Clean hands, pure hearts

  • We get it that staff at the DCFS are at times placed in an invidious position. We also appreciate that there are good, well-intentioned people there who go over and beyond in the interests of our young (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Long before the tragic death of Kirsta Simons, The Royal Gazette has been snapping at the heels of the Department of Child and Family Services as a result of reports getting back to us that young people in government care were not getting the best outcomes.

At this time, the DCFS fell under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Development and Sport.

These reports, which included allegations of ill treatment while in overseas facilities, clearly had something to them because they led to an investigation launched by the minister, Michael Weeks, and the subsequent suspension of director Alfred Maybury — on full pay.

In a November 2018 Cabinet shuffle that sent government departments scurrying every which way, the DCFS was moved to the Ministry of Legal Affairs, whose minister is Kathy Lynn Simmons, and Mr Weeks was ... well, let’s say, sacked!

No one in Government or the ruling Progressive Labour Party has proffered an explanation for his removal, which has been consistent with the lack of co-operation we encountered from the DCFS and the Ministry of Legal Affairs as stories of the mistreatment of troubled and at-risk youths at home and abroad flooded into our inboxes.

Who Cares?, the outstanding weeklong series co-authored by Sam Strangeways and Fiona McWhirter in December, was always going to happen. We had enough information through investigation and Pati requests to publish in early 2020, but our hands were forced.

What we could not anticipate was a death by suicide of one of the troubled youths we had been inquiring and writing about in a faraway place that should interest Bermudians only if they have the Winter Olympics in mind.

Catapulted into action by this tragedy, the reporting was thorough and excellent, and the stories were well received by the public — all with little to no assistance from the Ministry of Legal Affairs and the DCFS.

The most we received by way of initial feedback, if you can call it that, was Ms Simmons getting to her feet in the Senate last June to request that we stop “fishing overseas”, which for any self-respecting media is like a red rag to a bull.

From Mr Maybury, we got nada, nothing, although it is striking that, according to journalist Ceola Wilson, he was prepared to appear live on Fresh TV to respond to comments from Kirsta’s distraught mother, who was being interviewed long-distance by Ms Wilson and Elmore Warren.

And then we had Thursday’s outburst cloaked in the guise of a press release after we reported in the public interest on the findings that came out of the Utah police investigation into the death of Kirsta Simons.

Whoever penned it — whether it was the minister or one of her subordinates — the “press release” smacked of entitled petulance and was never going to appear in our news pages verbatim. And we dare not risk accusations of censorship by publishing what we believe to be pertinent information in the release while excluding attacks on and threats to The Royal Gazette.

The op-ed spread is the only place to house such venom by way of opinion, so here we will give it a full airing, with the necessary edits that accompany all submitted content. Why? Because the use of the industry-standard “sic” — not to be confused with the term frequented by the younger generation — might come across as condescending.

“The story in today’s media is indicative of a journalistic approach lacking in sensitivity, compassion and respect for Bermudian cultural values. While laws governing the handling of investigations and the coverage of incidents relating to minors are different in the United States of America, the local media are aware that persons who work with vulnerable children and their families are restricted both by Bermudian law and by professional ethics from divulging details of individual cases. To do so is a gross violation of law and jeopardises the accreditation of the department.

“While some have attempted to characterise our adherence to the laws of the land in inflammatory terms like ‘cover-up’ and ‘refusing to answer questions’, this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. It must also be noted that the police report has not been shared with the Department of Child and Family Services and the investigation by the overseas licensing agency is ongoing.

“While the public may not be familiar with the professional standards of confidentiality under which every licensed social worker and staff at the Department of Child and Family Services operates, veteran journalists and their editors are fully informed regarding the regulations and conduct standards.

“Journalists from The Royal Gazette, in particular, have consistently sent detailed and intimate questions, regarding specific cases that if answered by staff or government representatives would directly violate law. This has occurred over a sustained period, in spite of repeated, private and public statements identifying the applicable laws regarding confidentiality and the protection of vulnerable children. Media outlets have been informed of the law and know the law, yet they continually appear to act as though they are unaware of its existence and the limitations it places on public pronouncements relating to issues concerning minors.

“It must also be noted that trained social workers outside of DCFS are aware of the laws and regulations surrounding the release of information and, as such, any attempts to obtain this information via the media is completely unethical.

“The situation surrounding the tragic and unfortunate passing of the child in question has been further compounded with a poor standard of journalistic due diligence. As a result Bermudians have witnessed the publication of half-truths, misinformation and numerous misrepresentations of the facts. As such, vulnerable individuals, including children, have been potentially exposed to further trauma.

“To be clear, the Department of Child and Family Services cannot, under law and professional ethics, reveal the legal reasons why parents lose custody or care and control of their children via the courts. We can say, however, that in instances where children are in the care of the Director of DCFS there are clear, legally mandated processes, rationale and collaborative efforts, which in some cases result in the courts being forced to act to ensure the welfare of children by removing them from households where they face imminent physical, psychological, emotional or sexual abuse.

“Furthermore, in cases where the emotional or psychological needs of a child that has been removed from a household where they have faced psychological, emotional or sexual abuse cannot be met by on-island health professionals, the courts will legally authorise the child to receive the care intended to address their needs overseas.

“Freedom of the press is an integral part of our society, one that we believe in and respect. However, with rights come responsibilities. In this regard, the publication of the details and method of the tragic passing of a minor is an unprecedented low. The lack of respect for Bermudian laws governing minors, the lack of adherence to the standards for journalists laid out by the Media Council, and the lack of respect and lack of appreciation of Bermudian cultural values is unacceptable. We condemn this in the strongest terms and we are considering all options to address this injustice.”

So, there you have it.

Just to be clear, to borrow a line from this missive, The Royal Gazette has never asked questions that could put any of our young people in the care of the DCFS at further risk. Unless you consider questions such as “How many boys have been sent to Glen Mills in the past 30 years?” and “How much has this cost the Bermuda taxpayer?” to be harmful.

The reporters in question are beyond reproach and have taken great pains to make certain that the interests of the child are put at the forefront — even challenging the internal hierarchy at 2 Par-la-Ville Road if needs must.

Clean hands and pure hearts, as Marc Bean would say.

They, and the wider Gazette family, do not deserve to be described as lacking in “appreciation of Bermudian cultural values” and not being qualified to write about Bermudian children.

Xenophobic? Racist?

Take your pick; either would stick. Coming out of a government department and undoubtedly signed off on by a Cabinet minister, it is truly shocking.

No small wonder comprehensive immigration reform, so desperately needed, is stuck on pause with such a warped mentality.

We get it that staff at the DCFS are at times placed in an invidious position. We also appreciate that there are good, well-intentioned people in employment there who go over and beyond in the interests of our young.

And there have been success stories, Eron Hill’s being the most notable.

But it is also true that all is not right in a department that has had its leader suspended for five months and has another high-ranking member embroiled in court proceedings on allegations of assaulting a minor.

And if those sitting on the fence in this argument needed any encouragement that something in our child protection system is not quite working, you need only recall the drawn-out saga of the runaway 14-year-old girl that was played out before our very eyes — rinse and repeat, no fewer than seven times — over November, December and January at great embarrassment to the DCFS.

The people in this community want answers; it is our job to dig out those answers if they are not willingly forthcoming.

If you refuse to answer, that does not mean that we stop.

It is part of our mandate to hold leaders to account. This government and whichever government comes next.