IN THE midst of a major series examining the scourge of serious and violent crime in the Bahamas and how to solve it, Dr Mike Neville, a respected forensic psychiatrist, lost his son to the gun of a murderer last month. On the night of February 27, Sean Neville, 31, a father of a six-year-old daughter, was shot dead yards from the family home.
Dr Neville’s weekly series of articles in The Tribune have been designed to inform an evidence-based national debate on how to solve the escalating levels of crime in the country. But after such a shocking, raw and recent experience he is taking a revised look at the breakdown of the family, prevalence of drugs and poor educational standards as root causes of crime.
By Dr Mike Neville
When did it all begin?
The family structure is universally blamed for much of the mayhem. So when and how did it fall apart in the Bahamas?
When I came here in July 1973 there certainly was not the chaos on the streets that occurs now. It is also clear that, whilst many Bahamians could not be described as financially wealthy, there was a sense of community, neighbours helped each other and the education system seemed to work for many.
The churches and lodges were part of the everyday life for most people and there was a sense of hope for the future.
Fast-forward to 2015: now we are surrounded by security systems with bars in our homes, the educational system produces a national average that is dismal and few people have hope for the future.
In order to start the process of fixing this crisis, it is worth looking at what may have gone wrong, why have families fallen apart so badly?
A regular contributor on this series to tribune242.com has pointed us clearly to the economy and that is definitely a powerful point; the population, whilst not necessarily wealthy, had good prospects for a job which the educational system had prepared them for. Now the unemployment rate is very high, especially for the young.
There has been a number of major changes in the Bahamas that we should look at.
First, the population has grown far faster than the economy has been able to support. In 1973 it was about 180,000, now it is estimated at over 380,000. Simply the changes in the economic structure to cope with this growth have not occurred, nor the family planning strategies to change this trend.
In fact many leaders seem happy to encourage people to have plenty of children, regardless of their ability to nurture and provide for them.
This growth in numbers of youngsters has gradually led to a chronic overcrowding of the public school system. I am not sure that any teacher, no matter how dedicated and qualified, can cope with more than a certain number of children in a class.
There was also a clear change in educational policy in the 80s and 90s when early education and primary school teachers were not valued as they should have been and standards seemed to drop. It seems pointless improving high school if graduates from primary school are unable to manage the basics.
I have already written about the research that shows reduction in crime with government-sponsored pre-school programmes and reductions in future pregnancies with visiting nurse programmes for at-risk mothers. The need for family planning and improved foundational education cannot be emphasised enough.
In 1973, alcohol was the drug of choice with cannabis gaining in popularity. By the late 70s quaaludes were around and cocaine use was beginning to grow. The drug trade brought money and many were blind to the potential dangers; a cartoon of me jumping up and down next to a lighted bomb marked “cocaine” had the caption: “Man Doc rest your nerve”.
The perception was that the drugs were really destined for the United States and the Bahamas was just a transshipment area. If you took drugs it was your problem, the economy needed the inflow of cash. There were already bizarre murders taking place caused by the paranoid psychosis brought on by cocaine use and killings related to the trade of drugs as organised crime began its steady stranglehold on society.
It made no difference, the money spoke louder. I gave evidence to the Commission of Inquiry in 1984 that, in my opinion, cocaine was even more dangerous than heroin; it did indeed destroy many people through addiction and cocaine psychosis.
It also created a crime wave that is still with us. It allowed crime to be excused; dealing drugs was somehow OK. It introduced many forms of violence and made guns widely available, addicts began to steal to support their habit ... in fact it changed the very fabric of society.
The impact on the criminal justice system remains with us. The police and the courts have become overloaded, with cases taking years to come to trial, and after so much time sometimes the evidence needed for a conviction seems to be unavailable, leading to perceptions of corruption.
There has been a seismic shift from a culture which valued hard work, education and lawful behaviour to one where the young are socialised to elevate the drug culture and see crime as a reasonable alternative. This has led to a cycle of family breakdown and poverty driving each other with all of the inevitable consequences.
There are high levels of family breakdown, inadequate parenting with high levels of child abuse. We can add in poverty, poor living conditions, teenage mothers and family criminality. There is also the evidence of frontal lobe damage caused by drugs, alcohol and lead poisoning which leads to aggression, poor judgement and poor impulse control. Add it all together and we have the recipe for exactly what is happening – a crime wave that is out of control.
Most churches and social agencies appear to agree that we need to rebuild the family structure and despite there being no end of speeches and sermons to this effect, so far the task has proved elusive. It is surely time to act rather than talk, time to spend time and resources looking at what has worked in other places and what has not.
The key element is to accept – finally – that there is no magic answer to our woes, no one quick fix. It is essential that many initiatives on many fronts are tried in combination. There are certain crimes and criminals that are not appropriate for prevention strategies; these must be dealt with by a criminal justice system that can produce results that the country can see before the crime has been forgotten.
The greatest form of prevention is a certainty that you will be caught, convicted and punished. The task of rebuilding families is almost impossible when unhealed wounds are combined with a fear of working with the authorities. I will discuss specific initiatives in future articles.
The Ministries of Health and Social Development must look again at the issues surrounding family planning, at-risk mothers and nurse visiting programmes. There is an urgent need for the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture to provide inclusive programmes for our young, that at the very least provide an alternative to sitting on street corners - and preferably with trained youth workers to help with direction and an ability to talk about many of the complex issues that they face.
The Ministry of Education seems to be struggling with enormous problems but at present seems to be helping a group of talented students but losing far too many young boys to the “streets”. There was a major change in the educational system in the Bahamas in this timescale when the Bahamas followed England, closing what were known as grammar schools and secondary modern (technical) schools.
The resulting comprehensive schools were meant to be more “equal” but seem to have focused on academic subjects, leaving kids with high technical skills at a distinct disadvantage. It is surely worth revisiting these concepts.
The multitude of churches also need to renew efforts to help in each and every community that surrounds their buildings, not just touching those within their walls.
The intention of A Life of Crime is to look in detail at the issues raised here and with the help of responses from Tribune readers and KISS FM96.1 listeners via emails, comments on the website and callers to the radio show inform a national debate on how to combat the scourge of crime. Please contribute today.
A Life of Crime takes an Easter break and will return on Tuesday April 14,
DR Mike Neville has spent 40 years – the majority in The Bahamas – working in the hospitals, courts and prisons at close quarters with offenders.
Week by week, in a series entitled A Life of Crime, Dr Neville is examining the causes, effects and potential remedies of crime, from the cradle to the grave, looking at the reasons behind the increasing catalogue of murders, shootings, armed robberies and sexual assaults. And we want you to be involved. Every Tuesday, you can comment on his articles in The Tribune and call in to an hour’s live phone-in on KISS FM96.1 from 3pm on 677-0961.
Dr Neville will welcome views – unconventional, challenging and supportive – from everyone. Join the discussions via comments on tribune242.com, email to email@example.com or on the radio today.