Who cares? We do
Bermuda likes to call itself “another world”, but it isn’t, really.
The social problems that blight less balmy and picturesque places blight this island too, albeit on a much smaller scale.
The question of what to do when families are fractured, when children are abandoned, abused, neglected or orphaned, when teenagers display troubling and antisocial behaviour, is not an easy one — and it is being grappled with all over the world, in communities far larger and often far poorer than this one.
There isn’t a single, simple solution and The Royal Gazette’s Who Cares? series, launched today and running all this week, does not seek to suggest that is the case.
Nor does it seek to malign or disparage those frontline social workers who deal day after day with difficult cases, involving a vast array of complex problems.
The job of a social worker is not for the faint-hearted — and the majority of us, in truth, don’t have the stomach or the stamina for it.
What the series aims to do, instead, is to make child welfare — and especially the welfare of those minors who don’t have the benefit of a loving, stable, supportive home life — the No 1 topic of conversation in every home, every office and at every street corner.
It aims to give a voice to those who have experienced first-hand this country’s child welfare system, be they minor or parent, and to explore whether Bermuda is doing the very best it can to protect the least powerful and the least privileged among us.
Why are we doing this? Because we must.
In the past 2½ years, story after story has been reported in the media about the failure of Bermuda to afford its children the proper rights they deserve when they appear before the courts.
There have been court judgments that have criticised the worrying overreach of the Department of Child and Family Services, in partnership with the Bermuda Police Service.
There have been first-person accounts of children in care being subjected — here and at “treatment centres” where youngsters are sent to in the United States as part of the DCFS’s psychoeducational programme — to the kind of physical mistreatment we wouldn’t allow for a dog.
The reported dysfunction at the top of the DCFS culminated last year in its director, Alfred Maybury, being suspended for five months while accusations that he ignored allegations of child abuse at local residential homes were investigated.
Mr Maybury returned to work in January after the Government said a “thorough” investigation found the claims against him were “not substantiated”.
Two staff members were disciplined and subsequently returned to work after allegations of abuse and neglect against them were substantiated. The findings of the inquiry were not made public.
Less than a year later, Mr Maybury’s second-in-command, Kennette Robinson, has been charged with assault and mistreatment of a 17-year-old girl who was in the care of the department.
Ms Robinson denies the charges and is, of course, innocent until proven guilty.
But the notion that there is a deep malaise at the DCFS is not a fantastical one, conjured by The Royal Gazette to sensationalise a serious subject and sell newspapers.
During the course of our reporting on this issue since 2017, it has become clear that the department is run by a seemingly untouchable civil servant in a way that many child welfare professionals believe does not focus on the best interests of children.
We’ve spoken to:
• Young men who were sent as boys, before being convicted of any crime, to a punitive borstal in Pennsylvania, which has since been shut for mistreatment and abuse of children
• A young man who spent three months aged 15 in Co-Ed, the corrective facility in St George’s for those aged 16 and above. He, too, had no convictions
• A young woman who was sent overseas aged about 14, and claims she was never visited by DCFS social workers
• A young woman who claims she had no say in a decision to send her to an institution in the United States and alleges that she was sexually assaulted by a staff member at a facility in Florida
• A girl who refused to board a flight to go back to an overseas school because she was so unhappy there
• Professionals who have voiced disquiet at how little say children have in what happens to them once they are in care
That list alone would be more than enough to warrant a deeper look at the DCFS and its programmes by Bermuda’s only daily newspaper. But that is not all.
The tragic death last month of a 16-year-old girl in the care of the department while at a school in Utah, which is still under investigation, should have everyone on this island clamouring to get answers about why we send youngsters away and why we can’t — or won’t — adequately care for them here.
Bermuda has to ask itself if it wants to be a country that has arguably the best children’s homes in the world — an accolade recently bestowed on Denmark in The Guardian newspaper — or one in which vulnerable teenagers in care are being placed at risk of abuse while living in unregulated homes, as a recent BBC investigation found was the case in England and Wales.
Taxpayers spend millions and millions of dollars on the welfare of children each year, yet we have heard from children, parents and staff about substandard facilities here that fail to offer even the most basic of programmes to help youngsters succeed.
And once children are sent away, on the basis that they need highly specialised care that they can’t get here, what oversight does Bermuda really have over the places they go?
Is the twice-yearly visit the department insists it conducts enough, when we are entrusting these facilities with our youth?
What is the impact of being cared for in the long term so far away from one’s loved ones and community?
Attorney-General Kathy Lynn Simmons, the minister responsible for the Department of Child and Family Services, urged The Royal Gazette in June to stop asking questions about the psychoeducational programme that sends children overseas and about child-abuse allegations at some of the schools used.
Ms Simmons might as well have stood up in the Senate and waved a large red flag emblazoned with the initials “DCFS”.
It was a welcome salvo reminding us to dig, dig and dig again.
We know that plenty of Bermuda’s social workers are in the job because they love children and they care hugely about making the island a better place. We are thankful for them.
But as a newspaper — and as a society — we mustn’t fear demanding to know more when abuse, incompetence or dysfunction is alleged, just in case it hurts the feelings of those who are doing the job right.
Ms Simmons said the overseas institutions used by the DCFS, some of which have been accused of gross staff misconduct, “provide services that we do not and cannot provide for our children”.
What if we as a country tried to imagine what it would take to turn “cannot” into “can”?
During the course of our investigation, we were told a nine-year-old child was taken to Utah from Bermuda for a psychological assessment. If you have one spare minute today, try to think about how that youngster must have felt on the long journey there, upon arrival and when the social worker from the DCFS — the child’s last remaining link to home for a while, at least — said goodbye and left.
Agencies in Philadelphia launched a campaign called #SafelyHome focused on creating alternatives to placing children in faraway, institutionalised care and on improving the city’s own facilities.
This series aims to get us all talking about what it would take to get Bermuda’s children, all of them, safely home.
When we ask “Who Cares?”, we are really asking Bermuda’s leaders, as well as our readers: do you?
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