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JFJ, Gomes trade charges in sex-ed row

Sunday, July 20, 2014    

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HUMAN rights lobby group Jamaicans For Justice (JFJ) says after reviewing the controversial sex education manual it has come to the conclusion that the children who were exposed to inappropriate material could have been psychologically harmed.

But the group's claim that its board of directors was not fully informed of the content of the programme has been stoutly denied by Dr Carolyn Gomes, the former JFJ executive director who now heads the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVCC).

In a release on Friday, JFJ accepted culpability for not vetting the material properly and placed the blame squarely at the feet of its board of directors.

"Children in some of the homes may have been exposed to content that might not have been appropriate for their age. This possibility arose from weaknesses in the oversight and vetting process. The board of directors is responsible for the deficiency in the vetting process," the group admitted in a release to the media on Friday.

The controversial Healthy Sexual Growth and Development in Marginalised Youth: Rights, Responsibilities and Life Skills manual, JFJ said, was an educational programme designed to "engender responsible attitudes in marginalised youth towards their sexual and reproductive health in order to reduce the incidence of HIV infections in the adolescent population". The programme was implemented in six children's homes and ran for eight months from October 2013 though to May 2014.

Some 80 caregivers were trained by JFJ facilitators between November 2013 and February 2014.

As many as 176 children were trained between January 2014 and May 2014. Training was conducted by the JFJ facilitators. Several children younger than 13 were exposed to different modules in several of the children's homes, the JFJ admitted.

"We were unable to confirm which module or modules or what content these children were exposed to," the release said.

JFJ also admitted that:

* The programme content and methodology were not vetted by the board of directors of JFJ before being implemented;

* The programme content was not signed off by project partner, Family Planning Association of Jamaica (FamPlan); and

* Some of the content in Module 5 -- Gender, and Module 6 -- Sexuality and Society would be inappropriate if not delivered by someone properly trained to children who were not properly prepared to receive it.

"We were not able to determine conclusively if children were exposed to material not appropriate for their age or development. However, this possibility cannot be ruled out," the group said.

The project, the rights group said, was implemented by it pursuant to a call for proposals from the CVCC/Centre for Integral Orientation and Investigation (COIN) in April 18 2013.

"The then Executive Director Carolyn Gomes developed a proposal to provide marginalised youth in children's homes with rights-based information on sexual and reproductive rights and submitted it in June 2013. The proposal was successful and the contract for the execution of the project was signed by Gomes on behalf of JFJ on October 17, 2013," JFJ said.

"Course content was developed from material provided by FAMPLAN, CVCC/COIN and various other publicly available sources. FAMPLAN did not sign off on the final course content. The content was intended to be delivered to children between the ages 13 and 17," the release said..

JFJ said Gomes delivered three secretariat reports in 2013 to its monthly board meetings and the programme was mentioned. However, the full content was never brought to the board, the group said.

"This is not unusual as programme details were not normally presented at board meetings," the release said.

The group also pointed out that its current Executive Director Kay Osborne was appointed on April 1 this year and had no involvement in the design and implementation of the controversial project.

Instead, JFJ claimed that Gomes designed, developed, negotiated and contracted the project with funding arranged by CVCC.

"The project began implementation in October 2013 under the direct guidance of Dr Gomes. In December 2013 when Dr Gomes demitted office as executive director she did not provide the board of directors with complete information on the project, notwithstanding that she continued to sit on the board until her resignation on June 17, 2014. There were material deviations to the project proposal that affected the development and implementation of the project. The project proposal required that FAMPLAN sign off on the material to be presented to the wards. This was not done."

The group also said the board was unable to determine who actually prepared that material.

"At no point did Dr Carolyn Gomes or anyone else, either in writing or verbally, indicate to Ms Osborne that JFJ was implementing a programme in children's homes to decrease the spread of HIV/AIDS or one in which sex education is taught. We are further satisfied that Ms Osborne was unaware of the content of the said programme modules and no aspect of the same formed any part of her job description since she was appointed executive director," JFJ said.

"Against this background, the board of directors regrets these occurrences and concludes that children in some of the homes may have been exposed to content that might not have been appropriate for their age. This possibility arose from weaknesses in the oversight and vetting process. The board of directors accepts that there were deficiencies in the vetting process and holds itself fully accountable," the group admitted.

But yesterday, Dr Gomes said although she designed the project, the accusation by JFJ that she did not share the information with the board is erroneous.

"After we drew a proposal I shared it with the then chairperson by e-mail before it was submitted. And then every month after that I reported to the board right through until October when we won the grant," Dr Gomes told the Sunday Observer.

Dr Gomes said when there was a call for proposals in April 2013 she discussed the matter with the members of JFJ to include representatives from FAMPLAN.

"We set out some preliminary thoughts and I shared them with the head of the Child's Rights Working Group... because the board of JFJ operates through various groups and teams and they oversee the Child's Rights Working Group," Gomes explained. "And this was by e-mail from April of last year. So they knew what we were thinking of doing before we even did it."

She explained that the proposal was mentioned in the secretariat report but became a full report in the communications report to the board which set out in detail what was to be done regarding the project.

Gomes explained, too, that the full details of the project were included in the November and December reports to the board.

"This was circulated by e-mail and then tabled in hard copy at the board meetings," Gomes said. "So to say that the board was not informed by myself and the team at the office is completely erroneous. If you don't choose to read your reports that are presented to you, then I don't know on what basis one operates. How does one operate other than providing reports? So, for example, in November the headline was CVC COIN project: Healthy sexual growth and development in marginal youth, rights, responsibilities and life skills," she explained.

She noted that during the reporting period activities undertaken were outlined detailing the preliminary organising and training, with official letters seeking permission sent to six privately owned children's homes detailing the goals and objectives of the project.

"So to say that I didn't brief them clearly isn't accurate," she said. "And I have proof that they were briefed."

She explained that when she handed over the reins in January this year, the project was still being developed.

"All the way to June of this year, two newsletters were done about it and shared with the board and with the membership, so I don't know how they didn't know about it," Gomes said.

She said the head of the Child's Right Working Group, with whom she shared documents in April before the group wrote the project, reported on it to the Annual General Meeting in April.

"So the members were told from April about information on the project, so not only was it reported on but the chairperson reported on it herself to the membership."

Gomes said Osborne got involved in the project earlier in May when there was a glitch in the delivery and the project implementer asked for her assistance in getting some of the workshops delivered at John Bosco Boys' Home due to a scheduling issue.

Gomes said it was Osborne who asked that the project be continued by a sister at that boys' home when concerns were voiced by a member of the school that time was against them.

"So I don't know how she could have said she didn't know what she was asking the sister to continue," Gomes said. "And then after that she appeared on Live at 7 to talk about how this project was good. And she also drafted a press release to Ms [Lisa] Hanna at the end of May which spoke about our work in children's homes," Gomes said.

Despite being at the centre of the controversy, Gomes said she had no input in the review that was just concluded.

"I have my responses prepared, but I have not shared them with anybody because no one in particular asked for them," she said after explaining that two letters were sent to her on Monday but she was not sure of the authenticity of the requests as they were unsigned.

"So the review proceeded without my input and it proceeded without the input of the chief implementer from the organisation. I am aware that the chief staff person in charge of the project was not questioned about the project during the review period. Nor was the trained social worker, a volunteer posted by CUSO who also worked on the project," Gomes said. "It is unclear who conducted the review but I am aware that there was no meeting of the board to discuss and agree on the findings of the review prior to it being sent to the media."

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