Who cares? A troubled environment
At 13, he thought he was going to Disney World — but instead was flown overseas for a year in therapy.
At 15, he should have been in a children’s home — but was “jailed” for months at the Co-Ed in St George’s despite never being convicted of a crime.
At 23, he could have been a different person — but Bermuda’s care system made him the man he is — for better or for worse he was unable to say.
Tyler Christopher told his story to The Royal Gazette as part of an investigation into how the island’s most vulnerable children — those who end up in the care of the state — are looked after here and abroad.
He is not alone.
Other young people who have been in the care of the Department of Child and Family Services also told us about their experiences — how it felt to be removed from their family and placed in residential homes, often without any legal representation and without the chance to complete their education.
The youngsters were taken to be looked after long term at institutions thousands of miles from home in some cases as part of a programme run by DCFS which has cost taxpayers almost $50 million over the past 25 years.
Allegations about the mistreatment of minors have been made about facilities here and overseas.
This week, The Royal Gazette asks: “Who cares?”
A series of articles, which start today, will put the spotlight on how the Bermuda Government and other agencies dealt with young people in need and will look at if more could be done to help them.
The series follows a call made last month by the Coalition for the Protection of Children for a child rights commission to be established in response to “continued allegations of abuse, a lack of child-centred justice, and the devastating loss of more than one teen this year”.
Mr Christopher, originally from Pembroke, said: “They need a whole restructure of the DCFS. They need to go over their handbooks and all that, starting from the top.”
He said he was adopted as a baby and started to have behaviour problems aged about 11.
His late mother, Rochelle, sought help from the Child and Adolescent Services section of Bermuda Hospitals Board and he attended therapy sessions every week.
Mr Christopher said: “Now I can see that I was probably frustrated. I had anger problems.
“I used to act out in school and at home.”
He said his mother “found it difficult being able to deal with my outbursts, because she was sick” and he struggled with the transition when she moved from Pembroke to Somerset.
Mr Christopher added that the combination of losing neighbourhood friends and “beefing with Somerset guys” was overwhelming.
He said it was later decided he would go to a Devereux Advanced Behavioural Health centre in Viera, Florida, after talks between staff from CAS and the DCFS.
He added: “I was told I was going to Disney World and then I was going to check out a school.”
Mr Christopher said he never made it to the theme park and on arrival at the treatment facility, aged 13, it seemed more like a hospital.
He said: “They had me there with all these people, these people were on medications, they act out.
“I’m seeing people get put in restraints, I’m seeing people cut themselves, I’m seeing people bang their heads on walls.
“They had a behaviour system — you worked your way up to gold when you get special privileges, go on trips, you get McDonald’s.
“I was there for an entire year. From January to July I had trouble, I was getting in fights, I was still being disobedient.
“It was hard to adjust.”
The Devereux Florida Viera Campus said on its website it was “a professional therapeutic environment for children and adolescents facing significant emotional, behavioural and developmental challenges”.
Mr Christopher said he felt “mad at everyone in Bermuda” for sending him to the institution.
He explained: “Once I got over all that anger and I started going along with the programme ... it made me a different person.
“It made me more manipulative, it made me more strategic. I started pretending to be good.
“I wasn’t changed, I was just doing what I needed to do to get the special privileges, to get up to gold.”
Mr Christopher added: “I wouldn’t say that they helped me because they put me around people that exposed me to things that I hadn’t been exposed to, so I ended up picking up things that weren’t good. I wasn’t in a good environment.
“I learnt how to work through the system.”
He said he felt sessions with a therapist in Devereux helped, but that he feared the benefits were short-lived.
Mr Christopher explained: “You can’t send someone to a foreign country and think that’s going to solve the issue because once you come back the issue’s still going to be there ... It was like I just wasted a whole year.”
Mr Christopher, aged 14 when he returned to Bermuda, faced further disruption when he started at CedarBridge Academy months after his former classmates entered their first senior school year.
He got into fights and often stayed at a friend’s house rather than going home to his mother.
Mr Christopher’s schooling was moved to The Education Centre, in Devonshire, and at about the same time he became the subject of a DCFS care order, which meant he would no longer live at home.
He claimed the presence of Somerset youths in the boys’ home at Oleander Cottage in Devonshire meant that he was “housed” at the Co-Ed Facility, which is run by the Department of Corrections — which is supposed to accommodate adult female and young male offenders aged 16 to 21.
Mr Christopher said he had not committed any offence at that time and added that he did no school work during his time there.
He explained: “They had a person from DCFS come to Co-Ed between the hours of 8am and 4pm to monitor me.
“We would watch movies, play checkers, go outside.”
Mr Christopher said he had his own room in a segregated area of the institution, which he described as “jail”.
He added: “From 4pm until 8am the next morning I was locked down in my room. I didn’t have TV.
“I was living like an inmate at 15 years old.”
The Children Act 1998 ruled that a residential home could include a “facility for the detention of young offenders”, but that only the appropriate government minister could run a home or give approval for another person or organisation to do so.
But Mr Christopher said Nicole Stoneham, now a Puisne Judge, who dealt with his cases in Family Court, helped him leave the Co-Ed after about three months.
He added she said that “it was illegal to have me housed there, because I hadn’t been sentenced to correctional time”.
The would-be professional boxer said that he had been taken to the Family Court by Department of Corrections staff.
He added: “If it wasn’t for Ms Stoneham hearing my cries, I don’t know where I would be right now.
“She’s the one that fought for my rights. She said: ‘Why is he in an orange jumpsuit?’”
Mr Christopher went to Oleander Cottage afterwards — because he believed some of the former Somerset residents had moved on — and left the care system aged about 16 or 17.
But the next couple of years were marred with criminal convictions, which he said were for receiving stolen goods, trespassing, burglary and cocaine possession.
Mr Christopher said a month on remand at Westgate when he was 19 was the “deciding factor” that motivated him to turn his life around.
He explained: “I saw my mama’s health deteriorating over time. I used to have dreams about her dying, so I wanted her to have good memories before she died.”
Steady employment followed and the promising athlete recently moved to the UK where he is now pursuing his sport.
But Mr Christopher said: “My whole life probably would have been different now if I didn’t go through that stuff.
“I could be dead, I could be doing better, I don’t know what could have happened.
“I just know that from what I’ve been through to where I am now, I’ve improved, but I feel like I was institutionalised.”
He added: “Sometimes I’m thankful for it because it made me who I am, but when I look back at me going away, it didn’t help me because I still ended up going through the court system. When I went back to Co-Ed, this time I was on remand.”
Mrs Justice Stoneham said that she wished Mr Christopher well when contacted by The Royal Gazette.
Devereux was unable to respond to a request for comment by press time but a spokeswoman told the Gazette earlier this year that children attended its programmes for “expert medical and educational care”.
She added: “The children we care for have medical conditions including mental and behavioural health issues, often, but not always, tied to serious childhood trauma.
“We also provide best-in-class medical and educational care for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism.”
The spokeswoman said placements were “entirely voluntary” and parents or guardians could remove children at any time by going to the centre and asking for their child.
The legal affairs ministry, which oversees the DCFS, and the national security ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
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