Watchdog queries detention staff’s claims over lack of training

The Ombudsman for Children has queried concerns from staff on the campus of the Oberstown detention schools that they are not trained to deal with 16 and 17-year-old boys.

With the closure of St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders the Government has decided to use Wheatfield Prison in the interim to accommodate 17-year-olds, but there has also been a growing number of court referrals of children to Oberstown.

Last year Oberstown began receiving 16-year-old boys and speaking before the Oireachtas committee on health and children, Emily Logan said she had received a solicitor’s letter on behalf of a group of staff in Oberstown voicing their concerns.

“The main concern set out in the letter I received was that staff in Oberstown were not trained to deal with 16 and 17-year-old boys,” she said. “In light of the concern expressed to me regarding the capacity of staff in Oberstown, I was disappointed to read in the Inspector of Prisons’ most recent annual report that a proposed initiative to have care staff from the detention schools work alongside prison staff in St Patrick’s Institution was not facilitated.”

When responding to questions from members later she said there were 220 staff on the Oberstown campus and it was a “very reasonable expectation” that they would be able to deal with all young people staying there and, if not, it may be an issue of “upskilling”.

“Is there a difference between a 15-year-old boy and a 16-year-old boy?” she asked.

“Not in my experience.

“I certainly would challenge that.”

She also stressed her conviction that a single manager/director on the Oberstown campus “would be a major positive”. Committee chairman Jerry Buttimer TD said he understood that process was already “in train” and Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald may be able to provide an update when she appears before the committee today.

The committee also heard that between Sept 1 last year and the end of last February, 460 hours were lost in Oberstown Girls’ school through sick leave, while 261 hours were lost in sick leave at Oberstown Boys, and 1,117 hours were lost through sick leave at Trinity House.

New rosters have since been introduced and as yet no comparable figures are available.

Ms Logan said she had “no fears” about the progress of the capital development of the Oberstown campus and that the closure of St Patrick’s would mean an end to the kind of “oppressive” environment that greeted young people detained there.

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