Joanna Hernandez: the carer who cared - and had the guts to speak out...
Three years ago Joanna Hernandez took a decision that changed her life, crumbled the career she cherished, and cast a pall of misery over her small family - a widowed mother and a teenage daughter with a genetic illness. The decision? A simple one: to tell the truth...
The truth was that the Dr Giraldi Home - established to care for Gibraltar's disadvantaged and which she had been head-hunted to run - was in a mess both morally and administratively. Shocked by her discovery, she attempted to persuade the Social Services Agency to act but it failed to do so.
And when after six months, during which she attempted to tighten the reins and get the ship she had been charged to steer back on course, her superiors still failed to respond to her concerns she threatened to lift the lid off the can of worms. She was warned to keep her mouth shut. Instead she spoke out.
Some of her concerns and the events that provoked them have been aired in recent weeks at hearings of the Industrial Tribunal where Joanna is locked in a clash with Gibraltar's Social Services Agency over her claim for wrongful dismissal. More details of the shocking treatment of those in the Agency's care are set to emerge next April when - after protracted legal wrangling through which the Government tried to keep the sordid facts under wraps - witnesses will give evidence at the full Tribunal hearing.
The year which she spent at the Giraldi has taken its toll; for, as well as the trauma of what she found and was told during her first months ‘on post', it was while she was working there that the rare genetic disease from which both she and her daughter suffer was diagnosed. And the dragged out years since her dismissal from the Giraldi Home - and thus from the career helping the disadvantaged to which she had dedicated most of her adult life - have added to that burden of the soul. Behind the smiling and confident façade, a deep sadness lurks in the tawny brown eyes.
"Yes, sometimes I wonder if blowing the whistle on what was happening in the Agency was the right thing - for my family more than for myself," she admitted when VOX met her on the forecourt of the family café/bar which her mother now runs. (It is a business from which she hoped to ‘escape' when she first volunteered to work at St Bernadette's O.T. centre more than a decade ago... and to which circumstance has forced her to return.)
"I was warned that if I spoke up, made waves there would be retribution, but what could I do? Stay silent and let the abuse continue? I had no one to turn to for advice, but I discussed it with my daughter and, young though she was at the time, she told me: ‘Mum, you must do what is right'.
"And SHE was right. If it comes to the point that nobody here cares for each other, just what are we here for in Gibraltar," she adds with passionate conviction.
Joanna was a young schoolgirl at Westside Comprehensive when she first encountered and became involved with the concept of "caring" and Gibraltar's need to do more for its disadvantaged.
EARLY EXPERIENCE OF CARING
"The son of the accountant who looked after the books of the family business was handicapped...everything had to be done for him and I suppose I must have felt sympathetic for I remember spending a lot of time helping to care for him, for his mother just couldn't cope," Joanna recalls. "And that really set me on the road to my career, though I couldn't do much about it on leaving school as my father's illness meant that I had to become involved in running the family business when I was still in my late 'teens."
Motherhood followed; and after Joanna and her daughter's father separated when the child was a year old and "I concentrated on being a single parent, caring for my daughter for the next four years", she explains. But the need and commitment to caring burned ever hotter, and led to her volunteer spell at St Bernard's.
"I knew then that that was what I wanted to do with my life - to look after the disabled. I studied for a Post Graduate Advanced Diploma in education, concentrating on inclusion and disability, the basis of which is to bring those who are disadvantaged or who have disabilities into the main stream - whether in terms of education or just ordinary life - and try to give them as ‘ordinary' or ‘normal' a life as possible. And these disciplines embrace anyone in the age range from three to 21. I did supply work with the Department of Education and they gave me all the challenging cases. Several of these involved people with challenging behaviour problems who could be quite abusive and aggressive."
Among the gentler cases she was handed was a four-year-old blind child - the first in Gibraltar to become part of the inclusion programme, and possibly the most rewarding of the many ‘cases' which Joanna dealt with in the seven years that she spent working with the Education Department. There was no-one in Gibraltar to teach Braille at that stage and to work with the young girl, Joanna took a correspondence course in this form of communication with the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and Edinburgh University.
"It was both taxing and rewarding, for as well as giving the blind the skills in the technology one had to provide a care plan - a multi-task plan which eventually included translating the school curriculum or finding Braille access to it," she recalls with a far-away look, and a small smile of satisfaction lights up her face. "It was really hard work, but as I began to teach her it was so rewarding, too. She worked really hard and eventually became top of her year...and was clearly eventual university material."
THE IMPORTANCE OF TOUCH
To teach Braille, she explains, there is an initial need to help them develop awareness through their finger-tips. "You have to teach the fingertips to become sensitive" - and her own delicate fingers trace a pattern across the table top - "and with a child who has not learned to read, to know the basic ABC, well...you have to start from scratch in a situation like that. As well as that, you have to go into their world."
There's tell-tale moisture in Joanna's eyes as she talks of the young girl - and she rubs away a furtive tear as she recalls that when she left the Education Department to join the Agency the child had clearly felt "some sort of rejection" and would no longer speak to her erstwhile teacher. That response has left a still painful scar.
And while helping this child and others, as well as running her single-parent home, Joanna managed to find time to continue her studies, gaining a diploma to teach independent living - which allows the disadvantaged or disabled to fend for themselves - and an advanced diploma as a counseling therapist.
APPROACHED BY THE AGENCY
Her successes were not unnoticed and when the Giraldi Home lost its manager and team leader, both of whom had resigned, Joanna was approached by the Agency to take charge - but turned down the offer. The post was advertised overseas as well as locally, but remained unfilled for a further year before Joanna was approached for a second time.
"Until the Giraldi was established under the Church Trust there was nothing in Gibraltar to help the disabled and their families," Joanna explains. "Eventually it was taken over by Government, and Millbury Services were brought in on contract to run it - before it was taken over by the Social Services Agency again.
"Meanwhile, although I had been working for the [Education] Department for six or seven years, I had not been granted parity... Eventually, the union and the Department agreed - but the agreement lay for ages waiting to be approved by the Chief Minister. Frankly, I needed more money to support myself and my daughter and so I allowed myself to be persuaded to accept the Giraldi post where an acting manager had been in place for a year."
The rest, as they say, is history. And while it is history tinged with sorrow and sadness, there's a footnote to it which exemplifies Joanna's dedication to the caring which she embraced so passionately and which still dominates much of her thoughts. For the actions she has taken are more about protecting those in the Agency's care than in vindicating her own position as she adds, ‘if one of those people would have been one of your loved ones, and you as a parent and out of real need had placed their care in my hands, tell me what would you have advised me to do, shelf them or cry out for an investigation to ensure vulnerable people's safety in a potential at risk situation - it certainly wasn't about what was best for me but rather what was right to do'. I have paid a very high price but let me tell you that as a professional, as a person and as a member of our community I have a very clear conscience that what I did was morally and ethically right'.
And the footnote? When she ceased to be employed by the Education Department, another three months' work was needed on preparing the blind girl to ‘go it alone'. Unpaid and in already overstretched hours, Joanna continued with the work she had begun.
"I was there to help create independence, not dependence," she explains. "And until that independence came about my work with her wasn't finished. Now, I'm delighted to know that she continues to excel."
And, again, there's the hint of a tear and of sadness in the struggle-weary eyes.