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Advocate critical of DCFS policy

New concerns: Tiffanne Thomas, children’s advocate and independent social worker (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

A children’s advocate said yesterday that a scheme for government staff to visit vulnerable youngsters placed in overseas schools was “woefully inadequate”.

Tiffanne Thomas believed the level of contact could lead to feelings of abandonment and knew of young people who recalled never having seen anyone from the Department of Child and Family Services during their time in treatment abroad.

She raised concerns after The Royal Gazette reported last week that boys from the island were for decades sent to Glen Mills Schools in Pennsylvania, which is now under investigation for alleged child abuse and cover-ups.

On Friday, The Royal Gazette reported that the DCFS became aware of allegations of violence by the US reform school’s workers against students in February. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper last August included accusations from a 17-year-old boy that he was choked and punched by a counsellor while other employees held him down.

Ms Thomas, an independent social worker, said yesterday it was “deeply disturbing” to think “abuses of power, position and authority” could take place despite licensing requirements.

She added: “Further, it is unsettling to consider Bermudian young people may have been victimised, either directly or indirectly, during their time at this institution.”

Ms Thomas said youngsters were reportedly threatened against informing others about what they saw and “forced to say that they wanted to remain at the school”.

Glen Mills Schools denied the allegations in an appeal filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which issued an emergency removal order in relation to the 383 boys at the facility last month.

Alfred Maybury, the director of the DCFS, said last week no child from the island had been admitted there since 2017 and none were there now.

A spokeswoman for the department explained that all overseas schools to which children from Bermuda were sent were licensed and accredited.

She said that in each case weekly conference calls were held with the school and child, a DCFS worker visited the youngster every six months from the date they were admitted and in addition the director visited them at least once a year.

Ms Thomas, who has acted as a litigation guardian in 35 cases involving minors since 2014, claimed: “Respectfully, this benchmark is woefully inadequate as an intervention for safeguarding and can be experienced as abandonment for children who have already been identified as vulnerable.

“To remove a child from Bermuda, their home country, and that child not have any contact with anyone from the organisation who sanctioned overseas treatment for at least half a year, is unacceptable.

“Notwithstanding this, this has not been the reality for the children whom I have been appointed to represent.

“Many of the young people I represent recall experiences of never seeing anyone from Bermuda throughout their stay in treatment, periods that extend beyond one year.”

She added: “I can appreciate that I have only been appointed to a small percentage of the cases of children who have been sent overseas. However, the notion that every child is visited does not ring true for those whom I have previously represented.”

Ms Thomas explained that litigation guardians acted as an independent voice of a child and that they could access records held by the DCFS director, allowing them to monitor the frequency and extent of contact, as well as whether there was any cause for concern.

She added: “It is my belief that when it comes to child protection, moreover the protection of children’s rights, we have quite a way to go, which is disheartening considering that we are a developed, sophisticated country that should be more than capable and competent to protect the legal rights of children.”

Scott Pearman, the One Bermuda Alliance’s Shadow Minister of Legal Affairs, said the OBA had repeatedly called on Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General, to launch an independent investigation into allegations at the DCFS.

Accusations emerged in 2018 that Mr Maybury failed to ensure the safety of children in the department’s care and did not follow financial instructions.

He was suspended last August but returned to duties at the department in January, when a ministry spokeswoman said: “These claims levelled against the director were not substantiated.”

A spokeswoman later explained that a two-pronged inquiry included investigations by the Department of Internal Audit and by the permanent secretary responsible for the DCFS. It emerged earlier this year that two staff members at the department were disciplined after allegations of abuse and neglect against them were “substantiated”.

Mr Pearman said on Friday: “It is sickening to learn that Bermudian children have been sent overseas to a Pennsylvanian institution now embroiled in allegations of child abuse.

“Our island is already reeling from revelations that individuals at child and family services are accused of having abused and neglected vulnerable children in the department’s care.

“Now we have fresh revelations that Bermudian children sent away for treatment may also have been victims in this overseas scandal.”

Mr Pearman added: “Enough is enough. If Bermudians are to have any confidence that these allegations are being treated seriously, the Attorney-General must appoint a well-respected, senior lawyer or judge to conduct a proper, thorough and independent investigation.”

Lawyer Saul Dismont, who wrote the letter of complaint that triggered the DCFS inquiry, said yesterday: “In 2016, one of my clients was due to be sent to Glen Mills. The difference is he had a lawyer and a litigation guardian, so he was never sent.”

He added: “How much more does it take? How many more children are going to have to suffer before there is some action? Our children deserve a commission of inquiry.”

The Government was contacted for comment yesterday but no response was received by press time.