OCA supports new 211 helpline for children

The 211 children helpline, which is to be launched by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information this month, has received the endorsement of the Office of the Children’s Advocate (OCA) .

The helpline will be available for use by children at risk of abuse or persons who wish to make a report of child abuse.

But news of the new helpline was greeted with cynicism by the Opposition spokesperson on education and training Angela Brown Burke, who urged the Government to be clear on whether it was duplicating another children’s helpline, 1-888-PROTECT (776-8328), by implementing 211.

According to Brown Burke, 211 would do the same function as 1-888-PROTECT and the resources would be better spent elsewhere.

“Funds are scarce and we do not have the luxury of duplication,” said Brown Burke.

But last Friday state minister in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information Robert Morgan told a Jamaica Observer Press Club that the 211 helpline was not a duplicate of the 1-888-PROTECT helpline.

“If a five-year-old takes up the phone and calls 888-PROTECT, how long does that take? If you are a five-year-old and you hear an ad on the TV that says if you are abused, call 211, it is very easy, versus 1-888-PROTECT,” said Morgan.

He added: “211 is the number we are going to promote. Over time we will phase out 1-888-PROTECT. The reality is that there are challenges within the childcare and protection ecosystem and it is our duty to constantly make adjustments to make it easier for children and persons who are interested to get help.”

The 1-888-PROTECT line is a partnership involving the OCA, UNICEF and the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica which Morgan argued will serve a different purpose than 211.

Addressing Observer reporters and editors on Monday, Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison agreed with Morgan.

“The 1-888-PROTECT is not being operated by the Office of the Children’s Advocate. The child protection sector has a registry which functions much like any registry in a company or ministry. What that registry does is collect reports from persons across Jamaica about information they may have to suggest that a child is in vulnerable circumstances. So it is really for reporting and lodging complaints or suspicion of child abuse. John Public can call that.

“The minister’s 211 number, as far as I understand it, based on discussions with him, is something that will provide an easier number for children to recall than 1-888-PROTECT. What he [Morgan] anticipates will happen, is that over time, [it] will be replaced by 211 to make reports in relation to instances of child abuse,“ said Gordon Harrison during a Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange.

“Separate and apart from a reporting line is a helpline which is being developed with a completely different scope and remit. What our helpline purports to do is to service only children. It doesn’t take reports. What it does is provide listening-ear services and therapeutic services as the need may arise, as well as counselling services directly for children,” added Gordon Harrison.

The idea of a 24-hour dedicated helpline for children has been long been in discussion but was fast-tracked with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which shut children off from accessing counselling and other services crucial to their well-being.

It is expected that with 1-888-PROTECT children will be able to speak with trained persons via telephone calls, SMS text messages, e-mail, WhatsApp and other social media platforms.

It will be operational for an initial 18-month period with extensions to come as seen fit by a monitoring and evaluation governance steering committee established by the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), OCA and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

For Morgan, the 211 helpline will provide 24-hour linkages with 1-888-PROTECT, the suicide prevention hotline, the Centre for Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse, and the police.

“It is like a clearing house of issues. When a child calls the number, somebody will answer,” declared Morgan.

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