Focus/Spotlight

From a place of peace to a place of hostility

Text and photos by Sarah Hannan in Bokkawela

Founded in 1972 as an orphanage by Rev. Jacob Perera and his wife Anna Greta, Fridsro, in its inception,was an institution dedicated to help and serve orphaned and destitute children. Instilling the sense of “home” in children who are in its care is a core part of the organisation.

However, the bigger part of their work is done with and within communities in need, where they use a community-based development model to advocate for change and development with and within the communities they serve. Their main mission is to provide a safe haven for children in need and work for the inclusion and empowerment for all marginalised groups in society.

Since its establishment, approximately 4,000 children have been cared for by Fridsro and many of them are now leading successful lives both in Sri Lanka as well as abroad. At present, the institute is home to 40 boys and 42 girls who are between the ages of three and 18, and all of them attend school or pre-school. We were told that the kids attend around eight schools – some in Bokkawela where the home is located and some attend schools in Kandy. A school bus operates from Fridsro to Kandy town and there is a van which transports kids to the nearby schools.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Fridsro Founder shared some of his fond memories about the home.

“Fridsro in Swedish means ‘place of peace’, and since its inception, we have taken every possible measure to make it a peaceful atmosphere for the children who are in our care. I met my wife during my foreign stint in Sweden. When we came to Sri Lanka after our marriage in the early 70s, she saw how children from poverty-stricken families were deprived of basic rights.”

Anna Greta, a devoted Christian, quickly realised that her calling was to assist these children and their families to get out of poverty and have access to education and mentoring. This became their life’s mission and they were fortunate enough to come across the 20-acre property in Bokkawela where the main Fridsro Children’s Home is located today.

“We were looking to purchase a suitable property in or around Kandy and we happened to come across a newspaper advertisement for the property in Bokkawela. The previous owners were migrating to Australia and they sold this to us. After hearing that we intend to start a children’s home, they even reduced the price of the property.”

What started off with the main bungalow that now houses the kitchen and dining area, and offices have now branched out to additional buildings such as two male dormitories, two female dormitories, staff quarters, administrative office, and the operations office. There is a basketball court which doubles as a badminton court as well.

With the growing success of the home, Fridsro was added with a 40-bed hospital facility, which not only treated the children in Fridsro, but also offered free medical care for the poverty-stricken families around Bokkawela.

“The hospital functioned in its full capacity from 1983-2003 with funding coming in from Sweden. But later, we had to shut down the hospital as we did not have a resident doctor in charge of its operation. However, we still have three fully-trained nurses at the home.”

Rev. Perera stated that the hospital even had the facility to deliver babies and that some of those babies too grew up in Fridsro. “Sometimes, the families are not financially stable to even clothe, feed, and educate the children. We at Fridsro make sure the basic facilities are provided to children in such families.”

The child’s needs

Fridsro is not the regular children’s home that one would come across; it has a very child and community-friendly model of empowering the child and the child’s family.

We were told that the children who are fostered in Fridsro do have families, and mothers of those children are allowed to visit their children whenever they could.

Some kids are even permitted to go home for holidays with their parents.

“When mothers visit, they are only allowed a maximum of one hour with the child, because if we allow them to stay for longer, there is a chance that the child gets attached to them and then it becomes a bit difficult contain their emotions,” Victory, one of the Operations Assistants stated.

She further stated that every three years, the family’s situation is assessed and if they are faring well, the child is reintegrated with the families. Fridsro’s community-based development programme conducts workshops for parents and tries to empower them by providing self-employment courses.

“When the parents are allowed to visit, they can also see how well the child is progressing. Financial instability can set in as soon as the breadwinner of the family passes. We even provide care for children from families as such. We also ensure to maintain the same level of education for the child by not changing the school for the child.”

While we were speaking to the operations executives, a mother who had just visited her child walked into the office with a bag of goods. She handed it over to Victory and said: “The fruits in the bag are to be given to all the children in the dormitory. Apart from that, it is the toiletries for the child.”

Victory then explained to us that the operations office always notes down what is given and ensures that the personal items are given to the child when required. “Some children are not visited by their families, so when other mothers bring food, sweets, and fruits, they always make it a point to bring for the other children as well. We have a foster mother who is responsible for a group of 15 children here. We equally distribute these among the kids, so that they do not feel left alone.”

Growing concerns

While the operations of Fridsro seem to function in a more-than-satisfactory level, and observing that the home is well maintained, no one would believe there are some growing concerns over the behaviour of the Board of Directors of Fridsro.

The Sunday Morning contacted the Fridsro present Chairman and Board Member Jake Perera (son of Rev. Jacob Perera) to find out whether the board was acting without his knowledge to change the management structure or was trying to shut down the children’s home.

Responding to that, Jake Perera stated that he had taken over the position that became vacant after his father’s retirement. “For years, the board members were very co-operative and worked according to Fridsro’s constitution. However, the behavioural change of CEO Sanjeev Nissanka Jayaweera and Director of Child’s Rights Krishna Kumar Rasiah was only reported to me when I took my six-month sabbatical in June 2018.”

Jake stated that he was grieving after his sister’s death in 2017 and the board members were adamant that he took his sabbatical. “Come to think of it, with all these complaints that are surfacing, they wanted me out of the home, so they could convince the rest of the board members to shut down the home and possibly take over the other properties that are under Fridsro too.”

With the majority of the board members now favouring CEO Jayaweera and Director of Child’s Rights Rasiah, Jake claimed that they could easily do that.

“I was in shock to hear all these incidents and immediately requested Danny, who is an old boy of Fridsro, and Sunderi Aiyadurai to look into these matters. In the past months, they have been tirelessly working towards gathering all complaints and testimonies from the old children as well as the staff members who were unlawfully terminated from their posts.”

Saving Fridsro

Since of late, several letters have been exchanged between the Board of Directors, the Department of Probation and Child Care Services in Kandy, the Founder, and the Fridsro Old Children’s Association (FOCA). A meeting was called on Wednesday (29) at the Department of Probation and Child Care Services with the participation of Fridsro Projects Director Jake Perera, all representatives of Fridsro, and representatives of the probation office.

The meeting had been called following an alarming letter sent to the Department of Probation and Child Care Services by Fridsro Board Member Dr. Pamela Peiris and another letter sent by the FOCA. In both the letters, issues concerning the safety of the children at Fridsro and regarding the management of Fridsro were raised.

With the charges levelled against certain individuals of the board and alleged neglect over the children, the Department of Probation and Child Care Services had considered shutting down the home. But once the doubts were cleared, the Department decided not to close down the children’s home and legal action was to be taken against these individuals over the allegations levelled against them.

Furthermore, Jake Perera is to provide a five-year plan to re-establish the home.

Department of Social Welfare, Probation, and Child Care Services of Central Provincial Council Commissioner D.M.C.C.K. Gunaratne, when contacted, stated: “The board of directors had requested to hold a discussion over the present situation of Fridsro. As the overseeing authority of children’s homes in the Central Province, we facilitated it on 29 May. We heard their grievances and gave them instructions to resolve these matters.”

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Jayaweera’s response next week

After many attempts made to get a comment from Fridsro CEO Sanjeev Jayaweera and Director Child Rights Kumar Rasiah on the petition and the current state of Fridsro; Jayaweera got in touch with The Sunday Morning on Friday (7) and stated that he and his board of directors would counter the allegation on the petition through factual information and documents. He further stated that these documents will be made available over the coming days.

The Sunday Morning will publish the contents of these documents and the responses which Jayaweera and Rasiah have agreed to divulge to us next week.

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*The Sunday Morning is in possession of several digital documents of the statements released by the Fridsro Old Children’s Association, a letter from Rev. Jacob Perera, a transcription of the meeting that took place on Wednesday (29) at the Department of Probation and Child Care Services in Kandy, and the complaints recorded at Kandy Police Station by Nayana Dharmapriya and Kumudu Herath after unlawfully terminating their employment.

Allegations compiled by FOCA and ex-staff members of Fridsro

Fridsro Old Children’s Association (FOCA) and supporters of Fridsro have been collecting details on allegations of children’s rights violations, unlawful and unethical conduct of human resources, and financial misappropriations committed by two of its board members, namely CEO Sanjeev Nissanka Jayaweera and Director of Child’s Rights Krishna Kumar Rasiah.

Among the many allegations levelled against the two board members, it was brought to our attention by FOCA members, grave rights violations on the part of the children at Fridsro and the staff members that worked at Fridsro, which we have listed below:

1. Teenage pregnancy

In a statement shared by Dilka Siriwardena, an ex-staff member of Fridsro, she narrates how Chandra Shalini Poominathan was brought into the care of Fridsro Children’s Home along with her younger brother and sister. Poominathan hailed from a homeless family, and at the time, the three children were discovered by the childcare services to have been living under the Gampola Bridge.

The children were in the care of Fridsro and in 2016, when Poominathan turned 17, the Placement Committee decided that she should be sent for vocational training. However, Poominathan did not show any interest in pursuing studies. During this time,Poominathan, along with a group of a few teenagers, was sheltered at an annex adjoining Krishna Kumar Rasiah’s private residence away from the main Fridsro complex.

During this time, Poominathan fell ill, and upon medical inspection,she was found pregnant. She was secretly returned to Fridsro and attempts had allegedly been made to abort the baby while Rasiah had given strict instructions that nobody at Fridsro should know about her condition. Attempts to smuggle her out of Fridsro and place her at a convent in Hendala, Wattala also reportedly failed. The statement claims that Rasiah also tried to send her back to the nearest relative, withholding the fact that she was indeed with child.

After this too failed, he allegedly instructed that Poominathan, along with her impoverished mother, be left stranded at a bus halt in Katugastota with no chance to return. This was carried out by a staff member, who to this day is haunted by the experience. Poominathan was seen to be loitering the streets, heavily pregnant.

Dilka claims that she was unlawfully terminated from her employment at Fridsro as she had too much information about Poominathan and her whereabouts.

2. Cruelty towards children

The recruitment of Jayaweera’s relative, Chitra Abeywardena, to supervise the orphaned and vulnerable children reportedly led to severe traumatisation endured by the children. Chitra allegedly beat the children and starved them repeatedly. So much so that eventually, the children turned around and beat her up.

Together with Chitra, Rasiahis said to have aggressively threatened the children stating on occasion that they wished they (the children) were dead.

3. Sexually and verbally harassing staff

The legal complaint from an ex-staff member Kumudu against Jayaweera’s sexual harassment towards her has left questions regarding the safety of the girls in their care. The unlawful dismissals of Kumudu and Nayana have resulted in Kumudu filing a case at the Labour Tribunal in Kandy.

The unlawful dismissal of Nayana has also resulted in a case at the Labour Tribunal in Kandy under case number LT 03/42/17. She was allegedly subjected to two hours of grilling in a room alone with a male lawyer forcing her to sign documents making false accusations about Kumudu, which Nayana refused to sign. She was promised a vehicle, higher salary, and a better position on the condition she signs. It was her refusal that she claims led to her termination.

4. Misappropriated funds

During audits, it was found that unutilised project funds were siphoned off into private accounts, one of which was held by Rasiah in an account of a bank in Gampola. When an inquiry was ordered, Rasiahallegedly used political influence to thwart the probe and the case was dropped. It is believed that millions of rupees belonging to disaster relief funds are hoarded in this account. Real estate dealer in Kurunegala, Rohana Bogollagama said that Rasiahwas was his loyal customer and had bought many properties in Kurunegala. He also owns a guest house.

During Christmas in 2018, many of the FOCA children had raised considerable amounts of funds towards the annual Christmas programme at the Children’s Home. Yet, it was found that the directors had utilised this fund to pay themselves bonuses while the children had plain tea and buns.

It was also during this time that Jayaweera allegedly had declared that there were insufficient funds to run the home (not the projects handled by him) and declared it be closed down. In this same period, Jayaweera purchased the latest Suzuki Swift RS Turbo 2017 plus a Mini Cooper worth over Rs.10.5 million.

Jayaweera joined Fridsro as a preacher visiting only on Sundays for an allowance of Rs.1,000 per visit.

The above incidents have also been included in a petition that was circulated online through the following link:
www.change.org/p/jayatunga-david-jake-perera-save-fridsro-from-violation-of-human-rights

Ref:
https://www.facebook.com/SaveFridsro-783185095389584/
https://www.facebook.com/Fridsro-Old-Childrens-Association-FOCA-260801140614585/