Jamaica’s current homicide rate:- 46.5 per 100,000 is the second highest in the world. We still only have a population of 2.9 million people in a geographic area no more than 11,000 km2. Jamaica became an independent nation a little shy of 60 years ago. How did we manage to achieve this unenviable position of second in the world with homicide cases?
Total murders in Jamaica for 2020 was a staggering 1323. We have consistently gone beyond the 1200 mark since the late 90s. By ploughing through the data something rather concerning is revealed. The evidence shows that the majority of the homicides in Jamaica are committed by males. The frightening aspect of this is the age of the perpetrators. One Inter-America Development Bank (IDB) paper reports that over 80% of these men are under age 35.
What is driving these young men into a life of crime at such an early age?
The suicide rate is higher in men than in women which is another indicator of underlying issues. Murder-suicide is becoming more commonplace. What is pushing these men to end their lives? Why don’t they want to live? Now we must also ask, why do they not want their spouses and/children to live?
It has recently been revealed that the leading cause of death in Jamaica over the past 30 years is non-communicable disease (NCDs). These include cardiovascular diseases, heart attack, stroke, cancer, diabetes as well as chronic respiratory diseases. According to the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), the risk of developing NCDs will increase for women within the Americas. This will leave many families in a precarious position as women are the backbone of most families in Jamaica.
The causes of crime and violence in Jamaica have been the subject of numerous studies. Several researchers have investigated the root causes and have published their findings. Anecdotally, we might think poverty is the main cause of the high crime rate we have in Jamaica. However, the causes are a complex, interconnected mix of issues. One thing that might have escaped our attention is the impact of Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) on later life.
An ACE is described as “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years)”. These events may include but are not limited to violence, any form of abuse, neglect, witnessing violence or suicide, exposure to substance abuse, mental health problems or other instabilities existing within the home environment. Scientists have been able to make a link between ACEs and the quality of adult life. Exposure to trauma at an early age correlates with the physiological, psychological, academic and even economic state of a person’s later years.
What does this all mean?
Evidence shown indicates that the more trauma you experience as a child, the higher the probability that you may end up with chronic health problems (non-communicable diseases) or mental health issues. There is also an increased risk of lower educational attainment, reduced economic success and inability to maintain healthy relationships. Critically, there is an established correlation between ACE scores and perpetrators of violence and criminality. In a Welsh study comparing individuals having no ACE with those having 4+ ACEs, it was found that the latter are 15 times more likely to have been a perpetrator of violence within the last 12 months.
It would be very interesting to have an evaluation of ACE scores for those criminals in the Jamaican justice system to see what obtains in our jurisdiction. What we’ve heard from Dr. Herbet Gayle, social anthropologist and lecturer in the Department of Sociology at UWI, Mona, is that many killers give both parents a failing grade. We already know that life is notoriously difficult for those living in poor rural or urban communities. Violence and abuse tend to more prevalent in these areas and as such it would not be surprising if children from these regions have a high ACE score. Therefore, the crime and violence we are witnessing were bound to happen!
“Hurt people hurt people”
What can be done about ACEs?
The good news is that ACEs are preventable and persons with high ACE scores can be helped so that they avoid the negative outcomes. Research suggests that just one caring, safe relationship early in life gives any child a much better shot at growing up healthy. But those persons who have direct relations with these kids need a trauma-informed approach in order to make a difference.
Our parents need parenting. There is a critical lack of proper parenting that perpetuates the cycle of poverty and violence. If we are going to break the back of this monster, we must provide support for parents, even if we have to institute parenting classes. Home visits by professionals need to be made for those vulnerable children and proper records kept on their progress. But if we are to remove some of these kids to make them wards of the state, then the needed infrastructure has to be in place.
I personally believe all teachers need trauma-informed training. Most of us have experienced some kind of trauma during our early years. Many are experiencing trauma at this very moment. A traumatised teacher will only serve to further traumatise students. If we are not mentally stable it is an impossible task to manage or guide other unstable individuals. Then we end up utilising behaviour policies that never fix the cause of the problems. This results in recurring problems from repeat offenders. Teachers should have annual professional development that addresses trauma or the psychology of behaviour.
Another point mooted by Dr. Gayle is that all children of school age must be in school. I go further, it should be a punishable offence (to parents) for any student to miss school without a valid, verifiable reason. Then we must simultaneously decrease the student to teacher ratio. The days of having one teacher to 40 students should by now be a thing of the past. Countless students have fallen through the cracks due to overcrowded classrooms. It’s impossible to practice a trauma-informed approach with such huge numbers. I dare say it is trauma-inducing to have 43 students with one teacher in room no more than 20 x 30 ft.
There should be no male student leaving a Jamaican high school without a skill. If it is that schools lack the capacity to offer this, then partnership with HEART Trust could see this goal being achieved. The economy has shifted and continues to evolve. This requires that we train and retool our people to meet the coming demand and not just what exists now. This target is even more attainable with the advent of online.
The church has a role to play in handling children or adults with high ACE scores. Christians, by virtue of the ethos of the gospel, should have a trauma-informed approach to dealing with all individuals within their scope of influence. If the message is that the vilest of sinner can receive pardon, then there is inestimable value in every soul regardless of how scarred they are. Within the Christian community one should be able to find love, empathy, compassion and acceptance. Within such institutions there is a high regard and reverence for life which is an attitude we desperately need right now.
Jamaica’s crime and violence problem will not be solved overnight. The solution will require more than the five years of an election cycle. It’s useless for any political leader to proffer any solution as an election promise. Instead, we need a non-partisan approach with a long term vision. What we lack is the political will to commence the work and to see it through to completion. This work requires leadership and followership. We all have a part to play. If we don’t, the monsters we create will kill us all.