SEXUAL predators have gone on a rampage since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions started in March, assaulting a number of children who were forced to stay home after Government ordered school shut in the face of the pandemic.
Head of the Ministry of Justice’s Victim Services Division Osbourne Bailey, in an interview with the Jamaica Observer, expressed dismay that sexual crimes against children were rivalling those against adults. While emphasising that it is still early days yet and too soon to declare a trend, he said the numbers seen over the two-month period just ended are cause for much concern.
According to Bailey, of the just over 700 victims who came into contact with the division in March, 368 were new, while for the month of April there were 379 new cases.
“The crimes that are associated with these numbers are a wide range of sex-related crimes, which is a cause for alarm, because the normal feeling is that, during these times, given the fear for interaction [and] the promotion of social and physical distancing, that crime would be reduced. You may have seen the police report for St Ann that says they, too, saw an alarming increase in that level of crime,” he said.
The Victim Services Division, said Bailey, has had to be counselling more victims of “sexual savagery” since March.
“There has been a major commotion [during the work-at-home order] to focus on intimate partner violence on the premise that with people so much closer to one another — and there were many anecdotal evidence nationally and internationally — that during this time the potential for the rise of these incidents cannot be understated. I believe we have to be mindful of that. But [instead], what we saw was more a rise in sex crimes. It could be a one-off, and I would not like for us to raise an alarm, [but] we just saw in one month that there were some reasons to begin to pay attention to that,” Bailey said.
He, however, noted that the numbers were enough for him to issue a caution on behalf of children, in particular, who have been out of school since March on account of the pandemic and are not slated to return until September.
According to Bailey, for the month of April children under 11 years of age accounted for 45 sexual cases reported to his division, while children 12 to 17 years of age accounted for 114 cases. Those in the over 18 (legally adults) factored in 186 cases. Overall, Bailey said 291 females and 88 males fell victim.
At the same time, he said there were 78 reports of domestic-related incidents and 65 other crimes that were brought to the attention of the Victim Services Division.
“…We should not lose focus as it relates to sex crimes against children. Overall the trend has been that these children become victims usually through those closest to them, so if a child becomes a victim of, say, rape, it is very rarely that it is a complete stranger. It is somebody in the home, somebody related to the child. But with social distancing or physical distancing and the stay-at-home requests because of COVID-19 and children not going to school… there should be a consciousness, a vigilance among caregivers for these children, to ensure that they do not fall through the cracks,” Bailey said.
The stay-at-home measures designed to discourage the spread of the virus, he argued, have unwittingly “brought the predator and the prey in an enclosure”.
He added: “Physical distancing [makes it] that the predator and the prey may become closer to one another, which requires more vigilance. I am not saying you go around suspecting that everybody who comes near to the child has a criminal intent, but I would advise that precautions be taken. The mechanisms that many of these predators use make it very difficult for children to even say anything. They are threatened, they are offered gifts; they don’t always start with something that is overwhelming, it is the touching and the grooming and the overexposure, they show them porn and, over time, this grooming desensitises the child from realising that something is not right,” he explained.
The Victim Services Division head also raised another red flag, pointing to possible serial victimisation of youngsters.
“We have been noticing that when a child comes in to report a case, careful examination will reveal that this is not the first time this child has been a victim, and very rarely when a child comes in we discover that this is the first time such a thing has happened to the child. We discover it in very subtle ways,” Bailey told the Observer.
“We do not get into tampering with the evidential component of the crime, we are just providing counselling, but in the discussion we find that the child might not be able to readily describe an accused because it is more than one accused, and more than one event, simply because when the first one or ones occurred they were so young or so traumatised that they are not able to fully distinguish,” he said.
Said Bailey: “This is all a formula for when it goes to the court; nothing happens because the child is not in a position to recall sufficiently, and so there’s no evidence for anyone to be prosecuted sufficiently. My remit is to say to parents, be very vigilant. We have seen cases where it is the trusted family member’s friend, the trusted family member’s child, who does it.”
Bailey further warned that gender does not denote who is more trustworthy.
“The usual notion is that offences against children are male-dominated, but it is not unusual also for females to molest both male and female children. So you get reports from children that, say, uncle bathing me and he’s touching me; or auntie bathing me but uncle watching, bathroom door is open and uncle watching. Or, uncle did show me his, or auntie touching me down there,” he pointed out.
Bailey said the division has had victims as young as two years of age, though, thankfully, a rare occurrence.
“That is not very common, but remember that even if they come in at the age of four and five what we have discovered is an increase in the number of children who, with careful questioning, [it is found out that it is] not the first time,” he said.
According to data from the Child Protection and Family Services Agency, there were 2,623 cases of sexual abuse against children in 2019 — an increase of 276 over 2018 when 2,347 cases were reported.
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