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DCFS turned my life around, says Hill

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Good times: Eron Hill as a teenager in Utah

Youth activist and soon-to-be law graduate Eron Hill was sent abroad as part of a controversial government programme for vulnerable children — and credits it with turning his life around.

Mr Hill told The Royal Gazette he was compelled to share his story after reading reports of youngsters alleging they were tricked or forced to go to overseas schools by the Department of Child and Family Services and mistreated while there.

“I have seen the news,” said the 23-year-old. “My experience is different. I credit where I am and what I have been able to achieve today to my experiences out there. I owe that to the [DCFS] director [Alfred Maybury]. I am indebted to the director.”

He added: “The fact that I have a positive outlook on my experience doesn’t negate any story of any other individual. Other people have legitimate concerns.”

Mr Hill grew up without a father, clashed with his mother as a teenager and ran away from home in 2011, aged 15.

“I was the average 15-year-old, struggling with a bit more at home,” he said.

“I was struggling with the absence of my father. That really affected me. I felt here is somebody who brought me into this world and they don’t care about me.

“At the age of 15, being the rebellious young man that I was at that time, [I was not] really wanting to listen to authority.”

After 12 days at a cousin’s house, Mr Hill went to lawyer Elizabeth Christopher’s office to seek advice. He said she notified the authorities he was safe and he was then taken into the department’s care.

The teenager and his mother consented to him leaving the island within about a week to go to the Discovery Academy, a therapeutic boarding school in Utah in the United States.

Unlike almost all participants in the DCFS’s psychoeducational programme, Mr Hill had independent legal representation, in the form of Ms Christopher and lawyer Saul Dismont, who then worked in her chambers.

Mr Hill said he was academically gifted and not diagnosed with a mental health condition but was sent abroad because of “behavioural and social” issues and his inability to “best utilise the leadership skills” he had.

Being removed from Bermuda was the best choice for him, he said, because of the social stigma he felt was attached to staying in a local children’s home and a need to have some distance from island life.

But he said: “I resisted the programme [at Discovery] for a bit. The facility is relaxed [but] my first three months, I struggled.”

Mr Hill transferred from Discovery for a short stint in a “wilderness programme” at Redcliff Ascent in the same state.

The Royal Gazettereported yesterday the story of a young man who claimed he was tricked into going to Redcliff as a teenager, where he dealt with harsh living conditions and “children caught up in crime or self-harming”.

Mr Hill said Redcliff marked a turning point for him. “I would sit there in my sleeping bag at night, looking at the stars and you think ‘I’m a long way from home’.”

He said he came to realise the department was trying to help him and that he needed to help himself, return to Discovery and complete his studies.

Back at the Discovery Academy, he lived in a house with 12 other at-risk boys from the US, Canada and the Caribbean facing “many difficulties”.

“That was, in itself, an education,” he said. “It was a learning experience for me.”

He said none of the students, including him, really wanted to be there but he began to view it as an opportunity, applying himself to his studies, his chores and forging relationships with his peers and teachers. He had weekly calls with his mother and other relatives.

“For me, it was growing up that was necessary,” he said. “I grew up quickly. I’m grateful for it. You had to learn to compromise. There are lessons that I would never forget and friendships that I would never forget.”

Mr Hill said he graduated at the top of his class at Discovery, a year earlier than his peers at Bermuda Institute, where he had been a student.

Aged 17, he was allowed to observe law classes at a nearby university, solidifying his long-held ambition to become a lawyer.

He is now the chairman of Generation Next, an organisation for young professionals, and credits his time abroad with harnessing his leadership potential and mending his relationship with his mother.

Mr Hill now talks to youngsters involved in the psychoeducational programme to help them prepare for going away.

“You have got social workers or even the Family Court panel who have never been to these facilities,” he said.

“I think it’s my responsibility to talk to these young people. I tell them ‘the river doesn’t drink its own water, neither does the sun shine for itself’.

“I have to ask myself: why did I go through that? I always tell young people ‘success requires sacrifice’. I tell them ‘I was just like you’. I don’t want to sound like it’s all great. But for me, this is my reality.”

He questioned whether Bermuda had the right facilities to deal with some young people’s challenges and insisted there was often a benefit in going abroad.

“I am not a proponent of scrapping that arrangement should it be befitting,” he said.

Mr Hill, who will graduate next month with a degree from the University of Law in London and will soon start a nine-month Bar course, said he wanted youngsters facing time overseas to have a “full picture” and not assume the worst.

“A lot of the time, we as 15-year-olds tend to believe we know what’s best for us. The reality is that I wouldn’t be where I am today without what happened to me. That experience taught me invaluable life lessons.”

A spokeswoman from the Ministry of Legal Affairs, which is responsible for the DCFS, said: “The Department of Child and Family Service Psychoeducational Programme provides children and youth with protection, care, and nurturance by licensed therapeutic overseas facilities.

“It affords us the opportunity to have external input with regard to therapeutic intervention and aftercare services.

“Sending young people overseas is not the first phase of intervention, the decision to use the services of overseas treatment facilities is determined when local services are unavailable.

“The department’s first priority is to protect the welfare of children who require intervention and need additional care outside of what is being provided at home.

“Since the programme started, we can point to numerous positive outcomes. However, we are not at liberty to publicly release information or discuss those cases. It is up to individuals to share their stories.”

Positive experience: Eron Hill as a teenager in Utah
Stepping up: Eron Hill, founder and chairman of Generation Next, shares a photo moment with Jewell Jones, youngest state representative for Michigan, during the Forbes Under 30 Summit last year (Photograph provided)
Michael Tubbs, Mayor of Stockton, California, left, and Eron Hill, chairman and founder of Generation Next during the Forbes Under 30 Summit last year (Photograph provided)