By Philip Yatai, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
Jeremiah Oluseto is one of the 218 children and adults released from Borstal Training Institution located in Ilorin Kwara State in November 2021.
Some of the children were taken to the institution by their parents for being stubborn, abusing drugs and smoking among other juvenile excessive and unacceptable behaviours.
Oluseto described his freedom from the detention facility as the “beginning of a new journey” to a life of fulfilment.
The 24-year-old lad, like many other children his age, was sent to the Borstal institution for abusing drugs and causing a series of problems for his family, with the hope he will be rehabilitated.
However, Oluseto said he and the other children in the facility were just locked up with no form of rehabilitation, skills training, or any form of educational support.
“I could not believe my ears when I heard that I am free to go home, free from bondage and the life of agony we were going through in the Borstal institution.
“Although I was delighted to be released, I was still unsure of what was out there for me.
“Then came a sigh of relief when I learned that UNICEF, the Kwara government and other partners have packaged a programme to enable me to rebuild my life again.
“I already gave up on life until a team of social workers came to my house and announced the plan to support me to rebuild my life so that I can be useful to myself and my community,” he said.
Why the youngsters were released from the Borstal facility
A total of 218 children and adults were released from the Borstal Training Institution of the Nigeria Correctional Service, located in Ganmo, Ilorin, Kwara State.
Their freedom was facilitated after a visit to the facility by the Federal Ministry of Justice, Presidential Committee on Correctional Reform and Decongestion, and Nigeria Correctional Service, supported by UNICEF and the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC).
The children and adults were released because they were at the facility without a remand order by a court of law, while some of them were beyond the age of 18 as stipulated by the law establishing the institution among other factors.
According to the UNICEF Child Protection Specialist, Dr Wilfred Mamah, child justice provides that when children commit offences, they should be treated differently and not like adults, but change the behaviour and reintegrate them back to the community.
Mamah explained that the Borstal institution, created under the Children and Young Person Law, was designed to look at the best interest of young person’s when they commit offences.
He, however, said that the situation at the Ilorin Borstal institution was full of anomalies, where children and adults were placed in the same institution, contrary to the provisions of the law.
According to him, the children are exposed to what he described as “structural violence”, where the system is actually not taking care of them as it is supposed to.
“Some of them were brought in by their parents and abandoned without passing through the court, so there was nothing like a remand order.
“They were left there, locked up, coming out only to eat. There is also the issue of drug abuse, leaving many of them in psychological trauma.”
Free but rejected by their parents/caregivers
Expressing a deep concern, the Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF Country Office, Abuja, Ms Nkiru Maduechesi, said that beyond the release, was the problem of psychological trauma, abuse, mental health issues and other challenges.
More disturbing, Maduechesi said that most of the children were rejected by their parents.
“Rather than celebrate their return, a significant number of the parents wrote to the state Ministry for Social Development, requesting that the released children should remain with the government,” she said.
One of the parents, Mrs Bosede Oluseto, the mother of Jeremiah Oluseto, a petty trader, could not hide her excitement that her boy would be supported to live a meaningful life.
“When I heard that my child was released, I spent the whole night crying because I do not know what to do with him.
“I personally took him to the Borstal institution because he was out of control, and I was told he will be educated and reformed after a period of three years, only to release him after six months.
“I initially rejected him, because I do not know what to do with him or how to handle his drug abuse and the recurrent mental instability due to excessive drug abuse.
“But with UNICEF support, I am looking forward to seeing my child learning skills and going to school so he can be self-sufficient and independent and grow to become whoever he wants to become,” she said.
UNICEF and the European Union to the rescue
In response to the challenge, UNICEF stepped in as part of its global mandate to work for the rights of children, protect their interest and ensure they grow up to become better persons.
Maduechesi said that UNICEF, in partnership with an Ilorin-based NGO, Save the Future of Children Initiative (SAFIN) and the Kwara State Government had tracked 113 of the children residents in Ilorin, out of the 218 released from the Borstal institution.
She said that the move was to rehabilitate the children and provide counselling support to the parents and reintegrate them to their family and communities.
She said that the effort was under the European Union-funded Strengthening Access to Justice for Children on the Move and other Vulnerable Children project.
Maduechesi had explained that the project seeks to strengthen the capacity of the Kwara government, social workers, NGOs, parents, and caregivers to provide adequate care to the children.
According to her, the project will also help critical stakeholders to provide the children with the needed mental, health and psychosocial support in addition to the vocational and educational opportunities they need.
“This will enable them to live a meaningful and productive life and will contribute to the growth and development of their families and their communities, free of violence, abuse, and neglect.”
Reiterating her point, Mamah had described child protection as the prevention and response to violence, abuse, and neglect.
He said that most times children commit offences due to lack of parental care, poverty, and some because they were out of school.
He pointed out that even those that were above school age do not have any skills or trade that would make them useful, so they commit all kinds of offences.
He said that the project would link the children to where they will acquire skills for trade and give them little start-up capital to help them start their lives.
“Eventually, many of them will emerge as entrepreneurs and because they are economically engaged, they will not commit offences,” he said
The European Union and UNICEF have joined efforts to improve access to justice and support the provision of child protection services for 41,389 children on the move, child victims of violence, abuse and exploitation, and children in conflict with the law.
The three-year programme, 2021 to 2024, covers Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria.
“Access to justice is a major issue for children on the move and other vulnerable children in Western Africa.
“The practice of detention continues despite it being contrary to children’s rights, and evidence that shows it has negative effects on girls’ and boys’ development.
“The detention of children, whether unaccompanied or travelling with their family, is never in their best interests and is a violation of their rights.
“This must, therefore, be avoided at all costs,” says Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
Building the Capacity of Social Workers to provide effective services to the children
In line with the concept of child protection, as the prevention and response to violence, abuse, and neglect, UNICEF under the EU-supported project had conducted a series of trainings for social workers, NGOs, and other service providers in the state.
The training was on child protection and case management, to enable the social workers to follow up with the children, identify their needs, provide some of the needs and reintegrate them into the society.
“UNICEF is hoping that going forward, Kwara will have an improved child protection system where case management is very effective.
“This is because the support is beyond the 113 children but integrating case management in response to all children in need of all kinds of child protection services in the state.
“UNICEF is also supporting the state government to use the Child Protection Management System (CPIMS) to help social workers undertake systematic and professional child protection case management.
“This will enable the government to effectively track the services they are providing in a user-friendly way which will ensure accountability to the government, families, and the children themselves,” Maduechesi had said.
The changing narrative of social workers
Mr Bamigbad Oluranti, Public Relation Officer, Borstal Training Institution, Ganmo, Ilorin, Kwara State, who participated in the training commended UNICEF for improving the capacity of welfare officers in tracking progress of the rehabilitated children.
Oluranti told NAN that the mandate of the institute was to rehabilitate and reintegrate delinquent children back to the society.
The spokesman said that the training has equipped the welfare officers and other social workers with the needed skills to carry out their tasks of tracking the progress of rehabilitated children in communities.
“We have learnt a lot, particularly on how we can do follow-up visits after rehabilitation of delinquent children to ensure they are making progress in their new life.
“The training has equipped us with the needed skills for documentation and follow up with the children to make sure that they are well reintegrated into the society and become useful citizens,” he said.
On his part, Mr Jimoh Kazeem, a social worker with the Kwara State Ministry for Social Development, said he has been in the field in the last seven years providing one form of social services or the other.
“But I have never felt so equipped to deliver my tasks efficiently and effectively until now.
“The series of capacity building training has exposed me to real cases that have changed my approach to social work completely.
“The project has given me the opportunity to understand the depth of social work by exposing me to practical aspects and real-life situations, beyond the theoretical aspect that we are all used to.” Kazeem said.
Another social worker in the ministry, Mrs Dangana Yetunde, said that the capacity building training has been very impactful.
“I have learnt a lot about how to handle children, how to interview them and how to handle information about children that would not expose them to certain risks.
“It has changed my perspective on how to relate with children as a social worker; the project has opened my eyes to certain things I need to pay attention to, and what I should not do when interacting with a child,” Yetunde said.
Yetunde added that the child protection and case management training has taught her a lot, particularly the crucial role of data in case management and how to track the support being provided and the impact it is creating on the lives of the children.
Also, Dr Alebiosu Emmanuel, the Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, SAFIN, described the project as a “game changer” in the delivery of social work in Kwara state.
“The project has placed me on a level that I can give my best in making Kwara a better and safe place for children.
“I am not only equipped with the rudiment of social protection and case management but also how to work for the best interest of the children as a non-state actor working in the child protection sector.
“Now I know how to better communicate with children to build the needed trust and how to work with children while noting the protective concerns and risk level during assessment,” he said.
Addressing the challenge of government ownership and sustainability
To ensure adequate prevention and response to violence, abuse, and neglect, stakeholders stressed the need for government ownership of the support being provided by UNICEF.
Mr Olufemi Oyedeji, Chief Executive Officer, SAFIN, particularly called on the Kwara government to sustain the support UNICEF was currently providing to cover other children in need of help.
Oyedeji insisted that the state government must fully implement its Child Rights Law 2007, to make any significant progress in the protection of the rights and welfare of the child.
Responding, the State’s Commissioner for Social Development, Mrs Abosede Aremu, thanked UNICEF, SAFIN and other partners supporting the state to reintegrate the children to their families and support them to live productive lives.
Aremu reiterated the government resolved to work towards sustaining the protection of the interest of children for the development of the state.(NAN) (www.nannews.ng)
Edited by Ismail Abdulaziz