In documenting failures of state officials in wake of the fatal fire at the Drop-in Centre, the recently-concluded Commission of Inquiry (CoI) found that they failed to hire competent and qualified staff.
The inquiry has found “systemic failures at all levels” and that the persons in charge of the centre are collectively responsible for the state of affairs that led to the deaths of two young brothers, Joshua, 3, and Anthony George, 6.
As part of her mandate, Commissioner Windee Algernon was charged with reporting on whether there was a failure on the part of state officials to deal appropriately or adequately with matters that gave rise to the loss of lives and whether there were any unsafe or improper arrangements for the care, custody and welfare of the child.
In her final report, Algernon said the state officials failed to hire competent and qualified staff and put in place adequate supervisory and oversight mechanisms to ensure compliance with the Minimum Operational Standards and Regulations (MOSR).
Recently, Ingrid Goodman, of the Personal Achievement To Over-come Individual Struggles (PATOIS) programme, highlighted findings of a mental assessment conducted on staff at three state-run child care facilities, including the Drop-in Centre, which found that incompetency persists in the care of children in state care.
The centre was administered by the Child Care and Protection Agency (CCPA).
Other failures by state officials highlighted in Algernon’s report were the failure to closely supervise the operations and staff at the centre and ensure that there was adequate training and rehearsals of drills to deal with crisis situations; the failure to ensure regular fire inspections of the centre and to address, in a timely manner, the recommendations emanating from the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) to make the centre fire compliant. It was noted in another section of the report that following a fire of similar origin at the centre, recommendations from the Guyana Fire Service in 2010 and 2015 were not fully implemented. It was noted that there was a failure to ensure the inspection of the Drop-in Centre after the girls’ dormitory was completed and it was re-occupied by the girls.
The report also said that state officials failed to conduct in-house training for staff in crises management, call out additional staff on the night of the tragedy to care for the children and ensure the release of funds in a timely manner to meet the needs of the centre.
The report also highlighted that most of the staff of the CCPA and the centre were of the opinion that more could have been done to cater for the needs of the children and they expressed remorse for the death of the two children in the fire.
It noted that while the CCPA is a very young organisation, which came into being in 2009 with the mandate to ensure that all Guyanese children have access to the best care and support for development, it is still being shaped while it is being plagued with systemic problems and attempts to implement new policies and enforce existing ones are ongoing.
“Perceived tight budgets, increasing demands and heightened media scrutiny impact perennial pressure on the staff,” the report said, while pointing out that the increasing demand on child care protection officials to deliver has resulted in their position “no longer being attractive.” It also added that low salaries and benefits attract subpar level and quality of staff, who lack the capacity for growth.
While there were suggestions that the centre was not getting enough attention from CCPA, the report said that the inquiry did not find any evidence to indicate that there was a strained relationship. What was discovered, it said, was that the staff of the centre expected their functional superiors to act blindly on their recommendations.
The report added that there was that there was an absence of a functioning oversight body like the Visiting Committee, which no longer functions and has the responsibility for ensuring that the MOSR are followed. It also noted that the position for Inspector of Children Homes, which has been vacant for some time, was not being addresses in a structured way.
The report also highlighted that the CCPA continues to recognise the value of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in a collaborative role in strengthening the child protection system and has acknowledged that engagement with them are critical since they “often fill gaps.” The specific NGOs include Child Link, Blossom Ink and Red Thread, which provide invaluable services to the children at the centre. Red Thread, the report said, has seemingly discontinued its association with the centre, while others are engaged in a limited way.
As a result, the report recommended that CCPA and NGOs put aside perceived person grievances, stop seeking self-promotion, work together and focus on the objective of providing quality care, service and protection to children in the care of the state.
The report has also recommended that the centre be removed from its current location on Hadfield Street and relocated to a more suited environment to cater to the developmental needs of the children. It has also proposed that a name change for the centre also be considered.
The fire had started late at night on July 7, and while 29 other children who were at the facility escaped to safety, the two young brothers perished. At a subsequent press conference, the CCPA and the Ministry of Social Protection announced that the ministry was taking full responsibility for the tragedy and would cover all expenses of the funeral.
The two boys were among three other siblings that were taken from their parents Sonia and Leon George after there were reports of abuse and neglect. The inquiry has recommended that a form of compensation should be awarded to Sonia George, the mother of the two boys.