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Heroine or villain?

Heat from Armadale fire scorches head of CDA Alison Anderson

BY DESMOND ALLEN Executive Editor - Operations allend@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 28, 2010    

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THE head of the State-run Child Development Agency (CDA), Alison Anderson, last week found herself in the unwelcome spotlight, as non-victim casualties of the deadly Armadale Correctional Centre fire mounted.

Two untimely media revelations coincided to draw Anderson, married McLean, into the Armadale fray, giving brief reprieve to June Spence-Jarrett, the commissioner of the correctional services, whose head Jamaicans For Justice (JFJ), the rights group, had been hunting.

As if crying out from the grave, the names of the seven girls killed by the fire jumped back onto the front pages, after whistle-blowers leaked news to Nationwide Radio that the Armadale Report was done but remained unpublished.

In that report, the inquiry led by retired Appeal Court President Justice Paul Harrison, blamed the fire on a police tear gas canister lobbed into a cramped dormitory on a night of madness in May last year at the St Ann home. Watchdog JFJ immediately demanded the resignation of Spence-Jarrett, alleging that she had placed at risk the girls at Armadale, on the eve of her appointment as correctional services director.

Amidst the furore, news also emerged that Alison Anderson had resigned as chief executive officer of the CDA, with unsuspecting persons linking the two events, apparently after JFJ described the resignation as "overdue".

But Anderson, in an interview with the Sunday Observer, shrugged off the marrying of the two events, and she all but welcomed the opportunity to turn the spotlight on the work of the CDA.

"I think the Armadale Report, from what I have heard, offers a road map that should prevent something so horrible, so disgraceful, so bad, from ever happening to our children again. So for that reason, I welcome it," she said.

Anderson insisted that until the report was dealt with by the Parliament, she could not discuss its contents. However, conceding that the CDA has regulatory responsibility for Armadale, as with all residential child care facilities -- public or private -- she said her agency did not run the home, and would need court action to intervene.

On the JFJ comment, she said the group had tarnished her reputation last year when it accused her of not presenting the truth in a report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) about child abuses in Jamaican children's homes.

"That accusation was unwarranted and baseless," said Anderson. "In fact, I am not even sure what report they are claiming that I tabled."

Anderson said that after the JFJ had taken Jamaica to the Commission on Human Rights, the CDA was asked to provide a report to the Attorney General's Department which was preparing its team to appear before the IACHR.

"Our report was used as part of a Government of Jamaica Report that was presented by the solicitor general," she explained. "We then heard that we had said that no abuses had been observed in children's homes in the 2008-09 period under review.

"We had in fact stated in our report that 327 critical incidents of abuse had been observed and documented over the period. But we also noted that at the time when our monitors visited the homes to do their latest report, no abuse had been observed.

"It's important to understand the difference. We were saying that between the two reports, we had observed and documented 327 cases of abuse. But on the visit just prior to the report, no (new) critical incidents had been observed. We also broke down the 327 incidents into physical, sexual, hospitalisation and the like," Anderson said.

"In fact, some people have gone to jail over some of the incidents," she disclosed.

The CDA head said that she had issued a news release responding to what she thought was a misunderstanding and went on several talk shows to discuss it. However, JFJ had never retracted its statement, she noted.

Anderson said there was a general feeling in Jamaica that the CDA had responsibility for all children in the care of

the State. She again

stressed that the CDA had regulatory responsibility but that was limited.

"We have the authority to go into any institution or home to find out what is happening to a child. But in order to go into a house and remove a child, we have to get a warrant from the court under the Child Care and Protection Act. And it is something we do all the time, when reports are made. But there are different levels of responsibility and jurisdiction," she said.

Asked if the CDA ever got any report about the situation at Armadale, she said: "Never."

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