State failure to blame for Arouca rehab facility

Leave alone … zap … seems to be the preferred management strategy being deployed throughout this country. It is a very unhelpful strategy to leave any situation to fester then swoop down and try to zap it out of existence.

The recent furore over the 69 or so people being housed by the Transformed Life Ministry (TLM) in Arouca is an example of deep systemic failure. Back in June 2016, when the pastor appeared before the joint select committee, it was clear that action needed to be taken to regularise his situation. Instead, it was left to deteriorate and now, zap, the authorities and media come down with a heavy hand and use the misnomers ‘slavery’ and ‘human trafficking’.

Photo: People found in cages at rehabilitation centre Transformed Life Ministry, Arouca. (via

For the record, slavery means that you are doing physical labour for no financial recompense. Human trafficking is the action or practice of illegally transporting people from one country or area to another, typically for the purposes of forced labour or sexual exploitation. The recently discovered situation may be kidnapping, torture, and fraud, but is neither slavery nor trafficking.

Some of us have observed the disappearance of noted characters from our streets. Did we think that they went on all-expenses-paid vacations? No! They were taken off the streets in an attempt at rehabilitation. They were removed because their families had suffered enough at the hands of the drug-addicted or the mentally ill. Their families had given up on them. The state had abandoned them. Some of them may have ended up in the Arouca facility, recommended by a social worker, because of the dire insufficiency of official places to accommodate the socially displaced.

Over time, the capacity of institutions to house the socially displaced has not kept pace with growing numbers of people needing help. Once there is shortage, if the official system doesn’t compensate to satisfy demand, there will always be those who seek to fill the gap for a price. In this case, we have seen an increase in the number of informal institutions that operate under the radar and in the absence of rigorous monitoring and evaluation. Administrators of such institutions are left to their own devices to operate at whatever standard they choose.

It is not the first time that the authorities have made a dramatic swoop-down to rescue people who were in unacceptable circumstances. It has happened before with orphanages and elder-care centres. It will continue to happen until we strengthen the systems, processes and procedures to ensure compliance with standards.

In the case of the Transformed Life Ministry (TLM), it would be instructive to find out about the history of the authorities visiting his premises and providing recommendations for improvements. A monitoring and evaluation (M&E) visit would have revealed that people were being housed in circumstances not fit for purpose. But then, how different is this cage strategy from other isolation strategies at the St. Ann’s facility?

Photo: St Ann’s Hospital

This is yet another example of the state failing in its responsibility to provide institutional support or monitor and evaluate the circumstances under which such institutions are operated. It is particularly unfortunate that this is a case of people who are mentally challenged or who suffer from a mental disease or substance abuse. This is an example of spontaneous development to satisfy a need that is not being satisfied under any other circumstances.

The lesson from this should be that we urgently need to provide institutions both in terms of bricks and mortar and properly trained human resources to manage and inspect these institutions. Otherwise, this and similar dramas will continue to unfold, as people design their own solutions in response to any systemic failures.

The commissioner of police and the government will get some popular support for their apparent rescue, but the 60-plus families, who will have to deal with unstable loved ones, are now under pressure from a situation for which they are neither prepared nor have state support.

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