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Fergus Finlay: When will we ever learn that spending on childcare is vital investment in our future?

SOME years ago I spoke to a group of teachers in Dublin's inner city. We were talking about facilities for children, and what might be needed to give them a decent start. One of the teachers was both pessimistic and angry.

"Every year," he said, "when a group of five or six- year-olds walks in to this school for the first time, it's possible to tell at a glance which of them is headed for Mountjoy. And by then it's already too late for some of them." He might have been exaggerating, but none of his colleagues disagreed with him. I remember that conversation every time I read a new report about teenagers and young people in trouble.

It can cost as much as a half-a-million euro a year to keep a teenager in secure care. Yes, there are some teenagers whose lives are so out of control that secure care, where they live behind high walls and with a lot of staff watching over them, is the only solution. But it's incredibly expensive, and there's not a lot of evidence that it does much good.

On the other hand, it probably costs between €7,000 and €10,000 a year to put a decent preventative programme in place, the kind of programme that will help to keep young people in school and out of trouble.

But those programmes have to be aimed at children when they're very young -- before they walk into the teacher's class I mentioned earlier. We seem to prefer, in Ireland, to spend a lot of money picking up the pieces after damage has been done, rather than spending a lot less preventing damage in the first place. And once damage has been done, solutions are hard to come by. That much is obvious from the latest Health Information and Quality Authority report on two residential centres in Dublin for vulnerable and at-risk young people.

Unsafe

They must be closed, HIQA says, and they must be closed now. Both premises are unsuitable, inadequate and unsafe for providing care to children. There have been 76 instances of physical restraint involving 10 children and 51 of single separation involving nine children since November last and 36 unauthorised absences by eight children, 19 relating to one child, ranging from one to 53 hours. Staff went unsupervised and six did not have training in Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children. The quality of files and documents on children were poor. Risks to physical safety were everywhere in the two premises. And this isn't the first time they have been inspected and found deficient. Management has been changed, but the problems remain.

And these problems represent an enormous cost to the State, for very little return. It costs millions to run places like Ballydowd, according to the HIQA report -- a total of 65 people are employed in Ballydowd and its sister centre -- and yet it seems impossible to run it right. Just when are we ever going to learn?


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