When news came of the fire that destroyed the Walker’s Place of Safety on January 16, 2018, resulting in the death of two girls, there was an outpouring of grief and concern from officials and members of the public. Offers of help were extended, commitments were made regarding care for the surviving children and donations were given for immediate needs and towards the rebuilding of the facility.
At the time, I could not help thinking of the fire at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Facility on the night of May 22, 2009, which caused the death of seven girls and injury and trauma to numerous others. The subsequent Commission of Enquiry revealed specific information about the circumstances – horrifying and preventable – that led to the death of those children.
Assuming (hoping?) that lessons had been learned from that tragic event and loss of life, I expected that there would be the kind of thorough and detailed investigation and reporting that would indicate the specific circumstances that led to the death of the two children at Walker’s Place of Safety. I expected that there would be a full public accounting, so that we would know why these children’s lives had been lost, although the lives of so many others had been saved.
I did not hear in the public statements by officials the kind of details that would be needed and perhaps I didn’t expect it. I did, however, expect that in written format somewhere in the government agencies that level of investigation, reporting and accounting would exist. Reference was made in the media to a report by the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA, formerly the CDA – Child Development Agency) and the fire report by the Jamaica Fire Brigade. I made Access to Information (ATI) requests for these documents, in the hopes that they would provide more of the type of information I was expecting to see. They didn’t.
(I wrote two blog posts about these reports – one on May 17, 2018 –
and the other on September 29, 2018 –
In the second post, I pointed out how little information is given about the circumstances leading to the death of the two children and the need for much more.)
The first anniversary of the fire came and went and on January 24, 2019, I made ATI requests to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MOEYI) and to the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) via the Ministry of National Security (MNS). There is a reason for having gone that route with my request to the JCF, but that’s for another time. The requests I made were as follows:
1. All documents giving an account of the specific circumstances surrounding the death of the two girls at the Walker’s Place of Safety on the night of the fire on January 16, 2018.2. All documents regarding any investigation or inquiry into the death of the two girls at the Walker’s Place of Safety on the night of the fire on January 16, 2018, including any instructions for such investigation or inquiry to be carried out.3. All documents related to any aspect of the death of the two girls at the Walker’s Place of Safety on the night of January 16, 2018.4. All documents related to any aspect of the fire at the Walker’s Place of Safety on the night of January 16, 2018.
“This is to inform that your request below was directed to the J.C.F. However, in initial communication with them they had maintained that the matter was being investigated and would in this instance could not be disclosed, this was communicated verbally. I did not want to pass on this information until documented information/confirmation was forwarded about same.
Notwithstanding the J.C.F has formally confirmed that an investigation was conducted on the matter and the file was referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for ruling which is being awaited.
Consequently, based on the status of the matter the documents are exempted vide section 16 (b) of the Access to Information Act. Please be guided accordingly, thank you.”
Section 16(b) deals with one of the provisions for exemption of documents relating to law enforcement and reads as follows:
I replied on the same day asking if I could get some document from the JCF indicating that the file had been referred to the DPP – a memo or cover letter for example, which mightn’t be exempt under the ATI Act.
On March 7, 2019, I received the following acknowledgement from MNS…
“I have requested the document/s that would indicate a referral of this matter to the DPP, I will be awaiting same. It will be forwarded when received. Thank you.”
…and on March 25, 2019, I received the following response:
“Please find attached correspondence substantiating that the matter of the Walker’s Place of Safety fire (case file) was referred to the Director of Public Prosecution by the Jamaica Constabulary Force. Thank you.”
The documents attached were a handwritten certified copy of an entry in the Registry Correspondence Books and a typed copy of the same. An edited image of the typed copy, which is more legible, is shared here.
A list of the names of the people whose statements were sent and a list of the pieces of evidence sent were included under the heading “File Contents”. I decided, however, not to include those in my post, which is why the image is edited. And I note that the document doesn’t actually indicate who the file was sent to. I also note that the file seems to have been sent on February 7, 2019, three weeks after the first anniversary of the fire and two weeks after I made my ATI request to the JCF.
I do not know what decision the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) has made regarding the file…whether or not a decision has been made to prosecute anyone for a crime in regard to the fire or the death of the girls. I wait to hear.
The Armadale Commission of Enquiry and its subsequent report demonstrated the level of enquiry and reporting that should take place if a child dies in a fire in state care, the level of reporting owed to the child, to the family, to the nation. But does it require that a Commission of Enquiry be held to get that detailed accounting? What protocols were set in place after Armadale for the proper investigation of such tragic incidents? And who has the responsibility for such an investigation and reporting?
No-one could be satisfied with the CPFSA report or the Fire Brigade report.
I have been told by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information that they have no information in response to my request about the fire at the Walker’s Place of Safety and the death of the two children, that all such information would be at CPFSA. I have made a request to the Office of the Children’s Advocate, which has asked for an extension of time to consider the request and have been told I will have a response by May 19.
Some weeks ago I went with a couple of others to the site of the Walker’s Place of Safety. There was nothing at the site that would clearly indicate to someone who didn’t know that that was where the facility had been located. The remains of the building have been removed and the site cleared. The type of bush that covers open lots has grown up quickly. There are remains of a play area to the front of the cleared lot and if you walk across the lot and look closely at the ground, you can see small pieces of charred wood sparsely scattered in the dirt. To one side of the lot, there is a tree that still shows signs of being badly burnt.
(Video credit: D. A. Bullock)
The events of that night may be indelibly seared in the memories of those who experienced it directly, of the survivors, of the families of those who died, of the people who helped to rescue children, of the officials who oversaw arrangements immediately afterwards. But just as evidence of what happened at that site is fading, the memory of what happened will fade too – from public consciousness and from the official record – if there is not written accounting to be relied on.
Imagine what would be publicly known or recorded about the tragedy at Armadale if there had been no Commission of Enquiry.
What happened that night at the Walker’s Place of Safety? What led to the death of the two children? Were their deaths preventable? Where is the accounting that would let us know?