The Commission of Inquiry (CoI) report into the fire at the Hadfield Street Drop-in Centre last month, which claimed the lives of two children, was handed in earlier this week. The report concluded that the incident was a tragedy waiting to happen.
For many this came as no surprise, as for quite some time now, several stakeholders have been raising various concerns about the facility regarding its safety and the level of care it provides for children placed there.
Previously, sections of the media have sought to highlight the many problems plaguing the facility but to no avail. In fact the authorities had always sought to downplay the reports and present a picture that all was well at the facility. In any modern society, there would have been very strong actions recommended against those who were found to be lacking in their response to the tragedy.
It is quite clear that at all levels, including even at the levels of the Minister of Social Protection and the Director of the Childcare Protection Agency (CPA), very little concern was shown towards ensuring those placed in the State’s care were given the kind of protection they deserve.
Minister Volda Lawrence has been in that position for well over a year now and at least should have put certain policy mechanisms in place aimed at ensuring what obtained previously changed for the better. It is quite unfortunate that it had to take another fire and the loss of the lives of two children to cause the authorities to wake up from their slumber.
It should be noted that there was a similar fire a few years back at the facility; and even though no one died, many of the children were left traumatised. One is therefore left to wonder what changes were made, if any, since then, to ensure that our children are well protected from such tragedies.
The findings of the recent inquiry conducted by Retired Colonel Windee Algernon found that the children/staffer ratio was not adhered to and that on the morning of the fire, there were not enough staff on duty to meet the needs of children. Additionally, the house service supervisor, while she had the authority to call out more staff, failed to do so.
The CoI also found that there were written guidelines for the management of crisis situations, including fires; however, the house manager and other senior staff seemed unfamiliar with them. And so when the fire occurred, there was confusion and panic, resulting in the tragedy.
Of note too is that the inquiry found that the fire was caused by a defective electrical outlet fitted with exposed wires on the eastern wall of the girls’ dormitory. This, the report said, played a role in the ignition of the fire by subsequent heat transfer. It should be mentioned that the authorities had also concluded that the 2010 fire at the facility was also as a result of an electrical problem.
The fire department at the time had made some recommendations that would have minimised the possibility of a similar situation occurring. It is still not known what sort of corrective work was done to fix the electrical problems which seem to be plaguing the facility since that time. How did such a situation occur a second time?
Along with the findings, the CoI made some recommendations, including that the Social Protection Ministry and the CPA continue to focus on overhauling child protection, cutting redtape and improving the skills and knowledge of social workers so that they could adequately protect children in the State’s care.
It was also recommended that the emergency evacuation plans be developed and practiced at all childcare facilities, and that in-house training, including rehearsals, be conducted for staff in crises management and childcare centres.
It is hoped that these recommendations will be acted upon immediately by the relevant authorities. The issue of child care cannot be taken lightly. In the meantime, we are still waiting to see what sort of action will be taken against those who are found to be responsible.