The news that the Public Education Ministry has rehired schoolteachers who have been sentenced for the sexual abuse of minors led President Abel Pacheco to call Costa Rica the country of atrocities this week and drew calls for change from Child Welfare Minister Rosalía Gil, among others.
According to Costa Rican law, the Judicial Branch cannot release a person s criminal record to anyone other than that person. While the ministry now requests rap sheets from all new candidates before they are named to teaching positions, that has not always been the case, and the court system apparently does not alert the ministry to new investigations or convictions of current teachers. The ministry has therefore been caught unawares by revelations that teachers with sex-abuse convictions had returned to the classroom.
Education Ministry officials and legal experts concur that the ministry could be sued for interfering with applicants 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 this week. But the ministry is right (to worry about lawsuits). If (ex-convicts) have served their time, they have the right to work
He added that, In most cases, these people have a tendency to commit the crime again.
Pacheco, the country s most famous psychiatrist, used even stronger words. People who tend toward pedophilia I, who was a psychiatrist for so many years, never saw one who was cured, he said. It s an atrocity that a man with that type of problem teaches classes, an atrocity. But this is the country of atrocities.
GIL, who heads the Child Welfare Office (PANI), told The Tico Times she is planning to take action. Specifically, PANI will conduct a painstaking review of all pertinent Costa Rican legislation including the Constitution and international agreements such as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Costa Rica signed in 1990, in an attempt to find legal support for a prohibition on convicted sex offenders working with children.
If PANI can t find such a loophole, it will develop and propose a new bill to the Legislative Assembly to change the situation as soon as possible, she said.
This situation is extremely worrisome to me, she added. We don t want these people to have contact with children at any time.
Rocío Solís, head of the Education Ministry s Children and Adolescents Office, said the ministry plans to participate in this process and is working with the legal system to get more information about judicial proceedings against teachers.
The problem isn t so much with the ministry itself, but with the lack of communication, she told The Tico Times yesterday.
THE issue of educators with past convictions has been in the public spotlight since September, when police arrested a teacher and a former teacher, both sentenced for sexual abuse against minors.
One, Victor Hugo Vargas, 53, had obtained a teaching job after being convicted and escaping authorities.
Vargas was sentenced to 16 years in jail in 2004 for raping a minor at a school eight years earlier. Following his conviction, he escaped authorities and became one of the Public Security Ministry s 20 most-wanted sex offenders, then found work as a high-school industrial arts teacher in Alajuela, northwest of San José (TT, Sept. 23, 2005).
The issue resurfaced last week when the daily La Nación reported that the ministry rehired a teacher months after he left prison in 2004. He d served six years four for sexual abuse (not involving rape) and two for statutory rape at La Reforma penitentiary northwest of San José.
According to the daily, the ministry had previously fired the teacher, 42, for abandoning his post. The ministry was apparently unaware that in fact, he d left his post because he was in jail.
WILFRIDO Blanco, Vice-Minister of Education, told The Tico Times on Monday that although the ministry is equipped to handle complaints of abuse from students or teachers, alert authorities and suspend teachers as necessary, these recent sex abuse cases pose a new challenge.
Because, in these cases, no complaint was filed with the ministry and the court system did not alert education officials, the ministry never learned about the teachers convictions, Solís said, adding that she urges all students and parents to alert the ministry as well as police of sex-abuse allegations to ensure this doesn t recur.
These incidents which Solís called very old cases were also made possible because the ministry did not always ask for updated police records from returning teachers until this year, according to Fernando Alfaro, a senior official with the ministry. In the past, the ministry only solicited rap sheets, called hojas de delincuencia, after naming teachers to their positions, as part of their personnel files. These files were not always updated when former teachers were rehired, Solís explained.
AFTER Vargas arrest, the ministry changed the system. This year, all new and returning school personnel from cafeteria workers to security guards must present an updated rap sheet before the ministry names them to positions. (They must first apply to the Civil Service, which evaluates and selects candidates, then sends the names to the ministry so the candidates can be assigned to schools.)
Each candidate must go in person to Judicial Branch offices to request their hoja de delincuencia, which shows any criminal convictions unless 10 or more years have elapsed since the sentencing.
Judicial Branch spokeswoman Sandra Castro said the 10-year limit applies even if the person escaped before serving his or her sentence although in that case, a capture order, issued by a judge, would then be in place, Castro said.
Would the Education Ministry be aware of capture orders for teachers? Not necessarily, according to Solís.
They (the court system) would have to communicate it to us, she said. Where we don t communicate, that s what we re working on.
BACKGROUND checks are much harder to conduct in rural areas because of the distance candidates must travel to obtain their rap sheets, Solís said. She added that because of this, the ministry is working to strike a compromise with the Judicial Branch through which the ministry could have direct access to some information about a candidate, if not the complete criminal record. For example, the ministry could see for itself whether a candidate has some type of antecedent, but not the details of the crime.
So far, however, such requests have not met with a positive response. In September, after Vargas arrest, Education Minister Manuel Antonio Bolaños sent a letter to Supreme Court President Luis Paulino Mora, asking to be notified of legal processes against ministry employees.
According to Solís, Mora responded to Bolaños request saying it was not possible to establish a notification system. The Tico Times was not able to obtain more information about the reasons behind Mora s response by press time, as the Supreme Court was closed this week.
THE communication, or lack thereof, between the courts and the schools isn t the only obstacle. According to Blanco, the ministry has zero tolerance for teachers who commit sex abuse, but along with Solís and lawyer Fallas, he said the ministry opens itself up to lawsuits if it refuses to hire ex-convicts who have served their time.
These rules must become more flexible, said Solís, herself a psychologist. There s a legal side, and a moral side Sexual abusers can t be cured, from a psychological point of view. We can t have them with children and adolescents. Gil, of PANI, said it is possible to fulfill ex-convicts right to work without putting them in contact with minors.
It s important that these people get jobs people have to work but not with children, she said, adding that this prohibition should apply to any profession involving kids, such as medicine, social work or psychiatry.
PRESIDENT Pacheco said the legal system ties his hands, leaving change up to parents and even children.
What can I do? he said. Pray and ask parents to demand their rights Children need to be made more and more conscious (of the problem). They need to be supported so that they speak out.