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‘No one cared about me’

Media call: Attorney-General Kathy Lynn Simmons (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

A vulnerable teenager “dumped” overseas by the island’s child protection agency claimed yesterday that social workers tricked him into going and then “abandoned” him for years.

The youth, whose mother died when he was a child, said in an account to The Royal Gazette that when he was 13, the Department of Child and Family Services told him he was being taken to a “kids’ camp in the US, where I would go skiing and do other fun activities for a couple of weeks”.

The young man alleged: “It wasn’t a kids’ camp and they dumped me in the US for 2½ years.”

He claimed he was sent to a wilderness programme in Utah for “children caught up in crime or self-harming” and then to an academy in Tennessee where most other children already had criminal records and were linked to gangs such as the Bloods or Crips.

The boy alleged that letters he sent to social workers pleading to let him come home made no difference and that no one from the department visited him the whole time he was in the United States as part of DCFS’s psychoeducational programme.

A Ministry of Legal Affairs spokeswoman said yesterday she could not comment publicly on individual cases.

The ministry earlier said the department vetted overseas institutions every year and that children had weekly conference calls and were visited every six months by a case worker.

It said the psychoeducational programme was for children “who could not be effectively serviced locally or those who had exhausted all local available therapeutic services”.

But the boy said in the letter: “I felt real bad, very far away, alone and that no one cared about me. The department never made me feel like it wanted me or cared about me. They would say they were spending a lot of money on me, like I should thank them for it.”

He added: “I don’t want any other kid to be treated like I was ... I really don’t want it to happen to any other children.

“There may be some that might need treatment in a special place but it should be a nice place.”

The teenager said: “And keep them in Bermuda. Sending them away will make things worse. And when they come back they have nothing and are just dropped.”

The youngster spoke out after Attorney-General Kathy Lynn Simmons told the Senate last week that The Royal Gazette should not “harass” schools involved in the psychoeducational programme or “try to obtain information that is detrimental to what we are trying to accomplish”.

Ms Simmons, the Senate leader and Minister of Legal Affairs, said: “We’ve had parents speaking out, we’ve had The Royal Gazette fishing overseas and undermining the operations of the Government ...”

She said she and Alfred Maybury, the DCFS director, were impressed when they visited more than six overseas institutions last month.

But the teenager said: “I was in care for most of my life and the director sent me away to those places. So I know more about it than a quick visit and a show by those places that Bermuda makes rich.”

And he told the department: “You all know why the parents are speaking out and why the media are asking questions.”

He claimed: “You have just been throwing children away in those places. And you leave us there. When we complain you don’t listen. When we ask for help, you tell us you are there to help us. Then you do nothing.

“You know you can ignore us because most of us have no one, not even parents. And then when adults try to help us or the media ask you questions, you attack them. And you all care about children? You’re jokers.”

The letter details how the boy lived with a variety of relatives before he was sent to a residential home on the island.

He was in foster care for a short time but he said he did not think Mr Maybury ever tried to find a family to adopt him.

After he got into trouble at school, mainly for fighting, he said the department raised the subject of going abroad.

The DCFS must apply to the courts and explain why the youngster should be sent away to remove a child from Bermuda.

The letter-writer, like almost all the children who have taken part in the psychoeducational programme since it began before 1999, did not have independent legal representation during court proceedings.

He said: “I never knew how it happened. I didn’t have a criminal record. I had never even been arrested before but the director sent me to a wilderness programme with American children caught up in crime or self-harming.

“It was at Redcliff Ascent in Utah in the middle of nowhere with just trees and bushes. There were no toilets and just cold water. The other children were all messed up. Some had slash marks all up their arms.

“One tried to commit suicide while I was there. It was a lot for me to deal with. I was only 13.”

He added: “I kept asking why I was there but no one ever gave me a real reason. I wasn’t a criminal. I had never even been arrested before. I wasn’t self-harming. I wasn’t crazy. I was just there because the director didn’t know where to put me.

“I was missing my mama and angry about what was happening to me. All I wanted was for someone to come and get me.”

The youth completed a five-month programme at Redcliff and then went to Natchez Trace Youth Academy in Tennessee.

He claimed: “It looked OK from the outside but really it’s kind of like a prison and a school.

“Everything was crazy there. I felt like a criminal. I was still only 13 but you’re put with all ages up to 18 and a lot of the other children had already been convicted of criminal offences and were linked with Bloods or Crips gangs.

“There was a lot of ‘street’ behaviour, with fights every single day.”

His final stay was at Devereux, an advanced behavioural health centre in Florida, which he said was a “better place”.

But the teenager claimed there was no plan to reintegrate to Bermuda when he returned and he took to crime and ended up in the Co-ed facility.

He said he avoided going to Glen Mills in Pennsylvania, the reform school recently shut down amid child abuse allegations, only because he got a lawyer, Saul Dismont, and an independent litigation guardian, social worker Tiffanne Thomas.

The ministry has said that the DCFS “implements an aftercare programme” which consisted of “reintegration to the education system, ongoing individual and family support and referrals”.

The young man, who no longer lives on the island, said: “I’m older than 18 now and I have started learning a trade. I am trying to not get caught up and stay out of jail. But I’m not going to lie, it’s hard. You do what you have to do to survive.

“That is what I was taught at the department and when I was away. I also learnt not to trust them too and how to look after myself on the street.”

We contacted Natchez Trace and Redcliff Ascent by e-mail and telephone yesterday.

Anthony Troutt, Natchez’s director of risk management, said: “While we cannot share details on any individual youth or circumstances due to privacy laws, we are committed to providing appropriate care and structure for each individual entrusted to us.

“This includes facilitating a link between the youth receiving care and their family members.”

Mr Troutt said the Natchez Trace Youth Academy was a 115-bed behavioural residential treatment centre on 123 acres, serving adolescent males 12 to 18 years of age.

He added: “Our most important responsibility is and always will be the wellbeing of our youths.

“We are committed to our mission of providing high-quality treatment programmes and services to youths with special, and sometimes complex, mental health needs. We have been in operation for almost 20 years.”

Steven DeMille, Redcliff Ascent’s executive director, was not available for comment.

To read the young man’s account in full, click on the PDF link under “Related Media”

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