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Teen takes aim at Attorney-General and DCFS

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“Legitimate questions”: Attorney-General Kathy Lynn Simmons (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

An attempt by Attorney-General Kathy Lynn Simmons to shut down questions about vulnerable children sent abroad without legal representation was criticised yesterday, including by a teenager who claimed he was made to go overseas under false pretences.

The 18-year-old said he strongly disagreed with comments made by Ms Simmons in the Senate on Wednesday about the Department of Child and Family Services’ psychoeducational programme.

Ms Simmons accused The Royal Gazette of “fishing overseas and undermining the operations of the Government”.

The teenager, who asked not to be named, said: “I know what those places were like and I know what the department is like.”

He alleged: “When I was 13, the department told me I was going on holiday in the US.

“Instead they just dumped me at those places for years. When I came back to Bermuda, my friends thought I had died.”

Ms Simmons, the Senate leader and Minister of Legal Affairs, said she travelled abroad last month to visit Bermudian children at “more than” six places and was impressed with the facilities.

But the 18-year-old said: “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She’s there a minute and thinks she knows everything.

“What did she think they were going to say to her? ‘Oh by the way, we treat children badly here’?”

Lawyer Saul Dismont, meanwhile, said a client of his who has a child at one of the centres told him that “neither the AG nor the [DCFS] director [Alfred Maybury] spoke with [the child] when they visited”.

The Ministry of Legal Affairs says the psychoeducational programme “precedes 1999” but it has shared figures on the number of children sent abroad since 2013 only.

The ministry said in November it had 30 referrals between 2013 and 2018.

It said 50 youngsters were sent abroad between April 2014 and November 2018, only two of whom had legal representation.

Mr Dismont said: “It should make us all very uncomfortable to know that there is missing data about vulnerable children being sent abroad and that only two of at least 50 children had representation.

“It should also make us uncomfortable that answers are not being provided.

“There is nothing more important than our children and the public are entitled to know that all those children sent abroad are there legally and are safe.”

Independent social worker Tiffanne Thomas, who has acted as a court-appointed advocate for at least 35 children since 2014, said: “This is a matter of public interest, as taxpayers are funding the practice of sending countless children overseas through the psychoeducation programme.

“It is unfortunate that there has been a shroud of secrecy associated with this. To state that this programme has been in existence since before 1999 and then only provide empirical data for 2013 to 2018 is alarming.”

The Royal Gazette has interviewed programme participants who claim to have been tricked or forced to go abroad and mistreated while there.

Some attended Glen Mills Schools, in Pennsylvania, which was recently shut down amid allegations of child abuse.

Ms Simmons told the Upper Chamber “we’ve had parents speaking out” and that there have been “numerous reports, negative reports, about our operations”.

Ms Thomas said: “To minimise the disclosures made by persons who have been sent overseas, or those directly affected by a child being sent overseas, is not only insensitive, but it suggests that we lack the capacity to value or validate the experiences of others, and that we do not truly care about the welfare of children.”

Children’s rights campaigner Sheelagh Cooper questioned the “reluctance to respond to basic questions from the press”.

She asked: “Is not this the role of the press in a democratic society?”

Ms Cooper added: “This must not become a political issue.

“The lives and safety of our children must transcend all of those kinds of debates.

“Who can possibly argue that children can be removed from Bermuda without representation?”

A mother whose teenage son was sent to Utah in the US by DCFS said she welcomed public scrutiny of the programme.

The woman, who did not want to be identified, alleged: “They dump the children out there and it’s like out of sight, out of mind. ‘See you when you are 18’.

“They don’t want to deal with the issue [in Bermuda] so they send the children overseas.”

In the Senate, Ms Simmons urged The Royal Gazette: “Please do not try to obtain information that is detrimental to what we are trying to accomplish.

“If you have a legitimate question, I’m more than happy to answer it.”

We asked the Attorney-General for an interview on Wednesday and yesterday but have yet to receive a response.

Shadow Attorney-General Scott Pearman said Ms Simmons had been silent on allegations about DCFS for months.

“When she finally chooses to speak, she instead attacks the media for asking the questions that need to be asked,” he said.

“She says that she will answer ‘legitimate’ questions. What can be more legitimate than those asked already?”

Child advocacy: veteran children’s rights campaigner Sheelagh Cooper challenges Government psychoeducational programme for at-risk children; “who can possibly argue that children can be removed from Bermuda without representation?” (File photograph)