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In 2016, according to the Missing Person Monitoring Unit of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), 1,725 children were reported missing in Jamaica; and while 1,456 were either recovered/ willingly returned home, that means 269 are yet to be found. This burden naturally weighs heavy on Nathalee Ferguson, who heads the Ananda Alert Unit at the Office of the Children’s Registry (OCR).
The Ananda Alert system was launched in 2009 after the abduction and murder of schoolgirl Ananda Dean. With this tragedy came the realisation that 24 hours was too long to wait to report a missing child when any Jamaican child cannot be acconted for; and that time is a life or death matter.
An Ananda Alert is the activation of efforts to recover a missing child, “a panic button almost, to say that a child has gone missing,” explains Ferguson. Reports must be made to the police but the OCR which is reachable at 1-888-PROTECT/ 878-2882/822-7031 can also assist with broadcasting the information..
“I put a lot of pressure on myself because I tend to not look at the numbers that say returned, I look at the numbers of children still missing,” says Ferguson. “Because there is always a child missing, I don’t get to celebrate recoveries; but if a child has been abducted and is then found – then that is definitely a huge victory because that could mean a child who would have possibly been saved from being murdered or trafficked.”
“It must be the most scary, lonely and perhaps dehumanizing experience,” adds Ferguson, nodding that she has often placed herself in the shoes of a missing child in the worst of situations.
While many persons will sympathise with Ferguson and indeed support Ananda Alerts by sharing reports or calling the police or the OCR, the system still faces some public education challenges. These challenges often begin with the parents or the guardians who report the children missing in the first place.
Parental responsibility to assist police
“It’s important that parents act with urgency. Make a report the minute you have made your reasonable checks and realize that you cannot account for your child. Parents also need to provide full information when they make their report, including a recent photo. Not having a photo almost defeats the purpose because the public can’t help identify a child they don’t know is a missing child. What they were wearing, who they were with, any info that can assist the police; even distinguishing marks and features can all assist.”
A major challenge is that many parents do not report back to the police when the child has been found or returned home. Often this is because they fear the level of State intervention, especially in the case of repeat runaways when they hear of the Child Development Agency (CDA).
“Parents tend to think that the CDA is going to take away the child, but really the state does not even have the resources to remove all recovered children from their families and certainly would not want to separate families anyway. In these cases when the parents do not report back to the police, an alert stays in place. This can even cause alarms at the immigration counter based upon the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA) being a part of the system. As a measure of safety, PICA will indicate to the police they have reason to believe that a missing child is trying to leave the island or that someone is trying to take them overseas. This is an important measure to safeguard against child trafficking”
Social media bittersweet
Now eight years old, the Ananda Alerts system is familiar to many Jamaicans, but says Ferguson, there are still some public awareness challenges that hamper efforts to find each child. Social media can help with the recovery of a child but parents posting too much about their children or children constantly broadcasting their current location publicly can make them vulnerable to predators.
“The social media experience is bittersweet. It’s great to get that help but even when a child is recovered the photo is still being circulated and because there are different things associated with why children would have gone missing, this can cause negative attention for the child. Sometimes false information is also broadcasted and of course we want the public to have full confidence in the system.”