Considering the depth and seriousness of the problems that have gripped the New Opportunity Corps (NOC) it defies logic that the government is proceeding with plans for a confinement building at this facility for juveniles who have had brushes with the law.
The term confinement immediately conjures up images of the residents of the facility, in this case, children away from familiar settings, being subjected to various types of punishment. Indeed, the plan for the facility seen by Stabroek News speaks of “holding cells” which has an ominous ring to it and of the dimensions: 9 ft. by 12 ft. Were this a facility that was well run and had been so for quite some time then there would have been fewer concerns about what was intended. However, the NOC is in the throes of quite serious problems and is now the subject of a police investigation that includes allegations of sexual abuse of some of its wards. The Child Care and Protection Agency (CCPA) is also in receipt of a series of other complaints including oppressive and insanitary conditions in what the residents have described as a detention room but what the Ministry of Youth has euphemistically labelled a ‘quiet room’.
It may be that the ministry is moving post-haste to replace this much maligned ‘quiet room’ with a facility that is more spacious and has other amenities which will make it less fearsome and imposing. However, the change in the physical dimensions of the facility and the inclusion of recreational opportunities will not address the underlying jeopardies faced by the facility. This is what the decision-makers in the Ministry of Youth must swiftly realize. The credibility of the ministry has been seriously called into question as a result of recent occurrences at the NOC and the lack of swift action in response to the major upheaval of August 2012.
The Ministry should simply stand down from any major changes at the facility until there is a deeper examination of what transformations are needed at the NOC and under whose aegis this should be accomplished. Hopefully, this can be swiftly done but until then no major change should be made to this facility.
The CCPA and child care experts have raised strong reservations about the type of discipline and conditions that subsist at the NOC. Indeed, given the way this administration operates, the move by the CCPA to secure a court order to take into protective custody four of the NOC complainants was a monumental development in the campaign to protect children and the agency must be lauded for this. When such stringent action has to be resorted to by one government agency against another, it signals how grave the problems at the NOC are.
Nearly two years after there was a mass breakout from the NOC and the setting of fires to buildings in the compound, the final report of the Commission of Inquiry was only presented last week to the Ministry and only after embarrassing exposure in the media of the long delay. This report must be immediately released to the public stripped only of information that might violate the rights or privacy of children who were at the facility at the time or compromise the security of the NOC. Once this report is released, a broader examination of the findings and recommendations must be undertaken by child care and juvenile justice experts.
From transcripts that have been made available to this newspaper of the inquiry from 2012, it was clear that many of those in senior positions at the NOC did not have the requisite qualifications or credentials to be presiding over the care and disciplining of youth – male and female – from troubled backgrounds and many of them there for misguided proceedings such as “wandering”. This an extremely serious deficiency which, if judged on the basis of the more recent unrest at the NOC, has not been satisfactorily tackled since the 2012 disturbances.
The more recent problems include escapes from the facility, allegations that male inmates were dispatched to apprehend female runaways, allegations that male inmates sexually abused female runaways, allegations about poor conditions in the ‘quiet room’ including long hours, having to strip down to underwear, having to ease bowels in buckets and food of uncertain quality.
Hopefully, the examination of these allegations will not take a further two years but will be swiftly concluded and the CCPA will be in a position to expound on the various allegations and propose a way forward.
Remedial facilities for children require specialist attention. Children who have gone on wayward paths need to be carefully shepherded so that they are put as quickly as possible on a track to resuming normal learning and being oriented towards a productive future. Disastrous outcomes would be risked if the persons in charge of the NOC are not capable of providing this expertise.
The findings from 2012 and this year’s upheaval will allow all the agencies involved to begin deciding whether the NOC is properly structured to deliver the type of remedial help and discipline that these children require and whether it is not better for this facility to come under the Human Services Ministry which has several child care related facilities under its wing and is already entrusted with ensuring the protection of child rights.
For all these reasons and more, the Ministry of Youth should not proceed further with plans for this confinement building.