An Opposition MP has accused the Government of a rush to table a Bill in Parliament that “seeks to reduce the level of support for Bermudian children in the court system”.
Scott Pearman, the shadow legal affairs minister, criticised the Progressive Labour Party for bringing the Children Amendment Act 2018 to the House of Assembly without consultation with the Human Rights Commission and children’s charities.
He added that investigations under way into the Department of Child and Family Services should find out why children were sent to overseas institutions, including when his One Bermuda Alliance was in power, without legal representation.
The draft legislation tabled a week ago contained a section which experts claimed will remove a requirement for the Family Court to consider whether a litigation guardian, or independent advocate, is needed in cases involving children, as first reported by The Royal Gazette.
Mr Pearman said: “Children who show up in the court system, without proper representation or protection, have no one to guard their best interest.
“These are Bermudian children most in need of support and guidance, yet they have none.”
The requirement for consideration has been law for 20 years but successive governments have failed to provide funds for litigation guardians or lawyers for children.
Mr Pearman declined to discuss why the OBA did not fund legal services for vulnerable children.
He highlighted the case of Tiffanne Thomas, a social worker, and her claim that the Government has not paid her for her work as a litigation guardian for the past four years.
Mr Pearman said that Ms Thomas only sent her first invoice for payment to the Government in March 2017, not long before the OBA lost power.
He said the OBA would fund litigation guardians if it was re-elected.
Mr Pearman added: “Bermudian children in court proceedings are not getting the support which the law mandates our children must have.
“This needs to change, now. The PLP have been in power for 15 of the last 20 years. The current government needs to solve this problem and, respectfully, the Government needs to solve it quickly.”
Mr Pearman said the Bill and Ms Thomas’s claim were among a number of separate but linked problems related the welfare of children.
He added the most worrying were allegations of abuse made against staff members at DCFS, which only came to light after Ms Thomas was appointed as a litigation guardian for a child in the department’s care, and claims that complaints by youngsters were ignored.
DCFS is now under investigation and its director, Alfred Maybury, has been suspended over his handling of the complaints.
Mr Pearman said: “Allegations that Bermudian children, under the care of the Department of Child and Family Services, were abused should be of extreme concern to all Bermudians.
“To add to this, allegations have emerged that certain children in the care of the department were sent to institutions overseas without any litigation guardian advocating on their behalf.”
He said that was of “significant concern” and should be a priority for inquiries into the department.
Mr Pearman added: “We have the lamentable reality that with every passing day problems at the Department of Child and Family Services seem to grow worse.”
Craig Cannonier, the Opposition leader, said last week that Michael Weeks, the former social development minister, should give a personal explanation to the House of Assembly about the first investigation into DCFS, which led to Mr Maybury’s suspension.
Mr Pearman said: “I support Mr Cannonier in calling for an explanation from former minister Weeks.”
He added that Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General, should tell the public the scope of a second inquiry by the Department of Internal Audit into DCFS.
He asked: “Who is the person leading this investigation? To whom will this investigator report? Does the investigation include all the allegations of abuse and neglect?
“How many people from the department are currently suspended because of these allegations? When is the investigation likely to be concluded?”
But Mr Pearman said: “With all these complicated moving parts, we must not lose sight of the big picture — the system is failing our children.”
• To view Scott Pearman’s full statement, click on the PDF link under “Related Media”