Monday 24 October 2016

The State has a duty to protect our imprisoned youth from themselves

Oberstown must be given the resources to do its very difficult job

Shane Dunphy

Published 02/08/2015 | 02:30

Oberstown House
Oberstown House
Gerard Eglington
Warren Dumbrell
Leon Wright

Gardai launched a major search last week for the teenagers who ran away from a child-detention centre in north Dublin. It is the latest incident in an ongoing series of problems the facility has experienced over several years.

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And despite negative publicity, calls for help from staff and the reality that the children the centre serves are being put at serious risk, the response from government remains the same: nothing has been done.

On this occasion, four youths, aged 15 and 16, broke out of the Oberstown facility, near Lusk, at around 9.30pm last Saturday, July 25. Staff at Oberstown became aware of the escape as it was in progress and confronted the young men but were unable to prevent their absconding. It is understood that no staff were harmed during the incident, which is a real risk in this type of childcare.

Because at the end of the day, that is what we are talking about: childcare.

You probably know a young person who is in the age range we are talking about: a son, brother, nephew or cousin who is 15 or 16 years old.

They may look a bit like an adult - they are probably tall, maybe even taller than you. They certainly want to do all the things adults do and more than likely complain loudly when their activities are curtailed by those who have responsibility for their welfare.

And the reason they are not allowed (legally and ethically) to do whatever they want is for one very good and sensible reason: they are not adults yet and need the support and guidance of those who are.

Think of that 16-year-old you know: I bet you can think of countless times in recent memory he behaved very much like a small child: throwing tantrums, acting out, maybe even needing a cuddle from mum.

Under the Child Care Act 1991, a child is legally defined as any person under the age of 18 and that is right and proper. When we talk about the young men who escaped from Oberstown, we are discussing children.

One of the boys who escaped suffered an injury, hurting his ankle, and, as a child will do when distressed, looked for an adult to help. He made his way to Swords Garda station and handed himself in.

The three remaining youths are still at large. They are at risk and pose a risk to those they may encounter.

This is certainly not the first time such things have happened at Oberstown. Last May, four boys were reported to have absconded from the centre, and in June 2013 three youths escaped.

A report from the committee that monitors the State's prison and detention facilities was published earlier this year, and it did not make for inspiring reading.

The report states that it has concerns that Oberstown may not have the resources to house the youths being sent there since the closure of St Patrick's, the juvenile detention wing of Mountjoy.

St Pat's was closed following a series of reports highlighting the serious maltreatment of the youngsters placed in its care, stating that it "offended against all that should be expected in a civilised society in the 21st century".

The young men who would previously have been sent to St Pat's are now being placed in Oberstown and while the conditions and treatment are massively improved, staff simply do not have either the numbers, resources or support to deal with the needs of these very vulnerable and angry children.

Minister for Children James Reilly, whose department is responsible for Oberstown, was informed of the escape on Saturday night. His spokesman said Mr Reilly had not yet sought a report to explain the incident.

An expensive report will simply state what is obvious to anyone paying attention: Oberstown is in crisis and the staff, who are trying to do a tough yet very necessary job, need help.

Some €50m was pumped into the unit three years ago to redevelop the campus, which is made up of boys' and girls' houses and now takes all young men under the age of 18 who are remanded in custody by the courts.

Trade unions representing staff at Oberstown have reported numerous assaults against their members in recent months - children these individuals may be, but children can be aggressive, especially when they are upset or frightened.

Staff who work in units like Oberstown go into work every day knowing they may well be assaulted. They are trained to deal with it and know how to use safe restraints and to talk distressed children down. But that doesn't make it easy and it doesn't make it pleasant.

The expansion of Oberstown was designed to bring to an end the practice of admitting children to adult prisons, a practice that was undoubtedly totally inappropriate and wrong.

Yet if something is not done to ensure that the care these young people receive in their new setting is safe and properly resourced, then it is all a waste of time. Without the necessary supports, such an initiative is tokenistic and pointless.

Our children deserve better.

Shane Dunphy is the Renua Ireland candidate for the Wexford constituency. He is a child-protection expert and author.

Sunday Independent

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