Students’ group urges support for embattled Jamaican J-1 worker

MONTEGO BAY, St James- President of the Jamaica Union of Tertiary Students (JUTS) Christina Williams is urging that support be given to the 21-year-old Jamaican student who was arrested in South Carolina, USA, last Sunday.

Britney Wheatle, a J-1 work and travel student, was arrested after it was alleged that she gave birth to a baby girl and abandoned the child in bushes.

Wheatle was subsequently charged with placing a child at risk/harm after she reportedly confessed to the crime when apprehended by police at a store at which she was doing her summer job.

Williams told the Jamaica Observer that, while JUTS is aware of the possible implications that the incident may have on the J-1 programme, the organisation was “prioritising the well-being of our student”.

“Therefore, we are calling on the consulate general of Jamaica in Miami, which has jurisdiction for matters in South Carolina, to connect with Ms Wheatle, if not already, to provide legal and psychosocial support where appropriate and necessary.

“We are also asking that the officials responsible for the work placement of Ms Wheatle also assist in facilitating support for her at this time. The JUTS is committed to providing support as well, and we hope that this unique incident is handled with the sensitivity and empathy it deserves,” the JUTS president told the Sunday Observer.

At the same time, Williams said that Jamaican J-1 students should not shy away from seeking assistance should they face difficulties while on the programme.

“We also take this opportunity to encourage students on the programme to connect with their placement agencies, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security Employment Unit, or us when facing challenges while on the programme,” she said.

Traditionally, the J-1 work and travel programme has been used by university and college students to earn income to assist with paying their tuition. The programme typically begins in May of each year and ends in September as the summer period closes. It is open to full-time tertiary students, and the sponsor employers must show that they are in need of additional assistance during the summer months.

If Wheatle is convicted, her charge of placing a child at risk/harm carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Wheatle was booked on a US$10,000 bond. The Sunday Observer was unable to determine if the student has taken up the bond offer.

The South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) is said to also be investigating the case. In a statement released last Monday, the department stated that the infant was being cared for by the appropriate agencies.

“DSS is aware of the infant in question, as it was placed into emergency custody by law enforcement. The agency is working alongside local law enforcement in the investigation of this case, and there are no further updates that can be shared,” the department said.

At a news conference Monday, officials said that they wanted to remind people about Daniel’s Law, which allows new parents to safely drop off a newborn at certain sites, such as a fire station or hospital, without fear of punishment by the law.

The child, which was reportedly unharmed, was found naked in bushes inside an apartment complex. It is said that the baby girl was under a day old when she was found by a woman who lives in the complex.

A handful of Jamaican students on the J-1 programme have expressed fear that the incident might affect other students. However, a CEO of a travel agency that assists students with seeking employment told the Sunday Observer that the programme will remain untouched.