Even after repeated recommendations were made for the Ministry of Youth to launch an investigation into the operations of the New Opportunity Corps (NOC) the status quo remains and young girls and boys continue to suffer in an institution that is supposed to rehabilitate them, APNU member Christopher Jones has said.
“Based on information I received as recent as last night [last Wednesday]…. All of the complaints made by former and current students remain the same. There is still abuse happening at the institution. Children are still being deprived food as punishment and are still be placed in what they call a quiet room,” Jones told the Sunday Stabroek last week.
Jones, who was the shadow Youth minister in the last Parliament, had spoken out last year about the reports of abuse at the institution following the escape of four girls who later alleged sexual and physical abuse.
Following the allegations and after the girls were returned to the institution, they were subsequently removed from the NOC following a court order obtained by the Child Care & Protection Agency (CC&PA), which had then commenced an investigation into the allegations in tandem with the Guyana Police Force. The unprecedented move to the court had followed a report to the agency by the mothers of the four girls.
The Sunday Stabroek has since been informed that the girls are no longer in state care but have since been returned to their parents after the agency would have worked with them to restore their self-confidence and to counsel them. It was revealed that it was the choice of the four to return to their parents instead of taking advantage of the Ministry of Human Services & Social Security’s halfway house.
Following the police investigation last year, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) had advised that no charges be laid but had recommended a complete overhaul of the institution’s operations. High on the list of recommendations was for qualified and professional staff members be hired to work with the troubled children who are sent there.
Sources had indicated that staff members colluded to stonewall the police investigation.
The issue of qualified staff has been a longstanding one and was one of the recommendations made in the still-to-be-released report of the Board of Inquiry (BOI) conducted into the 2012 escape and torching of part of the institution.
For his part Youth Minister Dr Frank Anthony admitted that the issue of staff members not being suitably qualified is an ongoing problem at the institution. “One of the major problems that we get is that people don’t want to go work there… 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 [filling] some of those vacancies with qualified persons,” the minister had told a press conference last year.
One training officer at the institution, Brian King, during his interview with the BOI had lamented the inadequacies of NOC’s staff. “You have to remind them every day of their roles and functions. They are young and inexperienced. They get high tempered in dealing with the students and don’t understand the real causes of the child’s behaviour… We just have persons with basic experience and who are here long enough but are now sending in sick leave. We are looking for persons with military backgrounds to try not to be forceful.”
Meantime, according to Jones the only real change at the institution is the construction of what he described as “actual cells” which he said are equipped with bars as is seen in police lock-ups. For him this means that there is no intention of changing the modus operandi of the institution and the children who are sent there to be rehabilitated would leave worse than they entered.
He pointed out that whole conception of an institution such as the NOC is to create an environment where troubled young people would receive the requisite assistance from trained persons, such as social workers. These trained persons should assess the young people as they enter, during their stay at the institution and after they would have left.
However, he said, “instead of rehabilitation of the young people the complete opposite is happening.
“They… go in not being sexually active and they leave sexually active. Some of them have contracted STIs [sexually transmitted infections] and some have gotten pregnant,” he pointed out.
Jones lamented that even in the face of damning revelations of all the atrocities at the institution, Anthony has not made any move to engineer reform operation of the institution.
“Instead the children are being blamed and this only emboldens the caregivers who would continue to commit atrocities,” he said.
He advised that parents resist having their children sent to the institution since it has no concrete mechanism in place to rehabilitate them but instead “would make them worse.”
Last year following the escape of the girls, Jones had spoken about what he said they called the detention room.
“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,” Jones had said.
However, according to Public Relations Officer at the culture ministry Tekia Hanover, while at the NOC, the students are provided with regular meals, shelter and most importantly, an education. In a letter published in this newspaper last year she pointed out that the NOC is a co-educational institution which means that the students are given an education in a number of skills and they are also enrolled in the education system in Essequibo.
“The students are also engaged in extra-curricular activities such as sports and national celebrations,” she had said.
Further, she stated that with the support of UNICEF the NOC agreed to ensure that the reforms are in line with the global standard concerning the protection of juveniles deprived of their liberty.
And with support from UNICEF Guyana the ministry is leading the revision of the current Juvenile Justice Bill.
Some of the agencies involved in that discussion are the ministries of Human Services and Social Security, Home Affairs and Education; the Child Care and Protection Agency, UNICEF, and representatives from the juvenile holding centre in Sophia. The team had completed its work and had made several recommendations.