Editorial: A course correction at SENNIAF and other institutions

dog germs or something
A protester in front of SENNIAF. So far nobody has been arrested for the abuse at facilities overseen by that government institution, but several nonviolent protesters have been arrested for “altering the public order.” The law enforcement priorities are rather obvious. As, for that matter, are the delusions in high places.

SENNIAF and its environment

First, let’s hold the hysteria and the sadism, as we let our indignation and common sense freely flow.

Say WHAT? Well, of course there are criminal laws on the books about adult men having sexual relations with minors, especially with those who are less able to defend themselves due to this or that disability. Those laws ought to be enforced. But let’s dispense with the talk about how cruel their punishment should be. Innocent until proven guilty, and then the law provides the possible penalties if guilt is proven.

However, when minor girls in custody paid for by the state become pregnant, there needs to be no criminal conviction for the state to take administrative action to protect those in its charge.

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And let’s consider the situation of a minor in state-ordered custody, in an institution or in foster care, or for that matter with one or more parents who don’t particularly care, who is impregnated by an adult. Panama’s abortion law sets a 60-day limit on abortions in the case of rape, but there has to be a police report sufficient for prosecutors to bring a case. And can you blame a girl for not knowing this, given that such and many other matters are forbidden topics in schools that by law are forbidden to impart sex education? If a girl does find out in some timely manner, in Panama children have no standing, can’t go to some office and have a guardian ad litem appointed. For Panama’s girls, there is in effect no rape exception to the draconian abortion laws. The mothers of rich girls can fly them out to Miami, Puerto Rico or some other jurisdiction where abortion is legal, or pay to have a medical abortion in a highly illegal black market. That’s not any kid who is in a SENNIAF-subsidized facility.

The use of the criminal law with respect to others to curtail the human rights of Panama’s girls is an ugly vestige of the Holy Inquisition. The churches that pressed for and got their laws should now be judged by the bitterness of the fruit that their political interventions have borne. SENNIAF is, in one great part, about unhealthy relationships between the churches and the Panamanian state.

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Reduce all accountability to a legal system that DOESN’T have Ricky Martinelli behind bars for the rest of his life? That sort of sludge seeps down to all levels of state and society. And again, this notion that absent a criminal conviction nothing can be done or should be said is legally wrong and morally repugnant when it comes to public administration.

As the long-festering SENNIAF scandals were bubbling toward the surface and the president knew or should have known that they would become public in short order, what did he do? He promoted Carla García, the daughter of his vice minister of the presidency and deputy director of SENNIAF upstairs to be governor of Panama province.

After dodging questions as long as she could, García gave a televised interview in which she pleaded that what went on in the SENNIAF-sponsored foster care facilities was not her department.

Imagine that. A director is incapacitated in some way or another and the number two person has to step in, but she has compartmentalized her knowledge and responsibility to have zero competence at a major part of what the organization does.

That’s unacceptable. It was unacceptable at SENNIAF and it makes García unacceptable as governor. Whose daughter she is, and what her party credentials are, pale beside this glaring disqualification.

That you had a SENNIAF board that put up with this is also a disqualification. As the protesters demand, all of them should also go.

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Let us, however, step back and take a broader view. The very serious abuses – not only sexual ones, but also things like kids being fed dog food and mentally disturbed youngsters being held in shackles and told to pray – affected maybe 10 or 12 of 50 SENNIAF-subsidized facilities. In the places where there were serious problems, not every person was involved.

There are complaints that a bunch of the facilities lacked proper licenses. This is an administrative failure, born of the political patronage system. It’s a treatment of government contracts as plums for favored institutions. It’s an attitude that people who get government jobs at places like SENNIAF are on a five-year ride of good pay with little or no work.

And what about the estimates bandied about in which some 90 percent of those working in SENNIAF-funded facilities have no documented qualifications?

There we should be more careful, and look beyond this particular government agency and the mostly religious organizations with which it contracts to the whole culture of care giving in Panama. From day care for kids to nursing homes, from places for the disabled to penal institutions, proper care for human beings is overall deficient here. You don’t need to take it from an editor whose stepfather died of septicemia from infected bed sores contracted at one of Panama’s better nursing homes to discover this, but maybe that’s a good starting point.

There are two “solutions” that ought to be rejected out of hand. Hiring the most expensive company with the most connected and well-dressed CEO available – or maybe headed by someone less dripping with jewelry and more forthcoming with kickbacks – would be typical. Instantly requiring people to have educational credentials to work at the care of other human beings would also be impractical.

Let’s face it: SENNIAF exists as part of a neoliberal privatization scheme, whereby the state contracts out its responsibilities to cheaper private contractors. Cheaper because the majority of the work force, the people who care for people, receive terribly low wages. Some of these folks have little in the way of formal education, but had been caring for people for much of their lives before taking their jobs, and have learned skills on the their jobs. Fire them all and demand greater credentials? In Panamanian culture that’s only a recipe for fraud.

But we CAN create specific courses at all levels of our education system to improve the quality of care. We CAN have qualified people come in and teach the staff at all institutions that care for human beings in specific skills. New faculties with more administrators who must ride around in the luxury apropos to their new positions? Forget that. But many university departments ought to be called upon to send out some of their faculty members on extension projects designed to improve the skills of low-paid care givers.

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Do we want to allow vile government-paid “influencers” to divert attention by things like slut-shaming teenage girls who get pregnant? As all of this shakes out there will be occasion to assign blame. Some of it will fall upon these finger-pointers.

But moving ahead, we should be thinking about doing properly things that were not done properly. Not as a matter of punishment, but as doing right for the people who depend on the government for care.



Who was the first Latin American? Cortés – not Columbus. Columbus stayed on his boat in Portobelo Bay and wouldn’t land. He was old, like Europe.

Omar Torrijos


Bear in mind…



No sex, no drugs, no Siggie Freud – so why would anyone read it?

Molly Ivins


Falsehood and insincerity, unsuitable as they seem to the dignity of public transactions, offend us with a less degrading idea of meanness, than when they are found in the intercourse of private life.

Edward Gibbon


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Margaret Mitchell


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