-staffers deny abuse of juveniles in ‘quiet room’
Youth Minister Dr Frank Anthony yesterday welcomed the investigation of alleged sexual and physical abuse of residents of the New Opportunity Corps (NOC), while the institution’s staffers admitted to the existence of a “quiet room” but denied claims that children have been mistreated there.
Anthony, who said the ministry had “nothing to hide,” indicated that his ministry treats all reports of sexual misconduct seriously but maintained that no report of sexual misconduct allegedly committed by any staff was made to the ministry.
Four girls were removed from the NOC last Saturday following a court order obtained by the Child Care & Protection Agency (CC&PA), which has since commenced an investigation into the allegations in tandem with the Guyana Police Force. The move to the court followed a report to the agency by the mothers of the four girls.
Welcoming the investigation, the minister said yesterday at a press conference that, “If there is anyone that is found culpable the law will deal with that and we have no problems about that.”
There has been no report of sexual abuse made to the ministry, according to the minister, who revealed that he first become aware of the allegations from media reports and even then he was not too clear on what they were.
“We never got any report, any letter, nothing, nothing…what we saw was a press report that came out that said NOC was some sex camp or something of the sort and we started trying to get information finding out what this was all about…,” the minister said.
However, he said up to now they have not received any formal complaint from any of the parents but he is happy that they reported to the CC&PA, which can now conduct an investigation.
He said in the past whenever there are complaints against any staff member, they would commission persons from Georgetown to travel to the location and investigate. This has continued to be done whenever there are complaints.
“But I am also happy for external scrutiny. We have nothing to hide so we are extremely pleased that Child Protection has gone there to do their investigation and we would have been pleased too for the police to gone in to do their investigation too, we have nothing to hide,” he added.
He said the staff at NOC was instructed to cooperate fully with the investigative team.
According to the minister, the Sexual Offences Act clearly sets out the various offences and those who indulge in such practices must feel the full force of the law. “On the other hand the same Act stipulates, where persons make false complaints, give false statements, depositions and evidence, they can be charged with making a false complaint, or for perjury,” the minister added.
During the press conference convened by the minister yesterday to specifically address allegations of sexual and physical abuse made by some of the children at the institution, staff members denied that children who are placed in the room remain there beyond 24 hours or that they are denied their meals.
Stabroek News on Wednesday was told by reliable sources that there is a detention room at the institution and that it was “worse than Brickdam Police Station.”
“The children spoke of a detention room… this is a concrete room with a grilled bar and door. There is no bed, there is no mattress, there is no sheet and there is no washroom facility. They spoke of having to defecate and urinate in a bucket and they are left in there for two or three days without the bucket being changed,” APNU Christopher Jones had told this newspaper in a recent interview.
He had said the children were also stripped down to their underwear and placed in the room and many times are not given breakfast or lunch. At dinner time, he said, a combination of all three meals would be thrown together and given to them, “that is if they remember you are in there.”
However, this was denied yesterday by staff members, who said that there are times when the children would urinate in a container in the ‘quiet room’ if they remain for more than two hours but that they would be taken out for regular bathroom breaks. They also said that the boys are stripped down to their boxers when being placed in the room and the girls are stripped to their brassieres and tights although there have been times when the girls would have used their brassiere to attempt suicide. No staff member, however, admitted or confirmed that the girls would be asked to strip to their bare panties when placed in the room.
The staff members also admitted that cavity searches are conducted on students who would have escaped from the institution but noted that these are just “visual searches.”
According to the medex at the institution, who has been there for the last 14 years, “it is a lie” that any insertion is made when the searches are being conducted but rather the girls are made to lie down “properly covered” and then the “visual” search is conducted and this is only done to ensure nothing is smuggled in after a child would have escaped and returned to the institution.
Anthony also denied that the children are given “morning after pills”-a form of contraception-at the institution as no such medication is purchased for the facility.
Sequence of events
Meanwhile, giving the sequence of events that would have started on March 22 and which were the catalyst for the current allegations, the minister said that it all started with four females absconding from the institution.
Two female staff made efforts to prevent the girls from leaving but were unsuccessful. Almost immediately, he said, a search team was dispatched comprising four female and two male staffers. Later that day, four male students also absconded and a report was subsequently made to the Suddie Police Station but police informed that there was no rank available to assist in carrying out the search.
The following day, he said three other male students absconded and brief checks were made by police patrols around the compound. The next day, he added, a team of staff members comprising both males and females was able to locate the campsite of the absconded students and was able to retrieve them. The female students were taken to the medical centre, where they were examined by medical staff and were referred to the Suddie Public Hospital.
According to the minister, all the students were later taken to the Suddie Police Station and the police sent the four female students to the Suddie Public Hospital for medical examinations. A female police officer accompanied the female students to the hospital, and collected the medical reports.
The four female students and seven male students were taken into Police custody. They were eventually charged and it was ruled that the students who were under 17 years would be placed on one year’s probation and returned to the NOC. Two of the males under 17 years were also ordered to spend 24 hours in the NOC’s “quiet room.” Three male students who were above the age of 17 were sentenced to one day imprisonment and then released into the care of their parents.
The four female students who absconded are now in the protective custody of the CC&PA, the minister said.
Anthony yesterday decried how the media has handled the sensitive issue. “We have heard the names of the students and parents being used. Identifying the students by name and displaying their images is in itself a criminal violation. I urge that we respect these students’ rights,” he said.
He pointed out that in several media reports names of staff members have been mentioned. “While I know that there is an urge to ‘name and shame,’ I will urge caution until the Child Protection Agency complete its investigation. I do not have to stress how much harm can be done if people who are innocent are wrongfully blamed,” he stated.
Anthony added that unlike many juvenile facilities, the NOC is quite accessible even as he listed a number of initiatives that give students ample opportunities to report if they are abused. He said the ministry has a partnership with most faith-based institutions that visit on a weekly basis and students have full access to these faith leaders. There is also a Visiting Committee that visits the institution on a regular basis and is authorised by law to access and to speak with anyone at NOC. Medical personnel from the Suddie Hospital also visit once a month.
He said too that over the last few years there were several partnerships with various international organisations, including live in volunteers from the US Peace Corps, Cuso International and currently two USAID Skills and Knowledge for Youth Employment (SKYE) mentors live at the NOC.