OUR December 6 edition carried a story of a 35-year-old woman who was found guilty of child neglect at the New Amsterdam Magistrates Court. From the court’s report, this young woman has 13 children and was charged with three counts of child neglect of her children, ages: five, seven and 10. She has been fined $100,000 for each child, which together is $300,000, or six months imprisonment. Anita, the woman’s call name, told the magistrate she cannot afford to pay the fine and opted to serve the time in prison. In getting a clearer picture of this woman’s biodata from the hearing, she is employed as a domestic, shares her home with a partner/husband, and is living with four of her children, including a three-month-old baby. The three children whom the court ruled that she neglected, were thankfully taken to the New Amsterdam Hospital for treatment.
In an examination of this case, there is obviously more to it than that of child neglect, which is a transgression of the Rights of the Child and an offence under the law that once found guilty the offender pays the penalty. From this standpoint, one may think that the police and the court would have done their jobs. But has the wider society, including the institutions of state, done theirs.
Anita is a product of our society and her case should be examined on the basis of the existing circumstances. Neglect of children, while it is an offence, has to be examined within the context of support institutions that are in place to prevent same and ensure future protection. Being unrepresented — and it is reasonable to assume this had to do with her economic circumstance as a domestic, and/or the failure of the state to offer/provide her with legal assistance for representation– can be considered as a miscarriage of justice. In cases of this nature, it requires not reading the law to the letter, but understanding the circumstances that surround the entire issue, and making decisions based on same.
At a psychosocial level, it is not known if this woman had interaction with care-providers such a social worker, or was sent for medical evaluation. Could she be suffering from stress or post-partum depression? It was important that these issues should have been factored in and form part of the evidence leading to conviction or not. There was a case in October of similar nature to Anita, in which another mother had abandoned her baby. She was found guilty, and fined $100,000 or face three months imprisonment. This newspaper did an editorial titled “Child endangerment charge,” addressing the issue.
No excuse is being made for either of these women or any woman who chooses to act in like manner. At the same time, the society, most notably the institutions of state, cannot ignore what is seemingly a behavioural pattern, that should it be properly examined and attended to can be eliminated. In Anita’s case, nine of her children are not living with her. This suggests that persons have provided her with some of the support she needed. But for the four children she has, she may still need support, be it financial or psychosocial.
Something must be done as a matter of national priority to address situations of this nature. Placing cases such as these before the courts without ensuring obvious areas of concern are addressed in itself constitutes a miscarriage of justice. Our judicial system is one of retributive justice. When the Anitas would have served their time and released back into society, where little or no effort is made to have them properly evaluated, and where needed given the requisite support, then the society would have failed what is evidently a very vulnerable group crying out for help. The Ministry of Social Protection may find it necessary to examine these cases and ask that the police and courts inform them of same.