There are two categories of residential child care in Ireland. The first is small, community-based group homes for children who have not offended, but who cannot live at home. The homes are within the community and they recreate normal family life, and provide the same care and protection, in so far as possible.
The second is secure residential child care. These facilities consist of Oberstown Remand and Assessment Centre, and Trinity House School. They are in the same complex, in Lusk, Co Dublin. They are for young people who have offended and who have been sentenced by the courts to detention. These are closed facilities that also provide care and protection, but which are mindful of the risk posed by their residents, who often have moderate to severe emotional and/or behavioural difficulties.
Until recently, St Patrick’s institution (the juvenile wing of Mountjoy prison) catered for young people over 16 who had offended. In 2015, St Patrick’s was closed, and the residents were moved to the Oberstown complex.
The problem was that Oberstown was a semi-secure children’s home and it was not equipped for a prison population, some of whom were career gangland criminals with extremely violent behaviours. The violence led to an immediate crisis at the centre. According to the Impact trade union, in 2016 alone there were 65 staff assaults in Oberstown, which resulted in 3,005 sick days. That is not including the many thousands of euros worth of damage to property.
There are two main reasons for the crisis at Oberstown.
The first was the premature closing of St Patrick’s and the placing of young people who needed detention in a child-care facility. I said at the time that it was a mistake and I say it again. For young people in care, we need a suite of services, from a fully secure, prison-type facility, to a fully open, therapeutic community model. Young people who offend should be assessed in the secure facility and then placed in whatever environment best meets their needs. Both child and staff safety/protection must be the first priority in youth detention. After that comes care and rehabilitation. St Patrick’s needed to be reformed, but closure was not the answer.
The second problem is that the social-care industry response to violence is not adequate. When you have a six-foot, 13-stone 16-year-old with psychiatric problems trying to kill you, it is ludicrous to approach that situation without adequate safety equipment and self-defence training. A gentle, compassionate approach to violence is preferred, and riot-type safety equipment can antagonise and inflame, but I have been in very many situations where violence was inevitable and the risk to everyone was significantly increased by the lack of adequate training and of protective equipment.
Historically (and regrettably) in Irish child protection, young people were beaten and abused by staff in old-style residential-care facilities. Now, in some facilities, social care workers have become punch bags for very violent young people. Social care workers are not empowered to defend themselves, and any pain-compliant restraint techniques used on children and young people are considered unethical and contrary to the principle of child protection.
This is a nonsense born out of a perception that all children in care are vulnerable to abuse by staff. While that may be true on a level, the Oberstown statistics show that staff are also vulnerable to abuse by the young people.
It is time for balance and common sense in child protection. The type of defensive practice that has evolved post Residential Institutions Redress Board, has, ironically, created a situation where staff can now arguably sue the HSE and be compensated, under legislation covering health and safety in the workplace, for injuries sustained due to inadequate training and practice standards in social care.
In 1998, when commenting on Irish residential child care, a Scottish consultant, Mike Laxton, said that “dysfunctional and inadequate families were being cared for by dysfunctional and inadequate services”. Almost 20 years later, not a whole lot has changed.
Secure residential child care in Ireland is not meeting anyone’s needs, least of all the young people who are coming into care with one conviction, and leaving with several more.