Campaigners Call for Alternative Approach

Campaigners called yesterday for Bermuda to come together for the sake of its children after stories about trauma suffered by minors in care services.

They insisted there must be greater consideration given to alternative options that would limit the number of young people sent to treatment centres overseas.

Tiffanne Thomas, an independent social worker, said: “One story of allegations of maltreatment is too many.

“As a country, we have a tremendous opportunity to consider how we can enhance existing practices to minimise the potential for any such allegations in the future.

“We need to consider how we can collaborate to collectively consider a way forward. Approaching this from a place of opposing sides only serves to leave gaps, which our children will undoubtedly fall through.

“I could not think of a more worthy cause for people from all walks of life, regardless of ideologies, to work together for the sole purpose of ensuring that no other child falls through the cracks.”

Ms Thomas, who has acted as a litigation guardian to protect the interests of children in court proceedings since 2014, added: “Differing opinions do not make one right and the other wrong, it simply means there are different perspectives and if these perspectives are merged for one purpose, our children, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.”

Martha Dismont, the executive director of Family Centre, admitted that services in Bermuda did not meet the needs of all children.

She explained: “The director of Child and Family Services has said … that agencies on island do not have capacity nor expertise to provide the needed services for the most high-risk. And he is correct.

“However, it has also been suggested that we take a much longer view and develop a plan that will save the country lots of money, by building capacity and expertise on island.”

Ms Dismont said it was not feasible now to be able to care in Bermuda for all the children in need of residential placements. But she said it could be done “with allocation of resources and training”.

Ms Dismont added that Bermuda should “absolutely” be exploring the option of keeping children with behavioural and other issues on the island.

She said: “The best way to get on with correcting these apparent untoward situations is for those who have oversight of child protection to acknowledge the vulnerabilities and to work collaboratively with the community of caregivers to help to raise the standard on better child care.

“Those who have sat over these situations for the past 15 or 20 years are the best ones to provide clarity on what is needed to improve conditions for children.

“We are hoping that those in the leadership positions will reach out collaboratively.”

Desmond Crockwell, an anti-violence campaigner, said he believed the aim of isolating troubled teens, especially boys, to keep them away from negative influences was laudable.

But he said sending children to another country was a step too far in most cases.

“We need to have a dedicated facility down here for at-risk young men,” said Mr Crockwell. “If you take any children away from their parents, that will affect their development.”

He suggested the home could be on one of Bermuda’s islands and there could be weekly scheduled visits with loved ones.

Mr Crockwell added: “I think definitely utilising some of the stuff we have in Bermuda can work. You don’t want to take a child from their family for too long.”

Sheelagh Cooper, a children’s rights campaigner, claimed an independent investigation of child protection services was “essential” and suggested the appointment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry.

Ms Cooper added: “I am aware that there is concern in the UK about this and especially Bermuda’s non-compliance with its own legislation as it relates to child representation.”

She claimed allegations of abuse had “been exposed over and over in the press over a number of years” without any evidence from Government of a “re-evaluation of either the practice [or] the process” of sending children away.

Kelly Hunt, the executive director of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, which called for a child rights commission on November 20, said “we must continuously strive to improve” on standards of assessment, intervention and the therapeutic care of young people.

She said: “We do recognise that there could be the exceptional case when a child has such extensive psychiatric needs that an overseas facility may be warranted.

“However, these instances are likely to be far and few between and there have been too many who it appears have been relocated for behavioural issues alone.

“We believe the decision to send the volume of Bermuda’s youth overseas for treatment is unnecessary and in many cases unwarranted.

“In such cases, it seems to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and we are seeking further clarification on how these facilities are chosen, as well as monitored.”

Ms Hunt added: “Most of the Bermudians who have been sent away were seemingly of sufficient age to participate in their own welfare.

“Participation and self-determination should not only be the standard, but it is a basic human right that has been consistently denied when it comes to the island’s young people.”

Ms Hunt said: “We commend the bravery it has taken for people to speak out about their experience in the system and we hope that this comes as a clarion call for DCFS, the Government and essentially all of the community to do something drastically different regarding child safeguarding.”

Janet Farnsworth, the executive director of West Ridge Academy, the Utah school where a 16-year-old Bermudian girl died last month, said “out of home” placement was most effective when families could be closely involved.

“Creative use of technology, like Skype phone calls and ‘virtual visits’ through FaceTime, etc are solutions that help mitigate the difficulty of separation,” she said.

“Visits to the programme, coupled with home visits every few months, also helps a family to stay connected during the time that treatment is occurring.”