Government officials are unsure what they will do with troubled Caymanian teens after the closure of Tranquility Bay, the notorious ‘tough love’ youth facility in Jamaica.
The privately-run high security school, which has been home to up to 20 young Caymanian children since 2001, closed six weeks ago, sighting economic pressures.
‘Unfortunately, the closure of the facility now leaves us with the reality that, at present, there are no known overseas residential facilities that can be used as an approved school,’ Health Minister Anthony Eden said Thursday.
Mr. Eden defended government’s use of the facility, dismissing claims of abuse and denying that government’s support of the school amounted to a tacit endorsement of corporal punishment.
‘I would not necessarily say that,’ Mr. Eden said. ‘It was their process of how they used their discipline or whatever. The evidence that was presented to us … is there was no confirmation of [abuse],’ he said.
Mr. Eden was speaking at a specially convened press conference Thursday after an independent report found government officials had been ‘inhumane’ and ‘insensitive’ in handling the transfer of a Caymanian girl to the facility last year.
Report author, Professor Barry Chevannes of the University of the West Indies, was asked to conduct the report after the girl’s mother – who has since passed away – complained to the media that she was not told of her daughter’s transfer to the facility in January 2008.
Mr. Chevannes’ investigation found the court decision to send the girl to Tranquility Bay was justified in light of the child’s behaviour. But keeping the court order secret from the mother until the day before the child’s departure, and even then keeping secret the time of departure, was unwarranted and violated the mother’s right to know, he found.
‘Failure to advise the mother of the departure date and time of her daughter and, further, denying her the chance to say farewell to her, were inhumane,’ Mr. Chevannes’ said. The decision to keep the move a secret was prompted by concerns that girl would run away, he added.
Despite the failings, there will be no disciplinary action against the government officials responsible, Mr. Eden told reporters.
Six children, including the girl that was the subject of the report, have returned to Cayman since the school’s closure. The girl is living by herself and is doing well, a Department of Children and Family Services official said, while five other youths are back with their families and are reportedly doing well.
With the closure of Tranquility Bay, the best option for troubled or at-risk youth will be the construction of a long-mooted on-island facility – possibly in East End – accompanied by a robust therapeutic rehabilitation program, Mr. Eden said.
Acknowledging he has been pushing for such a facility for several years, Mr. Eden warned against further delays due to the economic downturn or not-in-my-backyard type reactions.
‘I trust the goodwill of the entire community can be summonsed, to give priority to the necessary funding in the present economic realities; and to appreciate that someone will have to be the neighbour to this facility,’ he said.
The Cayman Islands Government reaffirmed its confidence in Tranquility Bay after officials visited the reform school in June 2008. Its assessment – the first of its kind since 2001 – followed widespread claims of abuse at the facility from both local and international media. But DCFS councilors have made informal trips to the facility and have received updates from Jamaican authorities, a DFCS official told the press conference.
The privately run reform school, located in a remote area of Treasure Beach near St. Elizabeth, west of Kingston, is part of the booming, and largely unregulated, troubled teen industry, which caters mostly to desperate American families.
Critics of the facility have slammed its constant use of emotional attacks and humiliation to break teens’ spirits and it has been the subject of complaints from international children’s rights organisations.
Five other schools connected to the operator of Tranquillity Bay have been closed by authorities sighting child abuse and neglect.
The Cayman Islands Government’s use of the facility has been questioned closer to home by members of the local judiciary. One judge was quoted as describing the reform school as ‘uniformly bad’ in a 2007 Human Rights Committee report. More recently, Grand Court Justice Priya Levers last year refused to send a 14-year-old boy to the reform school, pleading for social workers to find another solution.
But those claims were all contradicted Thursday by government officials including Mr Eden, law enforcement officials, as well as Mr. Chevannes.
One of the members of the government delegation, RCIPS Family Services Unit Inspector Claudia Brady, said government officials interviewed Caymanian children away from the facility’s staff so they could speak freely about their experience.
‘None of our five children confirmed any corporal punishment or anything to that effect,’ she said ‘They had some very positive comments to give us.’
Mr. Chevannes told the press conference the decision to send Caymanian children to Tranquility Bay had been right given the absence of an appropriate facility in Cayman.
‘I was really quite impressed by the report submitted by [the CI government delegation] … which spoke in terms of the Tranquility Bay facility helping the Caymanian children that were there,’ the professor said.
‘On the basis of that I would have to say that … unless there is evidence to the contrary, the Government would have been acting appropriately to utilise that facility until alternatives could have been found.’
Mr. Chevannes claimed there has been a campaign by activist in the US against the institution adding there was no way the Jamaican government would grant an operating license to the facility if it had evidence of children being abused there.
He attributed some of the controversy about the facility to its use of a disciplinary technique known as observational placement, whereby children are forced to lie face down on the floor until they repent for their misbehavior.
Ministry Of Health and Human Services Deputy Chief Officer Leonard Dilbert said the facility’s operators had assured government the technique would not be used for more than 15 minutes without a break.
‘They would then be required to get into a relaxed position to breathe and so on properly before they resume the position,’ he said. ‘Their care and management in terms of meals and hygiene and so on were all taken into consideration in the course of using this particular method.’
Mr. Dilbert added: ‘In terms of looking at the actual wellbeing of the Caymanian children that were there, the detailed discussions that we had with them made it clear they were in very good spirits, they were very receptive to the program … their lives were being impacted for the better.
‘In being challenged and engaged to deal with their problems in ways that they very much appreciated, they felt they were making good progress to putting their lives back together.
‘Ultimately that must be the measure and not what some international media house chooses to represent as their image of the situation,’ he said.