Thursday 23 November 2017

Special unit makes most of chance to reform ways

Once considered a shambles that should be shut down, a care facility for troubled children is being held up as a success by the new Child and Family Agency. Shane Phelan goes behind the scenes to discover what has changed

Michael J Dayton, principal of Ballydowd Special Care School. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Michael J Dayton, principal of Ballydowd Special Care School. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

THE wall is covered with posters of Bob Marley, Eminem, Tupac Shakur, fast cars and horses. Casual clothing is strewn on a shelf beside a small television and a radio. A brightly coloured quilt lies on the bed.

It could be any teenage boy's bedroom in any home in Ireland. But a closer inspection reveals some features which are out of place.

The curtains are held up with Velcro, there is a heavy lock on the door and a small viewing hatch in the wall, which can be opened from the outside, similar to those used in prisons.

This is a typical bedroom in the Ballydowd Special Care Unit in Lucan, Co Dublin, a high-security centre for children aged between 12 and 17 with serious emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Built in 2000 at a cost of €13m, Ballydowd is a secure campus, with high walls surrounding a school, gymnasium, basketball courts and living quarters, and a perimeter that is monitored by electronic surveillance equipment. It is one of only three such units in operation in Ireland.

The children held there may have committed no crime, but nevertheless they can be held against their will on foot of a High Court order if health authorities believe their behaviour poses a risk to themselves or others.

The average stay currently lasts between six and nine months, by which stage it is hoped the child's behaviour will have stabilised to the extent they can be moved to a less secure facility, a foster placement, or even go home.

Just four years ago, the atmosphere at the unit was different. It was in a room such as this that a young girl had a hose turned on her after she refused to get out of bed.

Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) recommended the unit be shut down, such was the litany of problems found with management, security and basic accommodation standards.

Long before then, the unit had been attracting a bad reputation and former residents are not shy in their criticism of the regime which existed.

One, a Dublin woman now in her 20s, told the Sunday Independent how she was sent there after running away from foster homes.

While the school was enjoyable and the teachers were nice, she recalled there was little rapport with care staff and little to do outside of class.

"I didn't think the staff had enough experience. I didn't get any counselling when I was there. I didn't benefit from it at all," she recalled.

"Probably one of the worst things was being locked in your room at night. It was like being a prisoner locked in a cell," she said.

Despite Hiqa's findings in 2010, the HSE gave Ballydowd a stay of execution as there was nowhere else to send children in need of the service.

A new management team was installed and efforts were made to turn the unit around, as evidenced by gradually improving Hiqa reports.

Today, it is under the direction of the newly formed Child and Family Agency, which insists it is a much changed place.

The agency granted the Sunday Independent exclusive access to the 10-bed facility, the first time a media outlet has been allowed inside its walls, and we were allowed to see the children at school and at play.

Despite the fact bedrooms are still locked at night and access to certain parts of the facility is strictly controlled, the first thing that struck us was how unprisonlike the campus appeared.

Both in terms of design and atmosphere, it more closely resembled a modern school or a health facility.

In the past, HIQA reported high levels of property damage by children, but this wasn't evident during our visit.

From the outset it was clear an emphasis has been placed on getting the children to enjoy being there as much as possible, even if it was the last place they wanted to be.

In fact, our first encounter with detainees was meeting two teenage boys who were having a contest in the courtyard to see who could throw a plastic rocket the furthest.

The interaction between teachers and pupils seemed free and easy. Principal Michael Dayton explained that more practical subjects had been introduced in recent years, such as woodwork and home economics, resulting in increased engagement by the children. For the first time, the school had students sit the Junior Cert last year.

The hallway walls were covered with photos, including a 'wall of fame' where student achievements were displayed, something Michael Dayton said would have been unthinkable a few years ago as the pictures would have been pulled down.

The second thing which is immediately clear is the level of resources being pumped into the care of the children. Around 70 staff work at the unit.

Aidan Waterstone, national specialist at the Child and Family Agency, said such was the level of supervision involved, the cost of keeping a child there was around €10,000 a week.

In the classrooms, the children receive one-on-one tutoring, often also accompanied by a care worker.

Ballydowd director John Fox said a huge emphasis was also being placed on recreation to reward children for good behaviour. Fishing trips outside the unit and mountain biking excursions in Wicklow are frequently organised.

"Catching something while fishing is a huge experience for a child. It helps build their self-esteem," John Fox said.

Similarly, it is hoped children will learn they can get as much of an adrenaline rush from sports as they previously may have done from anti-social behaviour.

Fox admitted children occasionally run away on these trips, sometimes remaining missing for days. But he insisted the trips outside the unit are a "managed risk" which must be taken to aid the child's development.

Aidan Waterstone admitted Ballydowd had taken a long time to "find its feet" but insisted it was now achieving results. He said the improvements were not down to a change in direction, but were more to do with having improved management and education in place.

He saw the arrival on board of the new Assessment, Consultation and Therapy Service (Acts) in recent months as the final piece of the jigsaw. This service, which was recommended by the 2009 Ryan report, provides psychological, social work, speech and language, and addiction counselling services at the unit.

"Up to this point, various bits weren't in place. We didn't have the Acts service. We had various issues around management. We had various issues around staffing, but we now have all the pieces in place to have a national structure for this service," he said.

Acts also helps staff deal with the stress of looking after difficult children, a service which was not in place before.

EPIC, an independent organisation which advises children of their rights while in care, said the unit had become more "homely and nurturing".

Director Jennifer Gargan said: "I would say we have seen a huge improvement and huge steps forward in the last year or two.

"The fact that they are willing and open to us coming in shows they have nothing to hide. I am not saying everything is perfect. There are things which could be better, but they are putting a lot of effort in."

Irish Independent

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