Making sure Oberstown’s children are kept in the picture

Prof Ursula Kilkelly, Oberstown chair, and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone with a portrait of herself, created by a young person in his Oberstown art class. Picture: Gareth Chaney

As a strategic plan for Oberstown Detention Campus is launched today, progress is already underway to ensure the interests of the child are central to everything done at the facility, writes Ursula Kilkelly.

Unlike many other countries, where punitive policies waxed and waned, Ireland has in recent years witnessed steady but significant progress towards a modern youth justice system based on principles of welfare and diversion.

Also rare by international standards, this has been enabled by clear law and policy, not under a justice minister, but under a dedicated minister for children and youth affairs.

In Ireland in 2017, most young people who come into conflict with the law are first admitted to the Garda Diversion Programme.

Only those whose offending is serious or persistent appear before the criminal courts.

In line with best practice, the courts prefer sanctions that keep young people in their families and in their communities to the ultimate sanction of detention.

As a result, the numbers being sent to detention have continued to fall in recent years.

Few would question the principle set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that depriving children of their liberty should be a measure of last resort, used only when no other measure is appropriate.

The convention also requires that in the exceptional circumstances where children are detained, they must be held not in adult prison, but in facilities that are appropriate to their needs.

This combination of factors means that those young people who end up in detention are not only the most serious of young offenders, they are frequently children with complex and acute needs.

In Ireland, these young people are detained in Oberstown Children Detention Campus, the national facility that provides care and education for children referred there by the courts.

A process to develop the campus has been underway in recent years with newly built residential, school and health facilities, and in June 2016 the new campus came into existence, with the appointment of a new board of management.

Today, building on these reforms, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, will launch Oberstown’s strategic plan for the future. This plan seeks to give meaning to the international children’s rights standards in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Ireland is a party.

Informed by the principles of the best interests of the child and the right of the child to be heard, and building on a period of consultation with staff and stakeholders, the plan commits the campus to a series of actions that aim to provide young people in detention with care and education that meets the highest international standards.

Our research shows many of the young people who spend time in Oberstown have survived extraordinary adversity in their personal and family lives.

They have frequently had poor school experiences, suffered from mental health and addiction and display the kind of challenging behaviour that frustrates many state interventions and supports.

Their time in Oberstown, while a punitive sanction to deprive them of their liberty, can nonetheless provide these young people with a unique opportunity to face up to the harm caused by their offending and to equip them with the life skills to cope better as they move into adulthood.

As the strategic plan is launched by the minister, progress is already underway to ensure that the interests of young people are central to everything we do in Oberstown.

This is reflected in our integrated approach to placement planning, which looks to ensure that young people receive the supports they need to enjoy their rights to education, healthcare and positive family relationships.

Oberstown is also committed to ensuring, in line with a children’s rights approach and with national policy, that young people can participate in decisions made about them at all levels.

Earlier this year we adopted a strategy for the participation of young people in decision-making, which identifies the measures necessary to promote the role of young people in decisions made that affect them at individual, unit, and campus levels.

A representative campus council and a young person’s advisory group have been set up to help ensure that the views of young people are taken into account on day-to-day concerns.

In order to promote better understanding of the circumstances experienced by young people detained in Oberstown, we have begun to collate and publish research and data on young people.

This research is shared with stakeholders at our regular briefings on developments on campus.

This reflects our understanding that, while Oberstown alone is legally responsible for the care of young people, the support and collaboration of a range of stakeholders is essential if we are to successfully deliver on our commitments to young people.

The circumstances of young people detained in Oberstown will always make it challenging to provide them with care and education in a safe and secure environment.

The clear direction set out by our new strategy, however, means that the achievement of that goal in line with children’s rights standards, is now much closer.

Professor Ursula Kilkelly is head of School of Law, UCC and chairperson of the board of management, Oberstown Children Detention Campus.

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