Better access when investigating child abuse

  • Kim Wilson, the Minister of Health (File photograph)

    Kim Wilson, the Minister of Health (File photograph)

Officials investigating child abuse allegations have faced obstruction from staff at schools, the House of Assembly heard.

Kim Wilson, the Minister of Health, tabled legislation making failure to comply with orders from the director of the Department of Child and Family Services into an offence.

MPs heard last Friday that in 2017, 1,222 allegations of child abuse or neglect came to the department’s intake section.

Last year it handled 1,142 incidents in which a child was “suffering or likely to suffer significant harm at the hands of an abuser, and can include physical or sexual abuse, verbal abuse or neglect”, Ms Wilson said.

She added: “Already between January and September of this year, the department has received 785 reports of allegations of abuse against children.”

She said for the past two years, the DCFS director, as well as designated children’s officers, were “challenged by both public and private schools on whether they have the authority to come into school premises to conduct an investigation of a child without a member of staff present”.

Ms Wilson said interference had occurred despite schools being told of DCFS’s authority under the law.

She added: “Such actions hinder the department’s investigations, causing delays in the protection of our children and putting them at risk of harm.”

The Children’s (No 2) Amendment Act 2019 was drawn up after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Attorney-General and the education minister to toughen the Children Act 1998.

As well as schools, the Bill covers “any place providing extracurricular, social or community activities”. Officials can order the granting of access to the child in question, and get facilities to carry out their investigation without the staff in charge being present.

More than one social worker must be present during the inquiry. Any person failing to comply will have committed an offence, with a fine of up to $3,000.

Scott Pearman, the shadow legal affairs minister, said the One Bermuda Alliance supported the Bill, but he feared that changing the word “shall” to “may” in a section of the Act “diluted” the director’s obligations in relation to applications for emergency protection orders.

On a separate point, Mr Pearman explained: “These are meetings with young children, minors, potentially very young children, in the context of reasonable cause to suspect the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm.”

He said “this is pretty heavy, serious stuff” and that the Bill would allow the director to order a person not to be present during the inquiry.

Mr Pearman asked the Government to consider exceptions for lawyers, litigation guardians and, in cases where they are not accused of an offence, parents,

Leah Scott, the Deputy Opposition Leader, agreed the Bill was “a step in the right direction”.

But she said: “I, too, have concerns in terms of granting even further power to the director.”

Ms Scott added: “I just don’t think that we can allow our children to be interviewed without someone being present.”

Jason Hayward, a Progressive Labour Party MP, said the amendment was needed.

He explained: “When the Department of Child and Family Services tries to conduct its business they face roadblocks, roadblocks that place our children at risk, roadblocks that protect perpetrators.”

Rolfe Commissiong, a PLP backbencher, said there had to be bipartisan effort to achieve consensus “by putting the interests of the children first”.

He said a former minister responsible for the DCFS indicated to him that about 90 to 95 per cent of its clients over the past few decades were black Bermudians.

Mr Commissiong added that it was important to understand the racial make-up as well as income levels of affected families “so that we can more specifically target those remedies for the most beleaguered part of the whole demographic”.

Ms Wilson said later that the legislation, which was passed by MPs, was based on similar laws in Canada and the UK and represented “international best practice”.

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Published Dec 16, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Dec 16, 2019 at 8:05 am)

Better access when investigating child abuse

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