While the Minister of Youth, Dr Frank Anthony has welcomed the probe of the alleged sexual and physical abuse of girls at the remedial facility, the New Opportunity Corps (NOC), it is clear that major problems exist at the Essequibo institution and that it will have to be radically transformed.
Despite the optimistic words of the Minister at Thursday’s press conference, it will not escape the notice of his ministry or the public that unprecedented action was taken by the Child Care and Protection Agency (CC&PA), which comes under a sister ministry – Human Services and Social Security to ensure an adequate investigation. The move by the CC&PA to the High Court to have the four complainants removed from the custody of the NOC and into the care of the CC&PA will be seen as a vote of no-confidence in the way the investigation had been handled up to that point.
The ministry has no one to blame for this turn of events but itself. The complaints by the girls through surreptitious communication with parents were allowed to fester without any clear direction. Indeed, earlier on the Ministry had issued a statement saying that no evidence had been presented to substantiate claims of sexual abuse. Even at that point, the ministry appeared insensitive to two realities: allegations of this nature require a proactive approach by the authorities to get to the truth particularly where the complainants are disempowered and officialdom usually seeks the easiest opportunity to disbelieve them. Second, the ministry appeared completely oblivious to the essential point that neither the NOC nor the ministry could credibly investigate these allegations as they were stakeholders in the matter. Had the Ministry instantly referred the cases to the CC&PA and experts from without for investigation it would have been able to credibly say that it was enabling the widest possible discovery of facts.
Matters got worse for the ministry when it was revealed that there had been recent runaways from the institution, apparent sexual contact between the runaways and their trackers in return for food and the presence of what is now being euphemistically referred to as a `Quiet room’ but which was evidently used to punish boys and girls in various stages of undress and under filthy conditions.
Had it been only this investigation under the microscope, the Ministry might have been able to argue its way out of the predicament. However, there was an albatross on its shoulder. The major eruption of unrest at the NOC in August 2012 which saw a mass break-out and fires being set, necessitated a swift inquiry into the depth of the disenchantment of the NOC residents and its root causes. The Ministry eventually put together a panel headed by retired Justice Winston Moore and this report was to be submitted as quickly as possible.
Almost 21 months after the event, the final report is still to be presented. The Minister’s lame excuse was that his ministry had gone from pillar to post to obtain the final report from the person who was recently appointed to the hallowed position of Ombudsman. What a shocking state of affairs. Neither the Ministry nor Justice Moore can escape responsibility for this. Nevertheless, Justice Moore did point out that an interim report with the main findings had been submitted before to Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport.
Why didn’t the Ministry, as is customary in inquiries of this type, release the preliminary findings of the report with the caveat that a final report was still to be received? The answer to that question is that whenever any department of this government convenes a probe – unless for propaganda purposes as is beginning to seem to be the case in the Walter Rodney inquiry – the intention is to ensure that the public never gets wind of any findings that can embarrass the authorities. Invariably, the persons who should be disciplined or made to answer are quietly let go of and normal business resumes.
Except in this case, the new allegations smashed to smithereens the insouciance with which this most serious situation in 2012 has been addressed. Worse, it is more than likely that many of the causative factors of the 2012 unrest would have been present in the events that led to the more recent allegations. Had there been more prompt attention to the interim findings of the report, many of the present problems might have been obviated. This is the burden that the Ministry now faces. Especially since it made no effort since the 2012 unrest to provide details to the public about what changes it was beginning to make and where culpability for the unrest lay.
Transcripts from the hearings into the 2012 unrest have since been made available to Stabroek News and they confirm several of the problems at the NOC which had been alleged by members of the public. Key members of the NOC staff were not trained to do the job they were supposed to do, there had been seething discontent at the NOC which had not been addressed, there had been warnings to NOC staff of impending unrest but little or nothing was done and there were many accusations of abuse at the hands of officers of the NOC. Even without the final report of Justice Moore the transcripts paint a credible and unflattering portrait of the NOC and the plight of juveniles who had been sent there for wandering and other matters. The Ministry must now immediately release the preliminary report by Justice Moore so that the public can evaluate its contents.
This is not the first time that the NOC has been enmeshed in allegations of sexual abuse of its charges. There was a well-publicized case over a decade ago where NOC officers had been accused. This should have been enough to begin a serious shake-up at the institution but very little was done. Minister Anthony and the PPP/C are constantly finding out that a long incumbency poses severe problems in defending the record. The PPP/C has been in charge for nearly 22 years yet the treatment of juveniles at the NOC remains mired in shades of Dickensian existence. The Ministry cannot credibly continue to manage the affairs of the NOC. A serious revamp of the institution is required and it should be placed under the purview of an appropriate agency.
More importantly, the girls at the centre of the present allegations must be availed every opportunity to tell their story and to have their claims thoroughly unravelled by competent investigators who must have unimpeded access to the NOC, its staff and its residents.