A new unit has been formed to bring police, social workers and psychologists together to handle allegations of child abuse in the Cayman Islands.
The headquarters of the “Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub,” to be known as MASH, in Anderson Square, George Town, was officially opened Monday morning.
Eight social workers, a Health Services Authority psychologist and eight police officers currently make up the MASH unit, with plans to add three more officers, who are currently undergoing training. They will coordinate with schools, health workers and other agencies to investigate suspicions of abuse.
There were a total of 48 allegations of sexual abuse against children across the islands in 2016, including 16 allegations of rape or indecent assault on girls under the age of 12, according to statistics from the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service.
Anthony Ennis, deputy commissioner of police, said the new hub would be “ground zero” for child protection in the territory.
“Instead of operating from across the capital from our different silos in our different ministries and departments, we will be operating from a single hub,” he said. “We are able to coordinate resources for better planning and better decision making. It is more or less triage.”
The handling of child abuse cases in the Cayman Islands has been under increased scrutiny since a judge criticized the police investigation of sexual abuse allegations from an 11-year-old girl as “incompetent,” following a trial last year. In that case, the investigation was inexplicably sidelined for 18 months.
An internal review of the Family Support Unit found 16 other cases involving domestic abuse or child abuse “in varying degrees of completion.” The RCIPS hired a team of U.K. detectives, experts in the field, to review the unit and recommend changes.
Kevin Ashworth, recently appointed as the head of the Family Support Unit, will be permanently based in the new MASH unit.
He said better coordination between police and other agencies and better management of case loads within the Family Support Unit would lead to swifter investigations and ensure the safety of children is prioritized.
“We are to bring that networking and case conferencing together. We can decide on a strategy early on and follow it through, so a case doesn’t go dormant or it doesn’t go on the shelf somewhere,” Mr. Ashworth said.
On a practical level, he said, the new unit would help his officers better coordinate with government social workers on joint plans for children caught up in such investigations.
“Instead of walking across town and making an appointment, we can be in the conference room within 30 seconds, having that case conference as early as possible. We can start to address the problem in a matter of minutes,” he said.
Detective Superintendent Peter Lansdown said three U.K. experts, who had worked in similar multi-agency units, have been leading training sessions with social workers and police officers.
He said the unit would mean those responsible for child safety and abuse investigations would have access to the best information available.
Citing a hypothetical case, used for training purposes, Mr. Lansdown said police officers alerted to reports of a 6-year-old girl being bullied because her “uncle touches her inappropriately,” would process that allegation through the social referral unit at the new multi-agency hub.
Social workers and police investigators would then work together to research all the agencies that had contact with that child and her extended family.
He said the pieces of information held by each agency may not be individually significant but could combine to paint a disturbing picture. In the hypothetical example cited, he said, investigators spoke to health workers, teachers, social workers and accessed police reports to piece together disparate pieces of information and come up with a joint plan to protect the child and attempt to prosecute the perpetrator.
Governor Helen Kilpatrick officially opened the new unit Monday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
She said, “International best practice demonstrates that MASH units significantly improve the sharing of information among agencies and helps protect vulnerable children from harm, neglect and abuse.
“The establishment of the MASH is a big step forward toward comprehensive child safeguarding across the islands.”
Premier Alden McLaughlin was also present to tour the new facility.
He said, “As a society, I know that we are all concerned and appalled at any kind of child abuse. As a government, we committed to tackle this and have worked together to form this multi-agency group to address the safety and protection of children in the Cayman Islands.
“We fully support the critical work police and DCFS officers and HSA psychologists have already started in this office and can only thank them on behalf of the future generations they are working to protect.”