By Sean Douglas
July 16, 2014 – newsday.co.tt
AGHAST at what he has found in the death of a boy incarcerated at the St Michael’s Home for Boys in Diego Martin, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan yesterday announced he has called on the Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams and Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard to launch criminal investigations into the operations of this Home.
Among the startling revelations is that a female worker took a young male from the Home to her home. She later became pregnant and has since given birth to a baby, believed to have been fathered by the underaged inmate.
Speaking at a press briefing at Tower D, International Waterfront Centre in Port-of-Spain, during the Senate lunch-break, Ramlogan said he has asked Williams and Gaspard to investigate St Michael’s following allegations of sexual abuse, theft of boys’ property by staff and neglect including staff ignoring fights between boys, all unearthed in the probe into the untimely death of Brandon Hargreaves, 14, who fell from a roof at St Michael’s last April 8, even as two supervisors allegedly sat nearby. “It was reported that a female member of staff was allowed to take one of the boys to her home, despite allegations of sexual abuse against the said staff member,” Ramlogan related. “That same staff member subsequently became pregnant and questions as to the paternity of the child and whether it could be one of the members of the home, have been raised.”
The AG bemoaned that there has never been any investigation into that particular matter, as he revealed more shocking claims. “There are allegations about boys being taken by staff members to hotels to have private rendezvouses,” he said.
“There have been allegations that during these rendezvous pictures were taken using cell-phones of some private parts of the boys themselves and circulated among members of staff.” He urged disciplinary action against errant staff, with due process.
Ramlogan said unsupervised boys abused other boys in violent initiation rites where in some cases a sheet was thrown over victims. Sleeping boys had bleach thrown in their faces or had fires lit between their toes by other boys, all while the Home’s authorities allegedly did nothing.
Violence, the AG said, has escalated to the point of stabbings as he noted boys have been beaten with ropes and bits of wood.
In a harsh indictment of the Home’s management, the AG said staff members routinely stole items donated by Good Samaritans and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). “There are claims of racketeering and money laundering where costs of projects submitted to the Government are padded to cover the cost of ‘things’ for staff members.” Ramlogan vowed a full audit of the home, expeditiously.
“The report has caused me the greatest distress, alarm and concern,” said Ramlogan. The report came after a probe was ordered by the Ministry of Gender Affairs, Youth and Child Development and was spearheaded by a team comprising the Inspector of Orphanages, director of National Family Services, a Ministry representative and child-care experts. The team examined issues of safety, standards, quality and value for money, looking for instances of abuse cruelty and neglect. “There have been conflicting reports on the manner in which Brandon Hargreaves died. Two supervisors who were sitting on a bench just outside the door of the dorm apparently totally ignored the fight. It was reiterated that most times supervisors ignore fights between boys,” Ramlogan said.
He then read from the Children’s Act which said anyone who abuses a child or causes him/her to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned or exposed so as to be likely to cause suffering or injury is liable to punishment of up to a $10,000 fine and two years imprisonment.
The AG gave reporters copies of letters he sent to Williams, Gaspard and Minister of Gender Affairs Clifton De Coteau, opining on the findings.
In his letter to the CoP and DPP, the AG said, “Having regard to the troubling and alarming issues raised, I wish to bring this report to your attention so that an immediate investigation can be launched to determine whether criminal charges should be laid against anyone.”
Ramlogan’s letter to De Coteau said the seriousness of this issue cannot be overstated and that the preservation of children’s welfare is paramount. “In reaffirming my unwavering commitment to safeguarding and protecting the nation’s children, I suggest that you cause immediate disciplinary action to be taken by suspending those workers who are suspected of misconduct.” He also urged a professional analysis of the files of all boys at St Michael’s for experts such as social workers and psychologists to build individual care and rehabilitation plans for each resident.”
Replying to a Newsday query, the AG admitted that this saga showed a “clear and dire need” to review the monitoring mechanisms for children’s residential homes. It is time to take a cold hard look at these homes, he said, with a key role expected for the upcoming Children’s Authority. He hailed De Coteau for giving him the report instead of sweeping it under the carpet. Contacted last night, Williams told Newsday he had been out of the country the past nine days and has not yet seen the AG’s letter. Anglican Church head Bishop Claude Berkeley, told Newsday St Michael’s is run jointly by his church and the Ministry of Gender Affairs, Youth and Child Development.
He said he was unaware of the allegations raised by the AG and has not yet seen the report.
Berkeley lamented that the home’s Board of Management has limited powers such as having no role in hiring or disciplining of staff. At the moment, the agency to best monitor the Home externally is the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Gender,Youth and Child Development, he said.
Berkeley has high hopes of the Children’s Authority, but said meanwhile the Anglican synod has recently agreed to set up an Inspection Team for Homes administered by the Church. For his part, De Coteau told Newsday Cabinet has given a one-off subvention to promote the standardisation of all children’s residences, even as the Children’s Authority is set to come on-stream. Asked if the problem of misconduct extended beyond a question of mere money, he said that having enough money to pay proper salaries would ensure quality, competent staff.
He confirmed that institutions such as St Michael’s have a board of governors or a Board of Management. Asked if the probe could lead to the St Michael’s broad demitting office, he replied, “All boards must put their house in order, and get the managers to account”. Asked if he’d back the establishment of a “Children’s Ombudsman” for youngsters in care, he said “yes”, adding that this had been recommended by the Child Protection Task Force. De Coteau vowed that under his watch, children would be taken care of. “At the end of the day a lot of people might be angry, but we have to do what we have to do.”