Claims of abuse at child agency
A social worker who blew the whistle on allegations that government child protection staff abused and neglected youngsters said yesterday the case highlighted the need for vulnerable youngsters to have independent representation.
An investigation into the abuse claims was launched by the Ministry of Social Development and Sport after Tiffanne Thomas raised concerns about four Department of Child and Family Services staff members accused of mistreating children, as first reported by the Politica news website.
It is claimed the staff members were allowed to continue working by department director Alfred Maybury, despite the allegations.
An inquiry is under way into Mr Maybury's handling of the complaints and he has been suspended.
Ms Thomas, an independent social worker who acts as a litigation guardian for children involved in court proceedings, told The Royal Gazette: “A case like this completely underscores the significance of a litigation guardian.
“They give a voice to children who would normally be silenced.”
She discovered reports of the alleged mistreatment when she reviewed the files of a boy she represents, referred to as “BC” to protect his identity, who is in the care of the department.
The reports revealed that department social workers had made two separate child protection referrals concerning allegations of physical abuse of BC by a male staff member.
Ms Thomas later discovered that other children had complained about neglect by staff at the department's residential treatment centre.
Staff were accused of being drunk on duty, leaving children unattended at a youth group and transporting children while intoxicated.
Ms Thomas, on behalf of BC, instructed lawyer Saul Dismont to apply for a restraining order against the male staff member.
Mr Maybury challenged the application on the grounds that it was based on an accusation not yet determined to be true.
However Magistrate Tyrone Chin issued the restraining order against the male staff member and three other department employees on July 19 to prevent them having any contact with BC.
Ms Thomas later asked Mr Dismont, of law firm Marshall Diel & Myers, to write to Michael Weeks, the Minister of Social Development, about the allegations and the way they were handled by Mr Maybury.
She said: “I had an ethical responsibility to ensure this was raised and hopefully addressed.
“Outside of that, because there are active investigations pending, I have a professional duty to allow that process to be carried out by the people who have the responsibility for exploring these types of allegations.”
She said the allegations only came to light because BC had a litigation guardian, an independent representative for children involved in court proceedings, which minors are entitled to have but often do not get because of a lack of funding.
The Human Rights Commission and several charities launched a legal action against the Government and the Family Court last year.
The groups accused the authorities of a failure to ensure children were adequately represented in court.
They wanted a declaration that the courts and the Government were required to provide representation for children in the majority of cases, but the judge found that the requirement may not be complied with in “many cases ... for want of public funding”.
The plaintiffs plan to appeal.
The letter to the Minister, seen by The Royal Gazette, detailed the “physical assault, bullying and harassment” that BC is alleged to have suffered and the complaints made by the other children.
Mr Dismont wrote: “It is extraordinary that none of the staff were suspended.”
He said yesterday the problems raised by Ms Thomas were “alarming” and that it was lucky that BC “had the rare benefit of having been appointed a litigation guardian”.
Mr Dismont added: “It is sincerely hoped that the issues raised reaffirms the importance of children having the protection of the appointment of litigation guardians and lawyers.”
A Ministry spokeswoman confirmed that Mr Weeks received Mr Dismont's letter and an investigation had been launched into the allegations of abuse.
She said: “The Ministry ... takes any accusation of abuse towards a child in their care extremely seriously.
“A thorough investigation into this particular matter has commenced.
“If any claims are substantiated following the investigation, immediate steps will be taken to remedy the situation.
“The safety and wellbeing of children in Bermuda is the paramount concern of the Ministry.”
Mr Maybury said: “I'm letting the process go its way. I wish not to discuss it.”
Shadow social development minister Ben Smith said: “This investigation must be as thorough as possible and should take place quickly.
“Its results should be made public as the public needs to be reassured that if there are issues within this department they have been identified and will be fixed.”