Answers from BVI on care for at-risk children
An overseas territory stopped sending children with behavioural issues to residential centres abroad more than a decade ago because young people struggled to return to the communities they left behind.
Laurel Freeman, a social worker in the British Virgin Islands, explained that relationships formed before the minors went abroad were disrupted and the distance meant it was difficult for family to keep in touch.
She added that although residential placements sometimes appeared to be the only solution for troubled teenagers, a change in culture was needed to make progress.
Bermudian children have been sent to overseas treatment centres since at least as far back as 1984.
The Ministry of Legal Affairs said this week that nine children were in placements abroad, among a total of 18 who received psychoeducational care from the Department of Child and Family Services in 2019.
As part of it’s Who Cares? series, The Royal Gazette asked other island jurisdictions how they helped young people.
Ms Freeman replied: “In the absence of a residential treatment centre, the BVI sought and contracted the services of private and publicly funded agencies across the Caribbean and the United States to address the needs of those minors severely affected by various behavioural, development and other issues.
“The impetus to continue this intervention ended more than ten years ago, due to several factors.
“Namely, on return to the territory from overseas, the minors, juveniles or young persons found it difficult to integrate back into the society and as a result they often reoffended.
“Ongoing communication was not prioritised and therefore the initial relationship and bond created prior to them leaving exasperated other family and social economic dynamics.
“Distance made family continuity difficult to maintain due to costs associated with travel, telephone or other contact.
“In lieu of utilising overseas facilities, extensive intervention through co-agency collaboration now occurs within the territory to serve all facets of the affected minor.
“It is recognised that in some instances a residential treatment centre is the only viable option to affect change and this has been acknowledged by persons who can affect that change but with all things, a cultural shift needs to take place prior to moving forward.”
Ms Freeman, who works in the Family, Children and Protective Services unit of the BVI’s Social Development Department, confirmed later that the children who attended the overseas centres had behavioural issues, but were not juvenile offenders.
She added: “When they came back, I can recall a few of them actually did end up getting in conflict with the law and ending up in the local prison.
“I guess the Government found that the practice was not working, was not effective.”
Ms Freeman explained: “As a British overseas territory, effective psychoeducational programmes for the challenges now faced with the teenage population are perhaps one of the more innovative, creative and challenging components of social services agencies within the Caribbean.”
She said the BVI, which has a population of about 30,000, tried to place children “with extreme behavioural disruptions” in settings that addressed the problem and “implement behaviour modification”.
Ms Freeman explained that the territory had a state-owned residential facility that looked after children in need of care and protection up to the age of 15, including minors affected by abuse, neglect and abandonment.
She added: “Referrals are made for children to various psychologists and psychiatrists in the territory to address any psychosocial issues and intervention takes place within the territory, whereby access to family and familiar surroundings aids with the behavioural change required.”
Other services have included support from private partners in the form of intervention and prevention programmes, psychoeducational clinics hosted by private practitioners as well as community mental health schemes like group and play therapy.
Ms Freeman added: “I trust, as like-minded territories, solutions to help our children can be reached in a concise, effective manner.”
A letter seen by The Royal Gazette showed that a staff member working in the island’s child protection agency was concerned about the extent of the psychoeducational programme’s use 12 years ago.
Sharon Merlo, who was a residential treatment services co-ordinator, wrote in 2007 to Kennette Robinson, then the DCFS acting director, about why funds were needed to develop services on the island at that time.
She acknowledged there would always be limits to what could be provided in Bermuda.
But Ms Merlo wrote: “It is reasonable to assume that the current excessive psychoeducational overseas placements will continue as long as the resources that require capital expenditure remain unavailable.
“We will continue to frustrate the community and our stakeholders by our inability to service clients locally.”
The psychoeducational programme was developed to help children who were deemed to have exhausted all therapeutic services on the island.
The legal affairs ministry said on Monday that the DCFS’s child protection in 2018 included support for 151 families so that 238 children could remain in their care, as well as counselling services for 105 children and 82 parents.
Foster care was in place for 88 children, with 30 per cent of those being kinship or family placements.
A spokeswoman added: “This is always the department’s preferred placement option in order to keep the children with family when the courts deem placement with the parents to be unsafe.”
In 2018, 20 young people were in residential care homes run by the DCFS.
The Gazette requested information from child and family services departments in the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, but none was received by press time.
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