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Cooper aghast at DCFS ward’s treatment

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Hard to accept: Sheelagh Cooper, founder and former board member of the Coalition for the Protection of Children

A child welfare campaigner said yesterday that the “heart-wrenching” case of a 15-year-old girl exiled to an overseas institution for three years without any say in the decision highlighted the need for vulnerable children to be given a voice.

The teenager’s story was reported in The Royal Gazette on Wednesday and included a claim that she was sexually abused by a counsellor at one of the facilities in the United States after she was taken abroad a decade ago.

Sheelagh Cooper, the founder and a former board member of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, said: “The heart-wrenching story of the 15-year-old girl sent away for two years to two different residential ‘treatment’ facilities in the United States against her will and against the will of her parents is chilling enough.

“But the realisation that at least one of those facilities employed a worker who allegedly sexually abused this young girl is just so hard to accept.

“Had the court considered appointing either a litigation guardian or a guardian ad litem, which was required by law even then, it is doubtful that this child would have been put through this experience in the first place.

“At the very least, she would have had someone to reach out to once she arrived to find herself in the conditions she described, not to mention the abuse she suffered.”

Ms Cooper added: “Regrettably, this is not an isolated case, as well over 100 children have been sent to offshore facilities, who, in many if not most cases, could have benefited from the representation that was provided to them in law.”

Kelly Hunt, executive director of the coalition, declined to comment on the woman’s individual story. However, she said there were “too many cases where the welfare of children has been determined without the guidance and support of a litigation guardian”.

Ms Hunt said: “The voices of persons who find themselves in vulnerable positions must not only be heard but respected.

“We maintain that children need, deserve and have the right to independent representation in Family Court.

“In cases where a child is old enough to express their own opinion, aged as young as 7 in Canada, their thoughts should be taken into account.”

She added: “Self-determination should always be the goal in situations where that can be achieved. In cases where that isn’t viable, an advocate whose mandate is solely based on the interests of that child must be considered as paramount.

“The fundamental role of a guardian ad litem or litigation guardian is to represent those who cannot represent themselves.

“Our position holds that this is not only a right for the vulnerable, but a core value of a just and fair society.”

The then teenage girl was in the psychoeducational programme run by the Department of Child and Family Services for youngsters with behaviour problems who can no longer be dealt with on the island.

None of the children sent abroad before 2014 had legal representation and just two have had it since.

Successive governments have failed to provide funds for the services of litigation guardians.

Ms Cooper said the DCFS should not provide the only opinion on what should happen to children in care.

She added it was “easy to see why a magistrate would prefer to hear from one voice and not particularly want to be burdened by another voice, representing a child’s wishes, that may challenge the plan as set out by the department”.

She suggested the reluctance to give children the right to be heard was about more than money.

Ms Cooper said: “The question must be asked whether we as a community really are ready to extend to children the same protection from life-altering decisions by a government department that we extend to adults.

“The case of this young lady is one among many that could have been prevented and our children are as vulnerable today as they were back in 2008 when she was sent away.”

No isolated case: Kelly Hunt, executive director of the Coalition for the Protection of Children