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Dr Orville Taylor: CDA in spotlight again, but don’t rush to judgement

Published:Sunday | December 13, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Lisa Hanna (right), minister of youth, is seen here with Child Development Agency CEO Rosalee Gage-Grey in this February 11, 2014 file photograph. Hanna hauled the CDA over the coals for its "callous" removal of wards of state from a place of safety.

When you meet them, you want to stay as far from them as possible. That is why I do not participate in witch-hunts. Which hunt? That which seeks to find a magic answer for the mysterious events that now lead to the start of disciplinary proceedings against workers employed to the Child Development Agency (CDA).

Earlier this year, officers of the CDA removed wards of the State from the Sunshine Child Care Facility, an institution that was having legal issues which conceivably could have led to its closure. A complaint was made to the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA). The children's advocate is not a 'pyaw-pyaw' public official.

Consistent with her remit, an inquiry was conducted and a report furnished to the 'Hanna-rable' Minister of youth and culture. Of course, a minister must have had her feathers pushed the wrong way, when she was advised that her officers in the vaunted CDA allegedly misconducted themselves in removing the children. And as any responsible minister would, especially since these are real children, Minister Lisa Hanna acted swiftly and, in the spirit of transparency, brought the report to Parliament.

Catacombs of truth

Children's Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison is one of the most honest public servants I know, and who simply wants to get to the truth. Of course, she and her team of investigators are also human, and there is a lingering question regarding what went on in the process by which the OCA procured the details concerning the

misconduct.

My issue is not with any finding or conclusion the OCA might have arrived at. What I needed to be assured of is, did she and her team of investigators access all the persons concerned in the report and whether, during those sessions of digging and delving into the catacombs of truth, all the persons found or suspected of being culpable were, in fact, 'interrogated'.

Indeed, this is not a matter regarding the powers of the OCA. The Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA) of 2004 does give the children's advocate powers to make such enquiries. However, it would trouble me if incriminating opinions were formed regarding the conduct of the officers, without having heard from them first hand.

Moreover, I would like to think that the OCA report would have first been sent to the CDA for comment and feedback, before it was sent to Parliament and the media. Hopefully, this was done.

Something is very strange about the sequence of things. It is inconceivable that trained officers who are selected to enforce the CCPA could have been so derelict. Mark you, it would not be the first time that persons employed to enforce child-protective legislation act contrary to their mandate.

Well-informed team

For example, some years ago, a well-informed team from the Ministry of Education sought to carry out sex-education work, while asking children questions that they could not properly keep confidential. And, of course, we remember the

debacle surrounding the neatly inserted programmes by Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) that led to lots of falling out and fallout.

I don't know who the officers concerned are. However, I do know that a significant number of them might have passed through the social work programme of the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work - my little space on the plantation at the University of the West Indies. Interestingly, the chief executive officer, a good soul and also a graduate of the department, is not a trained social worker.

More intriguing, the founding CEO of the CDA, a solid academic and political scientist with a near genius IQ, is not a trained social worker. While I am not necessarily drawing inferences, I want to push in a plug for the need to have trained social workers flooding the system. In fact, I would like to think that the OCA's team had social workers, too.

Still, there is an administrative question to be addressed. In 2004, the CCPA was passed, and this increased the level of regulation over children's affairs. This places greater obligations on the public to report child abuse and children in need of care and protection.

Case overload

As a result, the total number of cases that reached the attention of the Office of the Children's Registry (OCR) was a mere 458 in 2007. By 2010, it reached 6,330, and was 11,018 in 2015. Similarly, the number of children in need of care and protection increased from 195 in 2007, to 2,617 in 2010, to 4,254 in 2013. At the end of that

period, there were more than 17,000 children in this needy category.

Are the CDA officers experiencing case overload? Rumour has it that in some instances, one single officer may have as many as 200.

To her credit, the minister has appointed a task force to examine what went wrong and certainly to make recommendations going forward. Yet, I could not properly answer when asked if the members of the task force included a trained social worker, preferably someone with years of experience in the phenomenon.

Nonetheless, it must be noted that the OCA is not the same as the CDA, and that entity has its own mandate. Quite appropriately, the CEO of the CDA has initiated disciplinary proceedings against the officers. Note, however, that this is not an indication of guilt, and despite the opinion of the OCA and apparently the minister, nothing has yet proven that the CDA

workers conclusively breached any procedure. It is an opinion.

The rules of natural justice are very explicit and clear. They are not limited to the following, but include i) the accused needs to know what the charges against her are, ii) she must be given an opportunity to respond to, and defend, herself, iii) there must be access to a representative speaking on her behalf, and very important, iv) an appeal process must be in place, which does not involve any of the earlier arbiters.

So, tell you what. Tek time with the people until the facts come out.

- Dr Orville Taylor, senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host, is the author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.