Symposium considers at-risk youth

Cayman Islands government’s efforts to combat the problem of at-risk youth are under way.

Newark boys school chorus

A performance by the Newark boys school chorus opened the three-day National Children and Youth Symposium at the Grand Marriott Resort. Photo: Brent Fuller

‘As this conference is about youth, I’m going to take my jacket off,’ said Governor Stuart Jack, whipping off his suit coat as he began addressing the crowd in the Orchid Ballroom at the Grand Marriott Resort Monday. ‘I’m afraid that’s the best I can do in the way of rebelliousness.’

The Governor’s joke drew laughs from the dozens who attended. But some at Monday’s opening of the National Children and Youth Symposium wondered if the meeting’s message is getting to the people who need to hear it.

‘The persons in this room understand the problem,’ said Attorney General Samuel Bulgin. ‘But we are not the problem.’

The symposium was sponsored by the AG’s office, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education as a first step toward addressing a 2006 report, which revealed some reasons behind the cycle of crime in Cayman.

The report, authored by criminologist Yolande Forde, showed several criminal risk factors in the background of 194 prisoners surveyed.

Nearly half of those prisoners reported being born to teenage mothers; many said they had grown up in broken homes where drug abuse or domestic violence occurred; many admitted to performing poorly in school…60 per cent had not graduated from high school; and more than half had been in lock-up as a juvenile.

In the first part of the youth symposium, participants agreed that no one factor is solely responsible for the causes of Cayman crime. But all agreed early intervention in the lives of at-risk kids was the best chance at preventing it.

‘If nothing is done to teach a child by the time he reaches the age of criminal responsibility, its unlikely the criminal justice system can do it,’ said Chief Justice Anthony Smellie.

Two students who attend the University College of the Cayman Islands told the conference that having strong role models kept them out of trouble.

‘Parental support is a huge factor in whether the youth of Cayman fall into crime or not,’ said 20-year-old Mikana Scott.

Ms Scott blamed the influence of what she called American gangsta culture for glamorising thuggery. She said young Caymanians are losing their own heritage.

‘Speaking of Caymanian culture, I’m not even sure what that is anymore.’

Another 20-year-old UCCI student, Matthew Seales, said several of his high school classmates who might have amounted to something ended up in prison.

‘They could have gone just as far as me,’ said Mr. Seales. ‘If somebody could have reached them just once…it would have helped.’

The conference, which will resume with two closed-door meetings in March, examined each chapter of Ms Forde’s report. Those sections included criminal profiles, family background of inmates, education, religion and community involvement.

Winston McCalla, an attorney who has been a fellow at both Oxford and Harvard, told the symposium he was concerned that a majority of young people had no involvement in any type of social organisations.

‘Anti-social behaviour by some young persons is the norm,’ said Mr. McCalla. ‘Clearly, young boys are the major problem.’

Marilyn McIntyre, a paediatrician with the Health Services Authority, said she’s seen a change in Cayman Islands youth over the years.

‘We have lost the care and compassion for our fellow man,’ she said. ‘Kids have gone from community-oriented to more materialistic individuals.’

Lack of education was also cited as a major concern for at-risk youth. However, UCCI professor Livingston Smith said having limited formal education doesn’t mean the young person is destined to be a criminal.

‘Lower educational attainment does not in itself lead to delinquency,’ said Mr. Smith.

However, he said a poor home life, coupled with poor moral teaching and a lack of parental interest in learning can lead to disaster.

‘The degree of parents’ interest in their children’s education is the most important factor in accounting for their education,’ he said.

Chief Justice Smellie acknowledged a continuing need for a better environment in which to rehabilitate youth offenders in the Cayman Islands. ‘This has for some time been recognized,’ he said.

Mr. Smellie said programmes such as employment and neighbourhood supervision, along with church and support group activities, could all be effective alternatives.

‘There must be a tangible degree of re-socialisation of the individual,’ said Mr. Smellie. ‘The view cannot be that society has failed him. It must be the other way around.’