Board “fell down” in investigating abuse complaints – officials
One year after 12-year-old Coleridge & Parry Secondary School student Shemar Patrick Weekes was found hanging at his Fryers Well, Checker Hall, St Lucy home, the state-run child protection agency today publicly admitted for the first time that it had failed to properly investigate complaints that he was suffering physical abuse at the hands of his mother Julieann Weekes.
Testifying during the ongoing coroner’s inquest into the boy’s death, Sherry-Ann Blackman, the Child Care Board (CCB) officer who was assigned to Shemar’s case, admitted that she had failed to thoroughly investigate the complaints, which were first made over three years ago by the boy’s great-aunt Clarista Mabel Daniel.
When she took the witness stand minutes later, the CCB’s Director Joan Crawford also conceded that the agency “fell down” by not following through with its initial probe, adding that Blackman had acted inappropriately by not going to see the principal of the Gordon Walters Primary School – which Shemar attended at the time – after she could not contact him by phone.
Coroner Manila Renee was also told by Blackman that when the case was assigned to her on February 21, 2013, she immediately called the home where Shemar lived at the time with his mother in Lowthers Hill, Christ Church, but said no one had answered the phone.
However, the CCB officer said while Weekes did not call back, her next step was to send a letter –– two months later –– dated April 16, 2013, inviting the mother to attend an interview at the board six days later at 9.30 a.m. The mother was also asked to take along her then ten-year-old son Shemar to the interview.
In response to a question from the Coroner, Blackman, who was then attached to the Child Abuse Unit, pointed out that no other action was taken between February and April 2013.
However, the child protection officer said she assumed the letter had been delivered because normally the post office would return correspondence to the agency if no one could be found to receive it.
And even though Weekes did not attend the scheduled meeting, Blackman testified that three days later, she personally visited Weekes’ home at around 5 p.m. but when she discovered that no one was there, she left a note requesting the mother to contact her.
Again, there was no response from Weekes but it would be another ten days before Blackman would visit Weekes’ home again on May 5, 2013, this time a little later around 6 p.m. in the hope of finding the mother at home.
However, again there would be no sign of Weekes, Blackman testified, adding that she had also telephoned the Gordon Walters Primary School with a view to meeting with Shemar, but said the principal was not there at the time.
Blackman told the Coroner that no other action was taken after that in relation to the boy’s case.
She recalled though that the great-aunt had contacted the board a second time and had spoken to her in her bid to find out what progress had been made regarding her complaints.
The CCB officer said she updated the great-aunt on that occasion. However, Blackman said there was no record of Daniel calling back the CCB since 2013.
Blackman also admitted that the child protection agency did not try to contact the great-aunt in light of the fact that neither the mother nor the boy could be reached. She conceded that this was not the normal procedure, acknowledging that the CCB’s policy was to do some form of follow up.
In response to another question from the Coroner, Blackman testified that in the interim, the board did not receive any feedback to indicate that the matter had been resolved.
“This one fell through the cracks,” the investigating childcare officer confessed.
However, she explained that the lack of follow-up on her part could be attributed to the volume of work and the absence of further reports regarding abuse of the boy.
“Almost two years passed and you mean you didn’t have the chance to get back to this case?” the Coroner enquired of the witness.
Blackman said she was reassigned to another section of the Department in January 2015, but said Shemar’s case remained with her.
During her testimony, the CCB Director said the board took Shemar’s matter seriously and after reviewing it, concluded that action should be taken to address it.
Replying to the Coroner, Crawford made it clear that the policy of the board was to engage the school even if the investigating officer was unable to contact the principal by phone. She insisted that this was what her officer should have done, considering that it was necessary to interview the child.
Regarding Blackman’s re-assignment, the CCB director said officers, who were being transferred to another portfolio, were given at least six months notice and were required to summarize their cases, recommend action and discuss it with their supervisor.
Crawford said she believed the supervisor would have instructed Blackman to visit the school.
However, in outlining the challenges facing the board in responding to child abuse matters, Crawford said there were only five to six officers on that team dealing with about 1,000 reports per year.
Nonetheless, in view of the recent deaths of children who were reportedly abused, she said the CCB had put measures in place to better address complaints, including the hiring of a senior social work consultant from the United Kingdom who did an independent audit of cases which had been inactive for three months or more.
She said the audit also addressed the principles of social work and case management.
The CCB director also revealed that the consultant had trained all the officers in more efficient methods of carrying out their duties.
The board’s electronic database was also being updated to rationalize the information contained in its records.
Also giving evidence today were neighbours from Weekes’ Checker Hall community Antonio Connell, Kevin Yearwood and Alecia Connell, as well as principal of the Coleridge and Parry Secondary School Vincent Fergusson and guidance counsellor Cheryl Rose.
The principal described Shemar as an above average student for whom there were no negative complaints, while the St Lucy neighbours testified to hearing Weekes frequently quarrelling with Shemar.
The hearing resumes on Monday morning at the Coroner’s Roebuck Street, St Michael court.