A damning act

A very serious allegation has been made that, if true, points to a major deficiency in a sector that should be serving/protecting our young and vulnerable. It raises several questions regarding the operation of the Welfare Division of the education sector, including the qualifications and calibre of its employees and what protocols are set out for them to follow.

It has been alleged by several members of the community of Anna Catherina, West Coast Demerara that a 16-year-old high school student hanged himself after being threatened with court summonses and jail time by a team of welfare officers attached to the Ministry of Education. What is both shocking and distressing is that the powers that be chose not to respond in any way at all to this allegation, until they were sought out by a reporter from this newspaper at a completely unrelated forum. And then, all that was provided was the standard band aid of an answer that an investigation has been launched.

While so far this is just an allegation, the fact is that there has been no denial from the Regional Education Department or the Ministry of Education that welfare officers visited and spoke with Safraz Sattaur. They have expressed no consternation at the claim that this schoolboy did not have an adult representative present at the time.

Sattaur, 16, a resident of Anna Catherina and of Stewartville Secondary School was found hanging in his bedroom on Friday, January 4, 2013. He had locked himself in the house and in his room and committed the act. He had earlier been approached by men identified as welfare officers attached to the Ministry of Education and this was deduced from the logo on the vehicle they used to go to his home.

On December 18, Sattaur’s girlfriend, 15-year-old Natasha Nazamudeen, allegedly took her own life by the same method at her home at Tuschen, East Bank Essequibo, where she lived with her mother and stepfather. Suicide has, however, been disputed by Nazamudeen’s father who has made strident calls for an investigation into his daughter’s death.

Sattaur, grief-stricken at the death of Nazamudeen, had been despondent, but seemed to be more his normal self when his parents left him at home alone that Friday, his mother had said. Villagers, who were engaged in an outdoor cooking activity opposite Sattaur’s home, said they witnessed the vehicle arrive; they saw the ‘officers’ speaking to the child; they observed that he was distressed. Shortly after, he was dead, hanging from his bedroom roof.

Several things are immediately obvious here. Clearly, young Sattaur’s mental health was not as sturdy as his parents thought. But, given that he did not commit the act on hearing of his girlfriend’s death or in the ensuing days, it suggests that it took something—another event—to push him over the edge. By reasoning and elimination, that something was the visit of the so-called welfare officers.

Because ‘welfare’ and ‘threats’ do not go together, there ought to have been an immediate response by whoever is responsible for these officers. While they apparently work out of the Regional Education Department, ultimately, they would have to be answerable to someone at the Ministry of Education, given the logo on their vehicle. Even if, as this newspaper has been told, an investigation has been launched, and therefore the results must be awaited before there is any pronouncement, the fact that Sattaur was interviewed in the absence of his parents or any adult relative and without their prior consent, should have been condemned by the ministry. Surely this is not the protocol the ministry employs.

Suicide is well known to be a very serious public health issue in Guyana and its reduction was being publicly and passionately pursued by the former health minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy. Country statistics reveal the suicide rate to be 25 per 100,000 persons. Suicide is said to be the leading cause of death among youths aged 15-24 and the third leading cause of death among persons 25-44. Among youths aged 15-19 it is the leading cause of death among females and the second leading cause of death among males.

This information is in the public domain, which means welfare officers should be well aware of it. It is therefore damning and an indictment of these officers and their employer that they even spoke to Safraz Sattaur alone. And if the allegation that they threatened him is true then dismissal and prosecution should follow. One hopes that they would have been sent on leave already to allow the investigation to proceed.

Other ‘power filled’ public service employees should take note.

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