments as opposed to in residential facilities such as children’s homes and places of safety. These facilities can be overcrowded and hostile, depriving children of individual support essential to their wellbeing. JFJ research shows that children in residential facilities face greater risks to their development than children in family environments. Yet, this is where the majority of children have traditionally been held. From 2011 to 2015, an average of 2,062 children lived in children’s homes and places of safety, while on average 906 lived in foster care. This imbalance needs to be urgently reversed.
JFJ has independently reviewed over 1,700 critical incident reports from children’s homes and places of safety that paint a disturbing picture of physical and sexual abuse by peers, community members and even caregivers, numerous individual health emergencies, and serious psycho-social disorders, among other issues. The prevalence of critical incidents is unique to residential facilities because the abilities of staff to provide direct supervision and care are stretched among several children, all with urgent needs, and limited by dire resource constraints. Any viable solution must both improve support to and conditions inside facilities and make fostering a viable alternative. To its credit, the Child Development Agency (CDA) has sought to bolster its Living in Family Environment (LIFE) program; however, without decisive action by Cabinet to decrease the financial barriers to becoming a foster parent, progress will remain unsustainable.
The problems facing children in state care are severe and multi-dimensional. Jamaicans for Justice calls on the government to:
- Increase the subvention provided to foster families to a suitable figure capable of maximizing the level of care for wards of the state and decreasing financial barriers to fostering in Jamaica. Children have waited a decade for change.
- Bolster monitoring and oversight of foster care environments to safeguard the rights of wards of the state though the promulgation of robust standards for care and increased contact between caseworkers and families.
- Increase the subvention provided to private children’s homes to a suitable figure capable of meeting their operational needs
- Complete the review of the Child Care and Protection Act (2004) to improve the administration of child care services island-wide
- Complete the review of the Children (Adoption of) Act (1958) to remove archaic obstacles to adoption that constrain the removal of children from state care to caring families. Children deserve better than colonial legislation.