Part 2 of a two-part series
May 7, 2002 – When children are entered into the Human Services Department system as victims of abuse or neglect, they get a designation, "PINS" — for "person in need of supervision." It then becomes the duty of Human Services staff, volunteers, court advocates and foster parents to shepherd them through the system, try to figure out what went wrong, and set them on a course toward recovery.
Charles "Steve" Russell Jr. came to the Virgin islands two years ago having spent 16 years in the Washington, D.C., area as a guardian ad litem lawyer.
Such guardians, who come from all areas of the legal profession, are charged by a judge to watch over children who become subject to the judicial system and to report to the court on the progress and setbacks the youngsters go through.
To Russell, his ad litem service is part of the obligation he feels as a lawyer to serve his community, and it's something he has continued in the territory. In the last two years, as a guardian he has helped 25 V.I. children. And here, he says, he has found a disturbing pattern similar to what he saw during his practice in rural Virginia: displaced children suffering further neglect once they are removed from the home.
On first encounter with children who have been taken away from their home, Russell said, he often finds them withdrawn and distrustful of strangers. If they are sent to live with another relative, he said, it's all too often a grandparent who is too old or too sick to give them proper care.
"In Washington, I practiced in an urban environment where a lot of the problems were caused by substance abuse," he said. "Then I moved to a very, very rural area where there weren't so many substance abuse problems but rather the PINS petitions were generated by extreme poverty and dissolution of a coherent family unit."
In the territory, he said, the numbers of petitions per capita "don't seem any worse than they were in Virginia," and the reasons for them "are the same. There is substance abuse, extreme poverty and a lack of understanding about the need for a family caregiver."
In the eyes of children's court advocate Gail Shearer, the lives of the children cannot get better until the supervision of children improves. "There are kids who are missing out on a normal childhood," she said. "Their development is being harmed. They aren't getting the stability necessary to develop their self esteem, their relationships, their attachments to people, their sense of worth, their sense of right and wrong."
Shearer is the founder of the St. Croix chapter of CASA, a national organization of trained volunteers who keep tabs on children making their way through the justice system.
As she moved from the U.S. mainland, where she also served as a court-appointed child advocate, Shearer said she was impressed by the efforts she found here by neighbors and other adults on behalf of neglected children.
"In the Virgin Islands, we don't see kids starving," she said. "We have kids in public housing who knock on the door of the neighbor and say 'Feed me.'" And, she says, the neighbors often do just that. She and Russell say they have found quite a few saints, including teachers who reach into their own pockets to buy school books and uniforms, feed the kids and sit for interviews with the court advocates even though they feel uncomfortable about getting involved.
What has left Shearer less than impressed, however, is the kind of support available to youngsters through foster care.
Lack of treatment, lack of options
Shearer says removing the child from an abusive home isn't a solution within a system that provides inadequate treatment. Victims of abuse and family members who hurt them rarely see a psychologist, she says.
Human Services officials say that service is supposed to be provided through the Department of Health's Division of Mental Health — but that agency hasn't had a child psychologist on staff in years.
Foster homes are in short supply and the lack of options, Shearer said, may lead the government to hesitate rather than to intervene. Right now, the territory has 59 foster homes on St. Croix and 64 in the St. Thomas district serving 165 children.
At a press conference held shortly after the battering death of 2-year-old Rasheem Todman last December, Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert said her agency was struggling with a shortage of appropriate foster homes for placement. Shearer suspects that may be the reason behind the lower number of removals compared to the previous year. "I think this is because Human Services is not removing kids in cases where they should, but where they have no money, no services to offer," she said.
Ferrynecia Benjamin, assistant Human Services commissioner, defends the foster care placement system but said opting for the first available roof overhead can result in making poor matches between foster parents and kids. And that, in turn, leads to multiple placements — shuttling kids from one foster home to the next.
"Some of the foster parents here should be nominated for sainthood," Assistant Attorney General Douglas Dick said, "but other foster parents seem like they're in it for the bucks. It's very very hard for Human Services to find foster homes here. Human Services almost has to go begging. And for teen-agers, the foster homes don't exist."
Territorial Court Judge Brenda Hollar, who just finished a two-year stint on the Family Court bench on St. Thomas, said she didn't want to give the impression that the judiciary should be telling the executive branch what to do, but the dearth of foster homes was an issue that gave her pause as she presided over Family Court. She said she thought more effort could produce better results. "I questioned their efforts in recruiting more, because when it came to placement, there was a lot of scurrying around," Hollar said.
She indicated that colleagues share her concerns and said one of them is in the process of being approved to provide foster care for a teen-age boy.
Benjamin insists that there are foster homes for every child who needs one. But she admits that older boys who are victims of abuse are most likely to face placement barriers. "It's difficult to place a teen-age boy or a child who is acting out," she said, although "we have always been able to find someone who will take a child overnight or for the weekend."
Dick said the Attorney General's Office closed down one foster home after the father abused a foster child with a large stick. "That is the only case I've had of a criminal nature where I have had to charge a foster parent," he said. It was not a situation where the child was set upon by an abuser, he said; the child acted out and someone had glued the locks in the house shut that day. He said prosecutors did not ask for jail time for the abuser — a former police officer — but did press for a conviction.
He also cited a case where a child victim of sexual molestation was taken out of her foster home because the foster mother failed to provide supervision, allowing the perpetrator access to the child in the home.
Going by the numbers
It is all but impossible to analyze the statistics on cases of children abuse, neglect and sexual abuse available since 1995 from the Human Services Department, other than to say that generally the numbers have been continuing to grow and that generally the numbers of cases have been higher for St. Croix than for St. Thomas and St. John. Here are the raw numbers:
Physical abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 14, St. Croix 45 = 59
Neglect — St. Thomas-St. John 29, St. Croix 82 = 111
Child sexual abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 14, St. Croix 29 = 43
No figures available
Physical abuse — St. Thomas
-St. John 26, St. Croix 69 = 95
Neglect — St. Thomas-St. John 47, St. Croix 88 = 135
Child sexual abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 11, St. Croix 8 = 19
Physical abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 18, St. Croix 74 = 92
Neglect — St. Thomas-St.. John 37, St. Croix 152 = 189
Child sexual abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 18, St. Croix 22 = 40
Physical abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 30, St. Croix 56 = 86
Neglect — St. Thomas-St. John 68, St. Croix 95 = 163
Child sexual abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 24, St. Croix 34 = 58
Physical abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 79, St. Croix 38 = 117
Neglect — St. Thomas-St. John 98, St. Croix 63 = 161
Child sexual abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 50, St. Croix 28 = 78
Physical abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 63, St. Croix 70 = 133
Neglect — St. Thomas-St. John 30, St. Croix 51 = 81
Child sexual abuse — St. Thomas-St. John 34, St. Croix 38 = 72
Conviction of crime without doing time
In extreme cases — where children are believed to be in danger — Human Services asks for help from the attorney general to take custody. "For emergency custody, we take the child and file an emergency petition," Dick said. "There has to be imminent danger of death or injury. Otherwise, there has to be an evident case of abuse or neglect.
"It can be anything — from physical beatings that leave broken bones or major lacerations. It could be burns … Obviously it's a case by case assessment, but it has to be more than a spanking."
Even a decade after the enactment of Shaquanna's law, "most physical abuse cases may be tried as a misdemeanor," Dick, who directs the Justice Department's Family and Special Victims Unit, said. He added, "The abuse cases that are most likely to result in jail time are the sexual abuse cases."
Some abuse cases do lead to criminal charges, he said. "We had one where a father beat a kid with a hammer and a broomstick. We got a conviction — but the judge didn't give him jail time."
What can be done?
For Dilsa Capdeville, founder of KidsCope, the solution lies with every member of the community — because, she says, the government will never be able to do enough to help abused children. "I think what's happening is that the cases are so demanding, I don't think the government can do it all," she said.
Some in the private sector have begun to heed the call. Several months ago, the Prosser Foundation donated specialized equipment to Roy L. Schneider Hospital that helps medical personnel to discover and document signs of sexual molestation.
As part of her continuing education in treatment and intervention, Capdeville went to Huntsville, Alabama, for a conference on child abuse intervention. There she learned about a multi-disciplinary approach that was later adopted in part on St. Thomas. Workers at Human Services say teaming up with police, doctors, the prosecutors and counselors help them resolve their cases faster and give the children a better chance at recovery.
Ultimately, Capdeville said, she would like to see the creation of an advocacy center like those in use in Huntsville, where abused children are interviewing by a therapist and a police officer at the same time. "You tape the statements," she explained, "so the child doesn't have to repeat the story over and over."
But to alleviate the plight of neglected children, Capdeville said, it will take more effort on the part of everyday people who see the signs but might not know what to say or who to say it to. Signs of child neglect are usually apparent, she said, but by the time it's reported to the authorities, the effects on the children have become impossible to ignore.
Kimberly Gomez, who's with Human Services on St. Croix, couldn't agree more. "My thing is prevention," she said. "We need to hold families responsible for abuse and neglect, and right now we don't. I believe in prevention. We need to be there for our families early on and not just in the end stage."
Prevention also is a watchword for daycare center operator Jerry Graham. Child care is his business, but his caring about children overall led him to join the local Child Abuse Task Force. With encouragement from Capdeville he has carried a picture of Shaquanna Arnette in the Carnival Children's Parade each year on the float of A Child's Place Pre-School.
But he didn't stop there. Graham said as the troupe makes its way through the parade route on Main Street, he has volunteers passing out literature to spectators, explaining who Shaquanna was and what happened to her. The literature also includes tips on what adults can do if they feel they may be on the verge of harming a child.
"We want the community to remember that there was one little child who fell through the cracks in the Carnival season several years ago, and we don't want them to forget her, ever," he said.
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