-Anthony says action taken on interim findings, signals plans to discontinue co-education
Youth Minister Dr Frank Anthony yesterday said that his ministry is still to receive the final report from the Board of Inquiry (BoI) that investigated the 2012 mass escape and fire at the New Opportunity Corps (NOC) and letters written to the inquiry’s Chairman retired Justice Winston Moore have yielded no results.
“The Permanent Secretary [PS] wrote the Chairman of the Board on four occasions asking him to submit the final report but to date we still have not received it,” the minister said at a press briefing at his ministry, where he revealed that interim recommendations were acted upon and disclosed that separating male and female offenders was on the cards.
The minister has come under severe criticism recently for not revealing the findings of the report, especially in light of current allegations of sexual and physical abuse being made against staff members from some of children at the institution. Four girls removed from the NOC last Saturday following a court order obtained by the Child Care & Protection Agency (CC&PA), were expected to be interviewed by a “multi-discipline” team comprising trained personnel from the agency and the Guyana Police Force. In what was believed to be an unprecedented move, the CC&PA moved to the High Court on Friday to have the girls removed from the facility so that a thorough investigation into their allegations could be undertaken.
Yesterday, the minister said he could not release what he did not have and expressed the hope that Justice Moore will soon provide the final copy and once received the ministry will make it available.
Contacted yesterday by Stabroek News, Justice Moore, who has since been appointed as the country’s Ombudsman, acknowledged that there is a pending final report that he undertook to write himself. However, he said the interim findings that the inquiry panel considered to be of an urgent nature were already submitted in writing to the Assistant Director of Youth, Devanand Ramdatt, who has direct responsibility for NOC. He said that the final report was being completed and it should be ready and submitted to the minister in a few days.
The retired judge said that he understood that actions were already taken-this was stated during yesterday’s press conference-in regard to the interim findings. He also revealed that he had discovered a gap in the legal arrangement of the transition of the Essequibo Boy School, which was located where the NOC is presently, and the Belfield Girl School, which was located on the East Coast, to the NOC.
The BoI was commissioned following the August 22, 2012 incident that saw a mass escape of children from the institution and sections of it being burnt by them. The terms of reference for the inquiry included looking into all matters before, during and after the escape and fire, culpability of the persons involved in the escape and fire, recommendations as to the appropriate actions to be taken against those found culpable and review existing situation and make recommendations to avoid any recurrence.
One of the findings that was stated in the preliminary report, and which was revealed by Minister Anthony yesterday, was that the staff members at the institution are not suitably qualified and the minister yesterday confirmed this while lamenting the fact that it has been difficult to attract trained and qualified personnel to work at the facility.
According to Anthony, the BoI was to submit its final report by September 30th, 2012 but PS Alfred King said the chairman, who would have been confined to this time line, resigned in September of that same year and the timeframe would have had to be extended.
Anthony said the ministry did not ask for any changes to be made to the preliminary report before the final report was prepared.
“So basically what I think they need to do is just put together and get all the people who were part of the commission to sign on it and ‘say this is our final report’ and submit it,” the minister said.
“But up to now we can’t get it. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know what else we can do,” the minister revealed.
“But it was your BoI”, Stabroek News pointed out to the minister and he said, “Yes, but I don’t know what else to do” and he added that he does not know what word to use to describe the existing situation.
And while an agreement was made to pay the members of the BoI, the minister said that no payment has been made and this would not be done until the final report is submitted.
However, as was indicated by Justice Moore, Anthony did say that the ministry has started to act on some of the recommendations that are included in the preliminary report and to make some corrections.
According to PS King, the board recommended that specially trained and qualified staff, including a psychologist, should be employed at the facility. He said since then they have been advertising for trained staff but there has been little or no response by members of the public.
He said several interventions were made since the investigation and changes have already been seen. From the recommendations, the training offered at NOC was expanded to include agriculture and catering. Remedial Mathematics and English classes are also held and those children who performed well and are of age would be returned to the formal school system but attend schools in the area. A visiting committee was also recommended and this saw the resuscitation of the committee, consisting of members from the various ministries that deal with children and also citizens from the coast with “good standing.”
“In terms of the recommendations that would have come out of the preliminary report we would have already acted on it,” King said.
No staff member was found to be culpable in the 2012 incident but King did reveal that the person who would been the administrator at the time, Jagnarine Somwar, would have left of his own free will.
The minister admitted that the issue of staff members not being suitably qualified is an ongoing problem at the institution coupled with vacancies.
“One of the major problem that we get is that people don’t want to go work there and that’s a problem. So while we would like to get the best qualified staff, we would have repeatedly advertised various positions of the NOC and we are having difficulty to fill some of those vacancies with qualified persons,” the minister said.
Separating the sexes
Anthony also said that while the ministry awaits the outcome of the present investigation, it would work to complete the fencing of the institution so as to prevent inmates from absconding to the backlands. The visiting committee would be mandated to meet students on every visit and to make recommendations and instead of every two months parents would be allowed to visit their children once a week.
The ministry is also willing to partner with local organisations that can provide mentorship to the children and they will also commence hosting open days so that members of the public can have a better appreciation of the NOC.
On the cards also is the separation of the boys from the girls.
“We have come to the conclusion that having co-ed at the NOC is going to lead to further problems and what we want to do is to separate boys from girls so we are going to have to look at the possibility of building separate institutions…,” Anthony said.
The two buildings would also be separated geographically, he revealed, indicating that this is a move that has to be made as “we would continue to have challenges with boys and girls with their sexual relations and things like that and unless we separate them…we strongly believe we would continue to have these challenges.”
Separation of children who would have committed serious offences, such as armed robbery from children who would have committed lesser offences, such as wandering, is also on the cards. “We have some of the persons there who would have committed some really serious offences,” the minister said, adding that in future they would not be allowed to mix with the general population as is done now.