Magistrate: To fix problems Island must end its ‘chronic case of denial’
Juan Wolffe believes Bermuda has a “chronic case of denial on deep-seated problems”.
As president of Bermuda’s Drug Court, he is familiar with the 12-step programme many recovering addicts go through.
“Any discussions about solutions must first begin with an honest acknowledgment, individually and collectively, that we have deep-seated problems,” he said.
“We are a nation of enablers who are in chronic denial of the fact that our children, sisters, brothers, co-workers, ace-boys, and ace-girls are engaged in negative behaviour.
“It’s tearing our social fabric apart and as difficult as it may be, we have to air our dirty laundry and hold our loved ones accountable for their offending or dysfunctional behaviour.
“Unless, or until we do, no amount of government programmes or resources will make one iota of a difference.”
There is no silver bullet to mend Bermuda’s ills, he acknowledged. Solutions will require a multidisciplinary approach and an educated public.
“I’m not just talking about the academic variety, I’m primarily referring to life skills, parenting, principles, morals and values.”
The common thread that runs through all the cases that come before him is the offenders’ “lack of basic skills on how to conduct themselves as law abiding citizens”, he stated.
“It has come to the point that ‘abnormal’ behaviour is the ‘new normal’. Any solution must start in the home, not in Parliament or in the courts,” said Mr Wolffe.
“You cannot blame a child for being antisocial if they are only mimicking the behaviour of their parents. And you cannot blame a child for acting out if their parents are not active in the child’s life.”
He continued: “If a family member knows that a loved one is shirking their responsibility to look after their child or to pay child support, then they should, in no uncertain terms, continuously let them know it’s not acceptable.
“The same can be said of family members who know they have loved ones who are engaged in criminal behaviour like gang activity. Mothers, fathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles must verbally disapprove of their loved one’s thuggish conduct and let them know unequivocally that such behaviour will not be tolerated or accepted.”
The Magistrate called on the Island’s churches and sports clubs to step up their roles to reach the masses through parenting workshops and life skill classes.
And he said it was time to address open drug dealing and other illegal activity on club grounds.
“Too often criminal behaviour such as the use of illicit substances, takes place right under the noses of some club officials without penalty. A very clear message must be sent that any person engaged in criminal behaviour will be dealt with harshly.”
Many offenders considered school a waste of time he said, and it was time that attitude changed.
“For some reason many of the juveniles who appear in court do not, strangely, see the value of school, they don’t see in practical terms how it applies to them.
“Essentially, they have no idea or interest in their vocational future. It is a problem because these young juveniles eventually grow up to be adults who may commit more serious crimes.”
Children who are underperforming or exhibiting antisocial behaviour must be given a special curriculum to meet their needs, he added.
“This curriculum, because of the antisocial behaviour of the student, must incorporate a life skills element so as to teach the children the practicality of attaining an education.
“It would also be beneficial if the child’s parents play an integral part in this process. That’s where the government comes in because such programmes require funding.
“It is my belief that any funding would best be spent at the front end rather then later on, when $81,000 per year is spent to house the child at the Co-ed Facility or at Westgate Correctional Facility, when the antisocial child matriculates into a criminal adult,” said Mr Wolffe.
The Island’s “staggeringly high” recidivism rate was such because the “transitional or after care system in place is insufficient”, he added.
“This is partly because once individuals do their time they immediately and systematically revert to their old stamping ground and hang around the same dysfunctional people.
“This invariably leads to criminal offences being committed. They must be shown and taught to lead an alternative lifestyle, one that doesn’t involve criminal behaviour.”
To achieve that, he said a “fully resourced and sustainable halfway house must be put in place”, with parolees made to live there for a certain time period.
“The nature of addiction is such that there may be relapses. We cannot save everybody, although that’s our goal, but the reality is we’re not going to be able to save everybody.
“But if we can give a person two years of respite, two years of peace, two years of building tools to keep them out of trouble and not committing offences, then we’ve done our job.
“That way they can be assimilated back into society in a lawful way.”
This week The Royal Gazette featured a news series with Magistrate Juan Wolffe on a wide range of issues stemming from the breakdown of the social fabric of the community.
The Women’s Resource Centre commended the Magistrate for his comments published on January 21 on the impact of the recession on local businesses and residents who end up in Civil Court.
WRC Executive Director Elaine Williams wrote: “The centre is currently collecting data on the number of client’s seeking assistance because they owe bills and are being prosecuted for it.
“This has been most concerning for us because as Magistrate Wolfe stated, many people are not paying their bills, not because they do not want to, but they simply do not have the money.
“”This problem is non-discriminatory, and as we have seen, can affect anyone. We have seen mainly women with children who when incarcerated, have to deal with families being split apart.
“A prison record upon their release which makes it less likely for them to obtain employment upon their release.
“The Women’s Resource Centre does not have the resources to assist them financially.
“But if we can, we will contact whoever the monies are owed to assist in the mediation of payment plans. Or we can advise on how to gain financial assistance or provide free counselling for depression if necessary.
“The Women’s Resource Centre has engaged pro-bono legal counsel to look at the laws pertaining to debt collection to see if we could engage in a dialogue that could make a difference.
“We realise that the effects of punitive solutions can be devastating to someone who has fallen on hard times and could create a situation of trauma that can last for generations to come.
“It is wonderful to see a champion like Magistrate Wolffe who cares to understand the entire process and who, by creating an awareness, can open up a discussion towards a resolution to this increasing problem.
“As only one of the helping services in Bermuda the Women’s Resource Centre would like to see us work together to resolve this growing issue that will have a tremendous impact on us all.”
Ms Williams concluded: “It will take the collaborative efforts of everyone including the community.”
Civil Court cases involving unpaid debts frequently involves highly emotional exchanges in court. When asked how he deals with the stress of it all Mr Wolffe said he leaves his work, at work.
He concluded: “I leave it here because I have to. If I take it home it’s going to affect my emotions and ultimately my household, so I will work late to get things done rather than take it home.”
He admits however that it takes constant practice. “I’ve learned over the years to have a very clear distinction between my job and my personal life. And while sometimes there’s some spillage, for the most part I am able to separate the two.
“Unlike some of the Magistrates in Family Court, their cases are far more emotional and emotive than what I do, so it’s probably much more difficult for them to disconnect.
“But you have to try to find ways to do that because if you don’t, you tend to take on all the stress and strain of the job and in my life, I keep it together by leaving it all on the job.”