A disagreement over permission to play football led a 15-year-old boy to flee his home for a few days.
In another case a 14-year-old ran away from home as the sight of his mother crying, because she was facing financial difficulties and unable to take care of him and his siblings, was simply too much to bear.
According to Dr Joan Pinkney, counselling psychologist at Jamaican Psychological Society, common factors that influence youngsters to run away from home include neglect, abuse or unresolved conflict, offerings for better socio-economic conditions, gangs – quest for power, to be in control – and loneliness.
“Neglect from parents can cause a child to yearn for affirmation, care, love, bonding, and the basic connections which are foundational for a child’s relationship and self-esteem development,” Dr Pinkney told the Jamaica Observer.
Statistics obtained from advocacy group Hear the Children’s Cry showed that over the period January to February this year, 173 children were reported missing. Of that number, 96 returned home.
In 2020, a total of 1,066 children were reported missing, however 843 returned home.
The trauma experienced by parents in these circumstances is immeasurable, even among those who are lucky enough to have their children return home. The Sunday Observer got first-hand experience from three such parents and their children.
The 15-year-old who was upset that his mother would not give him the freedom to play football whenever he wanted confessed that he didn’t make a conscious decision to run away.
“Mi never really decide, mi did just want to play football because I love it. If I went home she would not let me out. So, mi say ‘Alright, mi a go play football, till I feel to stop,’ ” he explained.
“When I was playing, it got too late, so then I stayed out for days,” the youngster added, noting that he was afraid when he was out on the street.
His mother, though, said she was concerned about allowing him to play football, as they had just moved into their community in St Catherine.
“We aren’t living far from the football field, so he would be home and always wants to play. I would tell him no, because we were new to the area. That seemed like the worst thing I could tell him. He would hide and go through the back door or through the gate,” she told the Sunday Observer.
She said after three days when her son did not return home, she decided to file a missing person report with the Spanish Town police.
“Between the first and the third day, people were seeing him but I wasn’t. On the third day, nobody saw him. We started to worry because that was unlike him – somebody would have seen him on the ball field as he is always playing football. So, I went to the police station with his picture. I posted pictures of him in Spanish Town and some in Old Harbour; everybody was looking for him,” she explained.
The mother said she received a call later that day from someone who told her that her son was spotted in Old Harbour.
Acting on that information she and her boyfriend went to Old Harbour and eventually found her son at a canal where children usually go swimming.
Pointing out that she was more relieved than angry, she said, “It felt like Christmas, I was so glad. He was just coming out of the water. We asked what he was doing there and he couldn’t even answer. I wanted to be angry but I couldn’t…it was a bittersweet moment.”
A similar reaction was shared by the mother of the 14-year-old boy who ran away because his mother was finding it difficult to take care of him and his siblings.
“The way I was frightened and glad to see him I said, ‘Come, I going beat you, I going beat you!’ But I didn’t. I spoke with him,” she explained.
Recounting the 2019 experience, which only lasted for a few hours on a Saturday, the mother said she had grown concerned when the teenager did not return home after a certain time.
“I was so frightened. About 10:00 am he left and I thought maybe he was gone to one of his friends. I kept calling people I knew to see if he was nearby, but they told me he wasn’t. Then at 4:00 pm I said ‘No, this is not him. I have to go to the [police] station,’ ” she shared.
The mother reported the matter to the Bog Walk police who later assisted her in the search for her son in Bog Walk, St Catherine, where they lived.
She said about 7:00 pm, when the police decided to take her home to see if the boy had returned, they found him standing with a woman and a little boy at the gate of a house in the community.
“I even said to her, ‘Imagine, my son is here and you don’t even give me a phone call to let me know that he is here,’ ” the mother said.
The 14-year-old, who is the fourth child for his mother, told the Sunday Observer that he regretted putting his mother through that ordeal.
“My mother couldn’t afford to buy things and sometimes she would cry, so I just left. It’s scary when you don’t know what you are doing. In the long run, all your parents do is for your own good,” he reasoned.
Even though the mother and son now have a better relationship, she said she still struggles to make ends meet and tries her best to refrain from crying in his presence.
“As a single mother, sometimes I don’t have it to give them as I would like to. We get along but at times he’ll look at me and say ‘Mommy, you can’t afford this and you can’t afford that so when I get big I will try to help you.’ Now, if he sees me crying he will come and hug me, but I try not to do those things in front of him,” the mother said.
The third case, also in 2019, involved a 16-year-old who is the only child for his father.
The teen left home on a Friday for a function at his school, knowing that it was cancelled.
According to the youngster, after arriving at the school he left with a friend, even as he admitted that he was worried because his father believes the streets are not safe.
His father, who was unaware of the cancellation of the function, said he was a bit hesitant in sending his son, especially because the event was expected to end at 7:00 pm.
“The function was supposed to start at 10:00 am, so he left home about 8:30 am. I told him not to wait until it is late to get home, so he should leave at 6:30 pm. The time I expected him to reach home, I did not see him, so I went by the school to do some checks,” he said.
But the security guard told him that students were notified about the cancellation of the function from the previous day.
“I started to do some investigation and called a couple of the teachers and they said they saw him during the course of the day playing football, then he left for home,” the father said. “I was saying he probably went out with friends to Half-Way-Tree or something like that so I waited and waited, but I didn’t see him.”
On Saturday morning the father, who lives in St Andrew, said he reported the matter to the Lawrence Tavern police but later received a phone call from a resident who told him that his son was spotted in the community.
“I was a little upset but tried not to show it because it wouldn’t help the situation. When I asked him, he told me he was with a friend and it got late,” said the father who shared that he was unable to sleep during his son’s absence.
“Sleeping was a no-no, knowing that he was out there. It really hurts, as I never experienced anything like this. I always read about it or heard it on the radio, so when the situation fell into my lap I tried to comprehend the whole aspect of it, but it was so traumatising,” he said.
Pointing out that he is grateful for his son’s return, the father said he is now more engaged with the boy and encourages other parents to spend quality time with their children.
“You have to know the type of environment that they are going into and know when to say yes and when to say no. They will even come to you with problems and you have to take the time out and listen to them…check up on them,” the father said.
“When you push them away and do not show love, they are going to go somewhere else and seek that love,” he added.
Dr Pinkney advised that when youngsters return home, parents should seek counselling with the child to ascertain what is wrong, their reason for running away, and focus more on rebuilding a strong relationship with their child.
“Seek to consistently demonstrate care and love to the child as well as adopt and maintain an authoritative parenting style,” she said.
*Year Children Missing Children that Returned*January to February
2020 1,066 843
2021 173 96
Source: Hear the Children’s Cry Graphic: Rorie Atkinson