Special Report: Planting the seeds of change in young offenders at Oberstown

Three staff at the country’s only detention centre for young offenders provide a rare insight into their work, what they are trying to achieve and why society should invest in their efforts, writes security correspondent Cormac O’Keeffe.

Special Report: Planting the seeds of change in young offenders at Oberstown

Three staff at the country’s only detention centre for young offenders provide a rare insight into their work, what they are trying to achieve and why society should invest in their efforts, writes security correspondent Cormac O’Keeffe.

Changing the country’s most high-risk young offenders doesn’t happen overnight. So explains Selenna Reilly. Developing empathy towards their victims and instilling a sense of responsibility is a process, one that takes time and effort.

Selenna is charged with this considerable task at Oberstown Children Detention Campus, the country’s only place of detention for young offenders aged between 12 and 18.

In the midst of a turbulent time for the facility, in 2016 and 2017, Selenna was appointed young people’s programme manager in August 2017.

Addressing the offending behaviour of young people is central to all the programmes she drives at the remote north Dublin campus.

The overall programme, CEHOP, covers care, education, health, offending behaviour and preparation for leaving — basically from entry into the detention centre to exit back into the world.

Every six weeks they hold a placement planning meeting for each child.

“We identify areas of risk and need and place them on a programme that is appropriate to deal with their offending behaviour,” she said.

The programmes include Victim Empathy, Decider Life Skills, Real U (relationships), Drug Relapse Programme (with Crinan Youth Project) and Teen Parents Support Toolkit.

“All of these are aimed at helping them to make better choices, to be less impulsive,” Selenna said.

Victim empathy is a major part of what they are trying to do.

This gives them an opportunity to discuss the offence in a safe environment, in a non-judgemental environment. They have already been judged and sentenced.

She said they look at the factors that led them to commit the offence, whether it was their behaviour, drug and alcohol use, their peers, etc.

“We work on areas like ‘How can you change, how can you do something differently the next time?’"

Part of the task is getting the young person to accept responsibility for what they have done.

“Mostly what happens is that they are reluctant in the beginning to take part, because it is a difficult thing to do, to look at taking responsibility for sometimes very serious offences.

“But as we work through the programme, you begin to see where they do realise: ‘Do you know what? It wasn’t the drugs that made me do it, I did have choices’ and they do come to realise that ‘I’ve made these choices, this just didn’t happen because I live in a bad area or hang around with certain people that made me do it’. So, they do take responsibility.”

But she said it is a “process”, like the central challenge of developing empathy towards their victims.

“We talk them through it, how a particular offence may affect a person, get them to think about things they don’t really think of.”

She said she doesn’t think the young offenders don’t care about what they do: “When they do actually start to discuss those things, you see the realisation. It’s like they put it to the back of their minds.”

She said 22 young people went through the victim empathy course in 2018. She said they hosted a particular programme run by Tallaght West Childhood Development Initiative on building relationships and dealing with conflict.

They learned how to communicate with each other in an appropriate way, rather than screaming or shouting. You keep working with them, showing them new ways, new skills — but you won’t do it overnight.

She said a major issue highlighted in media coverage and court cases — involving the safety of staff from attack by young offenders — did not reflect the daily reality of their work.

“It’s not at the front of your mind all the time,” she said. “We build relationships with them.”

Building empathy

Lena Timoney likens their job to planting the seeds of change.

“Through engagement, there is a shift in their attitude and a shift in their behaviour, albeit in a very controlled environment. They’re teenagers, they’re egotistical, emotionally not developed, so it is about building empathy and responsibility. That’s our focus. It’s a little acorn we start with here.”

She raised the issue of judging how good they were in trying to do their job: “What is success? Success may not be complete desistance from offending behaviour. That’s not how it works.”

Lena, who is deputy director — care services, said you have to bear in mind the clientele they are working with:

“By the time a young person comes to us, because it is a last resort, they are a young person who has committed an extremely serious offence or who has not engaged in services in the community and has persisted to offend.”

She said their client group were “all high risk of reoffending”.

Lena said the offenders may end coming back to the facility — their own figures show that — but she said they might return for a lesser offence or an offence that was committed prior to their last detention.

“They may have succeeded reasonably in the community since their last time in Oberstown, but because of the gravity of the offence, the court has seen fit to impose a detention order or they may have been released from here and there may have been some kind of crisis fairly close after release which may have resulted in breaking a bail condition, but maybe not committing the same level of offence.”

Lena Timoney, Deputy Director, Care Services at Oberstown Children Detention Campus. PIC: Dave Meehan
Lena Timoney, Deputy Director, Care Services at Oberstown Children Detention Campus. PIC: Dave Meehan

She said the young people often have a range of common factors: early school leaving, not engaged in school immediately prior to being detained, a significant amount of substance misuse, and a significant proportion of mental health difficulties. The latter two issues, she said, are often interlinked.

“Their activities may be to do with their substance misuse, particular vulnerabilities in their communities, children who are often out of home or very limited support from family.”

She said that in 2019 they would be pushing linkages with outside companies and training facilities, in order to improve the skills and qualifications of the young people.

Lena mentioned a new partnership with Java Republic, due to start in April, in which the coffee company will train young people on site in becoming a barista.

She said they were also looking into building partnerships with the health and fitness industry.

Lena said a lot of the young men want to work in trades and with their hands. They ran a Safe Pass course (a safety training programme useful for the construction industry) in the campus, with 10 juveniles going through it last November and between 12-15 next month.

As part of a pre-release programme, she said they also bring offenders to training courses in the community, typically through phases: first, escorting them to and from the place; second, where they youth brings themselves back; and, third, the young person is allowed to stay overnight at their home.

Grainne Smyth, Advocacy Officer at Oberstown Children Detention Campus. PIC: Dave Meehan.
Grainne Smyth, Advocacy Officer at Oberstown Children Detention Campus. PIC: Dave Meehan.

As care manager, the issue of the behaviour of offenders on campus is an obvious one, given the events of recent years.

She said the residential social care workers were highly skilled, not only in relation to relationship building but also in de-escalation.

“When situations become very difficult they use non-physical intervention, but we have some very challenging people here and, yes, sometimes we do have to employ physical intervention. We do monitor those.”

She said: “We deal with extremely challenging young people here. Unfortunately for Oberstown, the media coverage is about what goes wrong, but there’s a lot of very good work here.” She pointed out:

We have the 48 highest risk young men in the country and the six highest-risk young women, as regards offending behaviour and they are a challenging population, absolutely.

She said many of these young people have a “very particular world view”.

This, she explained, as: “Their world view, maybe, is that no one has minded them, they may be very reckless in their own behaviour, they maybe don’t have

respect for themselves, so some of the behaviour we would see, it’s actually harming themselves more than other people.

“So our job is to build a relationship, to teach this young person they can trust an adult, an adult will respect you, but there are boundaries.”

Children’s voice

Gráinne Smyth has worked at Oberstown, through its various incarnations, for 20 years.

She has been on the frontline as a residential social care worker. But now, since last month, she is advocacy officer, part of a number of initiatives the campus has taken to give the young people a voice.

“I have gone from being on the floor with care staff and advocating from that perspective to being on the floor and advocating for young people,” she said.

Her job is all about engaging young people and improving their participation in the life of the campus — basically, that their voices are heard.

This includes bringing complaints from the young people to the relevant people in authority, securing their response and relaying that, and explaining it, to the young person.

“It doesn’t mean everything they ask for is achievable, but their voice will be heard and it will be brought to the people it needs to be and there is feedback.

“I would be very clear at the start: ‘What do you hope to achieve?’ and there’s a lot of discussion. It helps young people develop coping skills about difficulties and adversities.”

She said things have moved on a long way in this regard over the last two decades: “It would never have been dreamed of. When I started here 20 years ago we made the decisions for the young people.”

Gráinne said having an internal advocate for the young people was “very unique in youth detention” as advocates were typically from the outside.

Another development that she said was unique was the Campus Council, which is comprised of, and chaired by, the young people.

“In the last number of weeks and months, they’ve achieved things none of us would ever think they could — through learning skills, holding formal meetings, setting out agendas, following up with feedback, taking responsibility for decisions. That’s absolutely amazing, definitely not something you would have seen 20 years ago.”

Gráinne firmly believes Oberstown is worth investing in: “Yes, it absolutely is, because all of the young people who come here are victims of circumstance and of bad choices that they may have made because of the

adversities that they faced. This is an opportunity for them to turn their life around. They may, or may not, make that choice.”

Asked what victims of these youths would make of them also being considered victims, she said: “They’d say what the hell is she going on about? But I am advocating for these young people, about their circumstances.”

Should they be considered both victims and perpetrators? “Generally, every young person on this campus tends to fall into both of those categories, that’s the reality.”

She added: “As a society, some people might think just lock away the problem and it’s gone then — however these are young people, young lives. They have a huge amount to offer society and it’s up to us, as their carers, to tap into that and ensure we get the best out of them."

‘It makes you think of your family, the victim and his family’

When Billy came into Oberstown, he hadn’t intended on opening up.

“I wouldn’t have trust any of youse when I came in here,” he said to Selenna and Gráinne, who sat in on our interview. "It took me four months to trust them.”

Selenna said the first time they assessed him with a view of placing him in appropriate programmes he was “having none of it” and didn’t want to be even in a room with people.

“At the time, [I said] f**k that man,” Billy said. “I’m not doing that.” Gráinne added, laughing: “That’s exactly how it was, word for word.”

Gráinne said they are used to that attitude, initially, and continue to try and encourage the young people to engage.

Billy’ who is currently detained at Oberstown, speaking with ‘Irish Examiner’ reporter Cormac O’Keefe, and staff Gráinne Smyth and Selenna Reilly.
Billy’ who is currently detained at Oberstown, speaking with ‘Irish Examiner’ reporter Cormac O’Keefe, and staff Gráinne Smyth and Selenna Reilly.

Billy* (aged 17) entered Oberstown in June last year and is due out in March, but declined to reveal his offence.

Before he was sentenced, he was getting himself into trouble as a result of his use of drugs, mainly tablets (such as benzodiazepines, a tranquilliser).

“It was affecting me big time, just waking up every day, just taking drugs, you know what I mean, thinking it was a right life, but it’s not.”

He said he couldn’t remember much of what happened: “I was just going around doing mad stuff, just get blackouts and all, yeah.”

He said he didn’t have a good relationship with the gardaí and didn’t like some of his teachers in secondary school.

While it took him a while to settle in, he started taking courses and has now clocked up a good few.

“I’ve done the bleedin’ Real U [relationship] programme, the Crinan Programme [drugs] and Victim Empathy.”


He said that while he didn’t know what he was doing on tablets, he has learned that he can not use them as an excuse for his actions.

“It’s my choice to commit them crimes,” he said. “I know I was on drugs, but I still took that choice to swallow the tablet, ye know what I mean.”

The Victim Empathy course wasn’t easy at first, he said: “The first few weeks were hard, I didn’t really open up, but in the last few weeks I realised I shouldn’t have done any of those things. It was out of order.

It makes you think of your family too and the victim and his family. It’s not all about you or the victim, it’s also about his family and your family too ‘cos everyone gets affected, the community, yeah, too.

He said his behaviour had a bad effect on his family: “I have two little sisters, yeah, it was bad for them, obviously, because police coming in raiding your gaff at seven in the morning and they are going to school and all. I have six- and 14-year-old sisters, so bad on them.

"At the time I wasn’t really thinking about anyone else — now, looking back, yeah. I didn’t really care back then about anyone, now I do.”

He said he was now in communication with his parents more and that they visit him twice a week. When Selenna says his communication has improved generally, he said: “Yeah, 100%, even with other people, not just my parents.” Billy works in the kitchen one day a week, for which he gets paid.

“It’s good, yeah, just chopping and all. Last week, I was cooking beef for the entire campus.”

Building a life

He said he wants to become a carpenter and has a training course arranged in the community when he is released.

“I’m going to a place in Ballyfermot, called the Candle Project. You get a full education in the project and they get you an apprenticeship.”

Being locked up, he missed being free and seeing his family: “I miss me bleedin’ family, being out, being free. You can’t go out, you can’t walk around.”

He said the facilities in Oberstown were good, and mentioned the gym, which has its own instructor, as well as the MP (multi-purpose) room, which has a Playstation 4, as well as snooker tables.

The campus also boasts an all-weather astro pitch as well as a full-size grass football pitch.

He said there were plenty of evening activities, such as art, textiles, wood burning, which run between 4pm and 7.30pm.

He said you don’t want to be overloaded with programmes either: “Ya don’t want too much programmes — you go off your head, you would.”

The one big gap was the weekends: “Ya go off your head in here. I think that is one thing that could change in the future: it’s a 24-hour place, if you could get people in at the weekends.”

He said Oberstown gives you a structure many people didn’t have outside: “You’re getting woke up in the morning, your day is filled, you’re not going around looking to do stuff, you have stuff to do.”

He progressed so much in Oberstown that he became chair of the Campus Council last September.

“Sometimes, the boys come to me if they want things done and I go to Gráinne, instead of them complaining to staff, they can complain to me.

“I tell them the truth, I bring it to Gráinne and she would get a better word than the staff would. Instead of us fighting with staff when they are not giving us answers, we’d think they’re lying to us, if I tell them straight they believe me more than staff.”

Billy said he can’t wait to get out, by which stage he will have turned 18. If he reoffends and is ever given a jail term, he would not be going to Oberstown, but an adult prison.

“I’ll try me best to stay out of trouble,” he said. “If you want to change, you will. If I want to go back down that road I will, it’s my choice at the end of the day.

“I’m not going back down that road again just cos of me sisters and me ma, not letting my ma go through that again or me da, ya know.”

* Billy is not the boy’s real name

Echoes of 2016 as security flaws, drug availability highlighted

The Irish Examiner’s visit to Oberstown had echoes of the last time we were there, back in September 2016.

Though the events that engulfed the country’s sole detention centre for children then were on a different scale to now, the facility has again been under a cloud, with external experts highlighting security flaws, “widespread” availability of drugs, and calling for an independent review of senior management.

When the Irish Examiner visited previously, it came after a chaotic day, August 29, 2016.

Oberstown director Pat Bergin: Struck over the head with a metal bar. Picture: David O’Shea
Oberstown director Pat Bergin: Struck over the head with a metal bar. Picture: David O’Shea

That started with industrial action, followed by a rooftop protest by eight young people, significant injuries to a member of staff, and a fire causing extensive damage (subsequently valued at €3m) — all requiring the intervention of gardaí and the fire brigade.

After the rooftop protest, three of the participants took a court challenge after they claimed they were subjected to strip searches by gardaí and held in “solitary confinement” in Oberstown since the incident (The High Court ruled in November 2017 that some of their constitutional rights were breached).


In September 2016, Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone met both the director, Pat Bergin, and board of management chair Professor Ursula Kilkelly and announced that two British experts, Professor Barry Goldson of the University of Liverpool, and Professor Nick Hardwick, former chair of the UK’s parole board, were to examine the operation of the facility.

The review followed an inspection report in June 2016 by Hiqa, which, among other things, documented staff shortages, management problems, a failure to address offending behaviour, and issues in dealing with violent incidents.

Our visit this month came as the report of the British professors dominated media coverage concerning Oberstown, mainly because of a continuing refusal by Oberstown and Minister Zappone to publish the report.

Various reasons were cited, including legal advice and the contention that much of the progress called for in the report has been implemented.

This sparked “serious concerns” from the authors, who said they were not satisfied with the reasons not to publish.

The minister did publish a 16-page document from an official group tasked with implementing the report.

This document contains 120 recommendations from the report and the actions (as of May 2018) taken by the implementation group.

The recommendations (and reported actions) include:

  • A comprehensive suicide and self-harm reduction policy (reported action: a range of measures have been put in place);
  • Single separation should not be used solely because a young person is deemed at risk of self-harm (action: single separation use being monitored by the board);
  • Handcuffs to be subject to strict controls, recording and monitoring (action: handcuffs only to be used in exceptional circumstances after risk assessment);
  • New fencing and doors (actions: measures taken in most cases);
  • Girls should no longer be placed in Oberstown, but the document does not give reasons for this recommendation (action: Government decision in 2017 was to have all detention facilities on one campus);
  • Targeted bail supervision programmes (action: bail supervision scheme in place since October 2016 and is being evaluated, with the intention to expand beyond pilot and extend to other areas);
  • A “serious security breach” at a particular gate needed to be fixed (action: restrictions put in place);
  • Due to the “relatively widespread recent availability of drugs”, young people returning to Oberstown or entering it for the first time, where there are strong grounds for believing they are carrying drugs, should receive a full search (action: new search policy in place);
  • Consider ending protection rooms in units and have a central high-care unit with therapeutic intervention and mental health support (action: protection rooms kept under review);
  • Each restraint incident should be reviewed (action: working group set up);
  • Revised training programme for staff should be “urgently implemented” on de-escalating incidents and restraining young people safely (action: training ongoing);
  • Revise the possible use of specialist personal protective equipment in emergency situations, to be used by specially trained staff from an external agency (action: issue is being addressed in consultation with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs);
  • Gardaí should only be called in exceptional circumstances and first require the authority of the most senior person on duty (action: this is in place);
  • The Oberstown Board should commission “an independent review of the senior management team to ensure that it is suitable to direct Oberstown through the next stage of development” (action: external review was conducted and new management structure put in place);
  • Gardaí providing escorts should take steps to prevent drugs being transferred by youths to the campus (action: gardaí notified about this need);
  • Urgent action should be taken to resolve “without any further delay” the dispute between management and trade unions (action: substantial improvements have been made and are being monitored by Workplace Relations Commission)
  • Close the rupture between senior managers and frontline operational staff, with senior managers more visible on the units (action: plans and strategies adopted)


A separate review on behaviour management, conducted by Professor Derek Perkins and Dr Margaret O’Rourke, was commissioned by director Pat Bergin. It was completed in early 2017 and was published, together with an implementation update, in October 2018.

Referring to the riot in August 2016, it said: “It was clear to us throughout our visits and discussions that the organisation, staff in general, and some staff in particular, had been significantly affected and traumatised by the aggressive behaviours and criminal damage caused by eight boys to units 1 and 2, culminating in the fire in unit 3 in August 2016.”

The authors said they heard from young people that some of the children “intended to burn down the whole campus” in a bid to escape.

The authors said they had been assured by the director that significant supports and engagement with staff had been put in place.

The report said it had been described as the “most serious incident on the campus since 1998”. It said there were very rare situations where the current behaviour management methods “cannot cope”.

The report said: “Most staff spoke of this being an unresolved issue but we were advised by senior management that, whilst there is a protocol for this, this issue is under current review.”

It said staff described situations where “children’s behaviour was more extreme than could be managed” by current procedures.

Katherine Zappone: Concerns over her refusal to publish an expert report on Oberstown.
Katherine Zappone: Concerns over her refusal to publish an expert report on Oberstown.

It said improvised methods were being used, that staff had been injured “by sticking to what they understood were the current procedures” and had contacted gardaí without senior management approval.

(The update on implementation said that, following staff consultation, new training began in October 2017, with additional training on critical incidents.) Elsewhere, the report said young people had told them that some evenings and weekends were very long and boring and that sometimes “stand offs” were planned “just to get a bit of excitement going”.

(The update said a range of physical security measures had been taken.) The report said there was little evidence of staff using the Management of Actual and Potential Aggression (MAPA) physical holding methods.

“Everyone with whom we spoke agreed that the most violent confrontations, involving, for example, threats with weapons to staff or other children, could not be managed using the MAPA system,” the report said.

“No one suggested a solution apart from calling the gardaí.”

The report recommended:

“In our view, it may be more appropriate to have a team of dedicated staff trained and regularly refreshed in PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] interventions available for those rare incidents where MAPA is insufficient, rather than having to turn to An Garda Síochána in all such incidents.”

A court case which took place just days before our visit graphically underlined the potential for violence at the facility.

As he attempted to deal with an incident in May 2017, director Pat Bergin was struck over the head with a metal bar by an offender, who later managed to escape from the campus.

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