On January 16, 2018 two children burnt to death in a fire at the Walker’s Place of Safety. The fire completely destroyed the facility that was home to 36 wards of the state. This is the fifth fire at a child-care institution in recent memory and occurs one year after the Clifton Boys’ Home burnt down, disrupting the lives of 30 boys.
Public account of the circumstances required
JFJ is heartened that authorities were able to locate accommodation for the displaced children and mobilize an effective rapid-response team. Notwithstanding that, the country deserves a full report on what occurred and the measures to be implemented to prevent recurrence. It has been two weeks since the incident and to this date a report has not been publicly issued that establishes the cause of the fire, the specific circumstances under which the two children died, and whether the facility had fully complied with all safety measures.
Given Jamaica’s longstanding issues regarding fire safety at and monitoring of residential institutions housing children, JFJ calls for the official, independent account to be publicly provided in the interests of transparency and public accountability. The families of those affected by the fire, national stakeholders in the child protection sector, and the public deserve a fulsome explanation.
Strengthen monitoring and safety standards for residential childcare facilities
Beyond this incident, the overall monitoring of residential childcare facilities island-wide and the adequacy of safety standards for facilities remains an outstanding issue in need of serious attention. Compliance mechanisms must work in tandem with monitoring and follow-up processes to ensure that recommendations are implemented in a timely manner. Additionally, there ought to be greater consideration of and special procedures for very young children and children with disabilities, who are more vulnerable in adverse events.
JFJ welcomes the Prime Minister’s announcement of a comprehensive review of the management procedures at residential childcare facilities and urges the government to not only conduct a review but meaningfully implement the findings. Jamaica’s state care arrangements have been reviewed many times before. But without a commitment to implementation and enforcement, reviews and audits achieve little on their own.
Moreover, if Jamaicans are to believe, as the Prime Minister said in the aftermath of the fire, that “the government takes seriously its duty to all children, especially those in the care of the state,” and if we are to prevent a sixth fire at a childcare facility in a decade, then there must be corresponding human and financial resources allocated to the welfare of these children that matches their needs.
JFJ strongly urges the government and relevant authorities to treat the safety of our children in state care as paramount in protecting their rights. To achieve this the state must publicly account for serious incidents such as this and appropriately resource the child protection sector. Those will be the true tests of its commitment.