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Woman tells of traumatic abandonment as a child

A woman exiled to an overseas institution by the Family Court when she was a child said yesterday she had no say in the decision and suffered “trauma” while abroad.

The woman said: “I was blindsided. I didn’t know nothing about it. They didn’t ask me nothing, they didn’t tell me nothing.”

She added that the Department of Child and Family Services “had me watch a little video of what school I would be going to, asking me how I would like it”.

The woman, who asked not to be named, added: “I’m not stupid, so I ended up putting two and two together and going away two days later.

“They just asked me, ‘Oh, do you think this programme is nice, we are doing a little survey’.

“They showed me the video and ... two days later I end up away. They had asked me maybe two months before did I want to go and I said no.”

The youngster was sent to an Eckerd Youth Alternatives centre in Tennessee when she was 15 as part of the DCFS psychoeducational programme.

The move abroad came after she was taken into care and sent to the Brangman Home for girls in Bermuda.

She was later transferred from Tennessee to a now-closed Eckerd centre in Atlanta, Georgia, where she claims she was sexually abused by a counsellor.

The teenager had no independent legal representation during her time in care and claimed she was given no opportunity to express her wishes to the court before it issued an order to send her away.

The woman, now aged 25, was sent abroad in about 2008 and returned three years later, when her US visa expired.

She said she had no idea of her rights because they were never explained to her.

The woman added: “Everybody else thought for me.”

She said she still did not understand why she was put into the psychoeducational programme, a scheme said by the Government to be for youngsters with social, emotional, psychological and/or psychiatric issues that cannot be treated on the island.

The woman explained: “I have no police record. I had none of that, nothing like that. I wouldn’t say I was perfect but ... I wasn’t on drugs or anything like that.

“I didn’t used to get drunk and stuff like that. I was just a normal child. I wasn’t diagnosed with anything.”

The woman was first taken into care when she was about 12, after living between her mother and father’s separate homes, and regularly being absent from school. She had been looked after as a small child by a relative who works at the DCFS.

The department obtained a court order to have her placed at the Brangman Home and the woman said she was taken there by the relative, unaware she would be staying there long-term.

She said: “I didn’t realise I was going to be stuck there.

“For the first couple of months I was cool, then I got upset and frustrated that all my freedom was being taken away.”

The woman said the Brangman Home was a “loving, family-orientated” environment, but added: “It wasn’t my family.

“I wouldn’t say anything bad happened. I was just frustrated that I didn’t get to go home.

“It’s OK, it’s comfortable, but it’s not my home. Most of my trauma was when I was away.”

The teenager stopped attending school altogether. The DCFS asked for a court order to send her abroad and she flew to the Tennessee institution with the relative.

The woman added: “Once you are checked in, your family has to go. I was there three years with no trips home, apart from once.

“Everybody used to go home Christmas, Thanksgiving. I was there myself, the only student at the school. I couldn’t come home, nothing.”

Her accommodation was in a small wooden hut, shared with three other girls and all of them slept on pullout beds with thin mattresses with one sheet and one blanket.

The woman said: “My momma has raised some strong children, so I was OK. There weren’t nothing I could do. I made some friends. I guess I just talked my way out of thinking too much.”

But after the Tennessee centre was closed, the teenager was moved to the Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge School, where she met the counsellor she alleged assaulted her. The woman said: “This place was so traumatising. It was a whole lot going on.”

The counsellor was charged in 2013 with engaging in sex with two female students and stood trial at the Superior Court of Union County, Georgia.

A jury found him not guilty.

The woman said the DCFS returned her to Bermuda after her stint at Eckerd, but gave her no further help.

The woman’s mother said her daughter was sent abroad against her wishes, but she did not know how to oppose the court order.

The relative who works at DCFS declined to comment, but insisted there were protocols put in place to manage any conflict of interest.

A Ministry of Legal Affairs spokeswoman said she could not discuss the woman’s case.

But she confirmed Eckerd was no longer used by island social services and said that all overseas treatment centres were accredited by the Joint Commission National Quality Approval Organisation and vetted by senior DCFS staff every year.

She added: “All current programmes are licensed in their jurisdictions and accredited. The Department of Child and Family Services will not disclose the list of current facilities, as it could be determined as a breach of confidentiality and directly impact the children and parents who currently have children in overseas facilities.”

A spokesman for Eckerd said last night that the organisation had moved away from residential care several years ago in favour of community-based services and that the Atlanta centre had closed in 2011.

He added: “Eckerd no longer accepts placements from the Bermuda Department of Child and Family Services and was not aware of allegations that children were sent outside of Bermuda without legal representation and procedural due process.”

He added that a staff member at the Atlanta academy had been fired by the organisation after he was arrested on allegations of sexual offences involving two students in the centre’s care before its closure. His employment was terminated on November 10, 2010.

• The Royal Gazette wants to speak to people who were taken into care by the Department of Child and Services, including those who participated in the overseas pyschoeducational programme. You can be assured of confidentiality if you choose to share your story with us. E-mail sstrangeways@royalgazette.com or call 278-0155.