Girls with no prior convictions exposed to criminal activity, Chief Justice relates
Chief Justice Anthony Smellie used the ceremonial court opening on Wednesday to implore government to make the creation of secure accommodations for children in need of care an urgent priority.
In his speech, he told of a series of incidents involving young girls to illustrate the seriousness of the lack of appropriate secure facilities.
In the first incident, in late November, four female residents at the Francis Bodden Girls Home absconded, he said.
“They returned a few days later apparently under the influence of drugs and speaking of sexual exploits. One or more of the girls had a history of absconding,” he said.
“They were obvious candidates for secure accommodation. At this time, however, no such facility existed and so they remained at [the home]. The next night after they had returned, they barricaded themselves in a room … and reportedly consumed ganja.”
He said the incident showed that the Department of Children and Family Services was unable to provide a safe environment for girls who had not previously engaged in criminal activity.
“The girls remained at [the home] despite its obvious inadequacies as a secure facility,” the chief justice continued. “On December 3, four girls (I believe but am not sure that they were the same four), violently absconded from the home and now face charges ranging from assault causing bodily harm to disorderly conduct (at least one of the complainants is a custodian of the girls). [Note: comments in parentheses are from the judge.]
“And so to put this in stark terms, girls with no prior criminal convictions have engaged in or been exposed to criminal activity while in the care of the Department of Children and Family Services.”
Chief Justice Smellie said that in response to these incidents, a temporary secure accommodation facility had been fashioned at the site of the Bonaventure Boys Home. “As it stands, this facility accommodates only female detainees. The upshot is that there is no secure accommodation for males, yet I gather from the magistrates that there have been cases where they would have ordered male children to be placed in secure accommodation, had it been available,” he said.
The chief justice noted that the Children Law was brought into force in July 2012, and most of the relevant agencies “were caught off-guard for want of facilities, manpower and familiarity with the law. As a result, the initial hearings before the court were somewhat chaotic.”
He reported that matters have slowly improved, with training, legal representation, practice directions and parties becoming more familiar with the intricacies of the legislation. However, the judiciary and the magistrates continue to struggle with the absence of the physical facilities which are required by the law to be in place.
The Children Law places a statutory obligation on government where it empowers and requires the court to place a child, who is “in care” of the state, in secure accommodation for up to three months. “While on the face of it, this is a harsh measure, it is in fact a necessary and powerful tool to be used by the court in limited circumstances set out in the law itself. These include where there is a history of absconding, the likelihood of psychological harm or physical injury to the child or where the child is charged or convicted of a violent offence or remanded under the Youth Justice Law.”
The chief justice explained that a child may be in care through no fault of his/her own, as for example, when parents are unable to provide a healthy or safe environment for the child due to parental drug abuse. The Department of Children and Family Services is then under a legal obligation to provide a place of safety for the child. In the case of older females, they have often been placed at the Francis Bodden Girls Home because no suitable relative or foster parent is available.
The nature of the problem of dealing with children who find themselves in care of the state has changed drastically over the years, the Chief Justice observed. “So too therefore must our expectations in dealing with them, and I am sure everyone listening will agree that it is unacceptable that the situation should be allowed to get even worse, due to a lack of funding ….
“I leave this subject with what I am told also is good news of plans for an appropriate permanent secure accommodation facility. And once again, the Judiciary implores the Government to make this a most urgent priority.”