Following revelations that the Public Education Ministry had, apparently unwittingly, rehired educators convicted of the sexual abuse of minors, the teachers were stripped of their posts.According to ministry officials and legal experts, however, the country’s laws make it difficult to ensure such hirings wouldn’t reoccur.
Rosalía Gil, head of the Child Welfare Office (PANI), said her organization is preparing to remedy the situation by drafting a bill to prevent people convicted of sex crimes from working with children.
As soon as the PANI Board of Directors approves the bill, which will happen “soon,” the office will seek its approval by the Legislative Assembly, according to Gil, who made a presentation at President Abel Pacheco’s weekly Cabinet meeting last week regarding PANI’s recent accomplishments.
This effort began after news that several convicted rapists or child molesters had been re-hired as public school teachers by the Education Ministry. In September, police arrested a high-school industrial arts teacher convicted of raping a minor at a school in 1996; he was sentenced to 16 years in jail in 2004, escaped authorities and was rehired by the Education Ministry (TT, Sept. 23, 2005).
The daily La Nación revealed in January that the ministry rehired another teacher months after he left prison in 2004. In both cases, the ministry was apparently unaware of the educators’ antecedents, since the ministry did not require background checks at the time.
The ministry has now made background checks mandatory for all newly hired or rehired teachers, but ministry officials and legal analysts said the ministry could be sued for interfering with applicant’s labor rights if it makes hiring decisions based on the criminal records of ex-convicts who have served their time.
“It’s worrisome that children or young adults are exposed to this type of crime,” criminal lawyer Humberto Fallas told The Tico Times. “But if (ex-convicts) have served their time, they have the right to work… The ministry is right (to worry about lawsuits).”
Last month, Gil called the situation “extremely worrisome” and told The Tico Times she is planning to take action – either by finding a basis in the existing legislation that would allow the Education Ministry to deny employment to convicted sex offenders, or by drafting a new bill. She emphasized that people convicted of sex crimes do have the right to work, but not with kids (TT, Jan. 13).
Last week, she reiterated her stance that “it’s important that (convicts) return to their jobs, but never again with children.” She added that the bill would apply to any job involving children, not just jobs within the Education Ministry.
Psychiatrists consulted by The Tico Times in January, including President Abel Pacheco, agreed that people convicted of sexual abuse tend to commit the crime more than once.
“People who tend toward pedophilia – I, who was a psychiatrist for so many years, never saw one who was cured,” he said.
During her presentation, Gil also described PANI’s efforts and achievements during Pacheco’s four-year term, which will end in May.
A major focus: the “institutional reform” of the office, under way since 2004, which, in essence, seeks to decentralize the organization, making the central office more efficient while empowering regional offices.
The reform also allows for greater participation by communities, families and other state institutions in PANI’s work to provide integrated, more efficient services for children, Gil said.
According to Gil, the process has resulted in greater access to PANI’s services thanks to new community offices. The number of children, adolescents and families served by the office rose from 23,914 in 2002 to 42,184 last year, and the organization has opened 13 new local offices, several in rural areas.
Among the organization’s other achievements during the Pacheco administration were providing classes for 2,344 adolescent mothers, placing 423 children in adoptive homes and purchasing three shelters in the greater metropolitan area: one for boys, one for girls and one for groups of siblings.
PANI also launched 15 campaigns that brought new publicity to issues from physical abuse of minors to sexual exploitation – PANI is participating in a campaign launched earlier this month against the adolescent sex trade (TT, Feb. 17) – and returned 3,731 children who had been removed from their families for various reasons to their homes.
“This is very important given the family disintegration that exists in our country,” Gil said.
The office has also launched a new Web site, www.pani.go.cr, which includes information for children and teenagers, resources related to adoption, and a “virtual library” of legislation related to children.