Who should be in the dock?
Convicted gunman Noet Barnett was left devastated as a young boy when his father, Stanley Barnett, was killed in a street fight. He was later failed by the education system, according to child welfare campaigner Sheelagh Cooper.
This is the heartfelt letter Mrs Cooper, of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, wrote to the judge who sentenced Barnett to 25 years in jail yesterday for the gang shooting he committed.Noel was born so close to Christmas that his mother named him Noel. Because of a typographical error his birth certificate read Noet with a 't' instead of an 'l,' and it wasn't until years later that anyone noticed this mistake. By then it was too late. In some ways, that typified this young man's journey.
I first met Noel when he was a little boy and his mother brought him to the Coalition for the Protection of Children. His father had just been murdered and his mother brought him in because, in her words, “he just cries all the time”. He was a beautiful child with bright eyes and a wonderful innocent smile when you could cheer him up. He was the same age as our youngest son and he would often spend weekends at our house.
He was polite, well mannered and a real joy to have around. Over time he seemed less traumatised by the violent death of his father and one almost began to feel as though he was resuming life with all the joy and innocence that he deserved.
Noel lived with his mother and two older siblings in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. The conditions were deemed unsuitable by Child and Family Services who were threatening to remove Noel and place him in foster care. When we approached the landlord to fix the plumbing and replace the sliding door that wouldn't close and the roof that leaked, his response was to raise the rent, which he did twice while Noel's family lived there. This was in the mid- to late-90s during a period when rents everywhere in Bermuda shot up dramatically because of the massive influx of foreign workers arriving to service the growing reinsurance market. Fortunately, we were able to fix up Noel's apartment, replacing doors, fixing leaks and providing beds for everyone so his removal by the authorities was averted.
Around this same time, however, Noel's mother, who worked in a hotel, had her hours reduced and because she fell further and further behind in her rent, the family was finally evicted. Noel's siblings were considerably older, so they could fend for themselves, but Noel and his mother remained homeless for a considerable period of time, moving from relative to relative for short periods, unable to afford a place of their own. Finally, in a desperate attempt to raise enough money to secure a place to live, his mother was apprehended in the US in an effort to transport drugs to Bermuda. She went to prison for four years which left Noel, who was very close to his mother, to fend for himself.
Noel's sister, who now had two children, kept an eye on Noel but after the father of her children was murdered she was far too consumed by her own trauma to provide much support to Noel. (The) murder brought back the bad memories of losing his own father and Noel was visibly depressed. You could tell he felt very alone in this world.
Throughout all of this Noel was having great difficulty at school. By the time he got to Dellwood Middle School he still could not read. We were in constant touch with the school in an effort to have him tested so that proper remedial help could be put in place.
After two years of failing to spur the Department of Education to provide an evaluation we finally gave up and hired, at considerable expense, a private psychologist to do a proper evaluation of his academic difficulties. The report indicated that Noel had some specific learning challenges, but that with the right remedial help he could learn to read. We presented the report to the school but despite our best efforts, no remedial help appeared and Noel finally arrived at CedarBridge almost completely illiterate.
Unable to keep up with students in a regular classroom, Noel was becoming less and less engaged in the learning process and increasingly disruptive in class until finally, at 14 years old, he was expelled. No further educational opportunities were provided by the Department of Education and Noel found himself out on the street.
Nothing was put in place for him by the Department of Education following that, and he spent most days just hanging around the neighbourhood. He would come to see us often and by some miracle he maintained a gentle and actually very sweet personality, though we began to see him becoming more and more introverted.
Over the years that followed we had a series of tutors work with Noel in an effort to bring his reading skills to a level that would enable him to function in the job market, even though the chances of him getting a GED were becoming more and more remote.
What was clear was that the days spent without purpose and without employment was providing him with an opportunity to become part of the world occupied by older gang members and similarly disaffected young men. These were individuals just like Noel without employable skills and eager to find some source of pride and a sense of belonging and make some money along the way. In the two years leading up to his arrest, Noel was shot at on three occasions, breaking his arm jumping over a wall to escape (on one.) He, like so many others like him was desperate to leave Bermuda as a means of escaping the violent world that he now felt locked into.
With respect, Your Honour, one wonders who should be sitting in that dock awaiting sentencing. Is it Noel or is it those of us who failed him? The jury has found him guilty of a very serious offence. Clearly there is a price to pay for this kind of behaviour and indeed a message needs to be sent to others who are similarly engaged in potential violence. But the question that keeps ringing in my ears is who among us could have endured the childhood that this young man who sits before us now has? And who among us could have emerged from that as a well adjusted, stable, productive member of our community?