Right Steps & Poui Trees


Police Have Sent File on Walker’s Place of Safety Fire to the DPP

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 –

Walker’s Place of Safety Fire Brigade Report via Access to Information Request

and the other on September 29, 2018 –

Fire at Walker’s Place of Safety: More Information Needed

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.
MNS acknowledged receipt of my requests that same day, but then I heard nothing further. I emailed again on February 27, 2019, pointing this out and the following day received this response from MNS:

“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:ATI Act 16(b) exempt docs

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. ATI JCF Walker's POS case file correspondence 3-19 - cropped

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?

 


Fire at Walker’s Place of Safety: More Information Needed

On January 16, 2018, a fire at the Walker’s Place of Safety resulted in the death of two  teenaged girls who lived at the institution, Ornieka McCrae and Anna Kay Moreland . I have made three Access to Information (ATI) requests to the Child Protection & Family Services Agency (CPFSA), formerly the Child Development Agency (CDA), for documents containing information about the specific circumstances which led to the death of the girls. All three requests were responded to in a timely manner, but unfortunately have provided very little detail about the circumstances which led to the children’s deaths.

The CPFSA report (CDA Report – Walkers POS), which indicates it was submitted on February 15, 2018, a month after the fire, contained this information about the death of the girls:

CPFSA Walker's Feb 2018 report

Page 10

CPFSA report Walker's Place of Safety 2018 p.11

Page 11

CPFSA report Walker's Place of Safety 2018 p. 13

Page 13

The CPFSA report says that “the Fire Department…advised that an investigation has been launched into the cause of the fire.” The Jamaica Fire Brigade’s Final Fire Report (Jamaica Fire Brigade Final Fire Report – Walker’s Place of Safety – March 16 2018) is the result of that investigation, I assume. It had this to say about the death of the two girls:

Walker's Fire Brigade report p 1

General Remarks – page 1

Walker's Fire Brigade report p 2

General Remarks – page 2

Walker's Fire Brigade report p 2b

Origin and Cause – page 2

I found it difficult to accept that this was all that the CPFSA had in terms of specific information on the circumstances surrounding the death of two children in State care and made a third request for relevant information. I received the following response:

“With regards to your request below, please be advised that the only documents the CPFSA has relating to the death of the children in the fire at Walker’s POS are the Jamaica Fire Brigade Report and the CPFSA Walker’s report for which you have already obtained copies.” July 3, 2018

It cannot be that this represents the entire documentation of an incident in which two girls in the care of the state died. I am at this stage assuming that some other department of government has further information documented and I will be making additional ATI requests. For example, are there any statements by staff at the facility regarding what happened that night? Were any of the children who survived interviewed and their accounts documented? Thankfully thirty-four of the thirty-six children escaped safely, but surely we must want to find out why two children did not.

 


OCA’s Investigative Report on CDA’s Removal of Children From Child Care Facility

In Parliament yesterday, the Office of the Children’s Advocate’s (OCA) “Report on Investigations into the Conduct of the Child Development Agency Concerning Wards of the State: Sunshine Child Care Facility” was tabled by Minister of Youth and Culture, Lisa Hanna.

The report (see link below) details the OCA’s investigations, findings and recommendations regarding the Child Development Agency’s (CDA) removal of 34 children from a privately operated Place of Safety in February 2015. The children had all “been placed there at the instance of the Child Development Agency.”(p 3)

The investigation included a Hearing which resulted from the Children’s Advocate’s exercise of “her powers as a  Judge of the Supreme Court…pursuant to the provisions of the First Schedule to the Child Care and Protection Act.” (p 2) The issues to be determined were:

OCA report issues to be determined.PNG

The details given in the report describe a complete mishandling of the matter by the CDA, a disturbing disregard for the well-being and rights of Gordon Harrison RJR 1449626552NN_GORDON_HARRISONthe children and problematic responses on the part of some CDA personnel to the enquiries by the Children’s Advocate, Diahann Gordon Harrison.

One of the things that I found really troubling reading the report is that so many of the actions and attitudes described are not new. The specifics relate to a particular case, and having all occurred during this one case certainly merited focused investigation by the OCA and action regarding accountability and provisions for the affected children. But these types of actions and approaches by the CDA have been seen before, including:

  • failure to prepare children and child care facilities adequately for the removal/transfer of children from one facility/situation to another
  • transfer of children with no files or incomplete files
  • failure to advise child care facilities of medical/health conditions of incoming children, resulting in improper medical care, sometimes for serious/life-threatening conditions
  • transfer of children from one facility/situation to another resulting in disruption of their education
  • failure to provide/continue needed counselling for children being transferred from one facility/situation to another

The incidents involving the 34 children at one child care facility may serve to highlight general problems with approaches and practices within the CDA. However, one has to ask whether or not it is the first time that oversight mechanisms – within the CDA, at the level of the Ministry, at the level of the OCA – have picked up on such problems.

There is far more that needs to be questioned about the matters raised within the OCA’s report and about the functioning of the CDA, an agency that has experienced many problems since its inception. I will be interested to see what comes of the task force that has been announced by Minister Hanna and is due to report on certain aspects of the child care and protection systems in February next year.

(The report is on Parliament’s website or is available here: OCA Report re CDA Conduct – Sunshine Child Care Facility Nov 2015.)

OCA download on Parliament websiteOCA CDA report cover 12-15