Learning from past mistakes and looking to the future with hope

On the second day of the ‘Irish Examiner’ series looking at the placement of Irish children overseas, Noel Baker visits Ballydowd, the country’s top special care centre, and Kibble in Scotland. Supported by the Mary Raftery Fund.

Learning from past mistakes and looking to the future with hope


“WHO ARE YOU?” asks the boy. It’s a fair question. I’ve just strolled into a classroom in Ballydowd secure care centre in west Dublin. Neither the boy, nor the girl beside him, seem put out, just interested. “If you want a real story, come here at night,” the girl says. “See what it’s like to be locked up at night. See, you reporters are not getting told half the stuff.”

It’s not the first time I’ve heard that, so let’s ask: what is the story with Ballydowd? According to acting director at the centre, John Fox, it is an evolving tale featuring far more happy endings than in years gone by.

The very fact that media are being allowed to visit Ballydowd indicates an increased confidence among staff that this place has now turned a corner. The girl in the art room doesn’t like being locked in her room at 9.30pm on school nights, 10pm at weekends, but that’s the deal. It is, after all, a secure care centre and staff here will argue that, compared to some of the difficulties experienced by children who have stayed here at other times over the years, an early bedtime is not the worst thing in the world.

Ballydowd is a self-contained colosseum in its own little universe. The high beige walls and the equally lofty sliding gates ensure that escape is unlikely. Once past the reception area, complete with its “Welcome to Ballydowd” poster, you cop the full vista of the campus: three units in a row to the left, which can sleep five residents each, with the school and gym facilities at the opposite side of the large green which is the centre of the facility.

Swings are budged by the breeze, and to the right past the denuded trees, lies a handy reminder of Celtic Tiger largesse — a half-finished apartment block, meaning that anyone occupying the upper floors would have a view into Ballydowd.

Aidan Waterstone, child and family national specialist with the new Child and Family Agency (CFA), admits that if the apartment complex was ever completed, the CFA would have to look at the options, up to and including buying it.

John Fox, and acting deputy director Mairtín Thornton, are our tour guides. They begin by explaining that unit 1 has never been used, and the remaining units, which have a combined capacity of 10 children, currently hold nine.

“What surprises people when they come is the space here,” Mairtín says.

It was constructed in 2001 for approximately €10m and has had a colourful and sometimes troubled history.

Inside the units, the hallways feature artwork from residents past and present — prints of Lil Wayne and the MTV logo among them. The main living room area features a TV set behind perspex glass and red couches, while a pane of glass away is the family room, which caters for visits.

The dining room is a minimalist effort, with a large brown table around which children and staff share mealtimes. The menu is decent, solid fare: goujons, wedges, garlic bread and sausages for lunch, half roast chicken with ham stuffing and veg among the options for dinner. The chef prepares food Monday to Friday and readies meals for heating up at the weekends, and there is also a tuck shop.

The bedrooms are basic en suite, and each has a miniature window with a sliding pane on the outside, which allows for external monitoring by the two staff per unit manning the corridors each and every night.

According to Mairtín and John, structure is the key — residents waking up at the right time, having breakfast, getting to their classes, getting a good night’s sleep. The monitoring, as well as the lay-out of an individual room, is tailored to the individual child. Every child will be checked every 15 minutes during the night, all the way down to continuous monitoring if a child is deemed a self-harm or suicide risk. “What’s in the bedroom is based on what [behaviour] they are presenting,” Mairtín says. The doors are sensor alarmed, so anyone making their way out into the corridor will trigger an alert. It is a tight space, tightly guarded.

Down at the school/gym section, classes are continuing through the afternoon. This June, principal Dr Michael Drayton will have been in Ballydowd for two years and is satisfied that, even in that short time, progress has been made. “They are now very much engaged with the established education structure,” he says. “A lot of them may not have engaged [previously] but now they will have an individual education plan (IEP). That gives the child a much better chance.”

His office includes photographs of Ballydowd residents out on hiking and fishing trips.

One photograph shows a teenager holding a shark on the 2013 summer fishing trip, the caption reading: “The best day of my life.” Michael’s use of the term “experiential education” takes some getting used to, but it sounds like common sense — folding curriculum work into core work, such as speech and language therapy forming part of the English and communications class.

There are no mobile phones allowed here, but there is a fully- equipped home economics room, and evidence of past cake sales and Christmas dinner framed in wall-mounted photographs. The gym smells unmistakably of indoor football. The quiet room/library acts as a kind of relaxation chamber for residents who get exercised during classes — as Michael explains, Ballydowd now operates a policy of non-expulsion.

Finally, if it all gets too much, the children can flop down in the sensory room, a fairly routine looking space enlivened by slowly shifting light patterns thrown onto the walls, soundtracked by ambient music. It’s like being inside a lava lamp.

It’s easy to see why staff at Ballydowd would get weary about the past being dragged up, but when Al Jazeera runs a special report — as it did in 2010 — mentioning an incident at the centre where a power hose was turned on a girl who refused to get out of bed by a member of staff, it’s hard to forget everything. At another time a HIQA report recommended that it close. Today, John Fox says: “We have learned what to do and what not to do.

“The truth of it is special care was a very new concept in Ireland. It’s only 12-years-old and it takes a certain amount of time to bed in. There were teething problems, issues that have been highlighted enough.”

According to him, changes at management level, Michael’s appointment as principal, and the introduction of the on-site ACTS (Assessment, Consultation and Therapy Service) team last year have all had positive results.

According to Aidan Waterstone: “In the first number of years, Ballydowd and the other SC units had a number of issues but we are confident that Ballydowd is open and effective and children are getting a very good service.”

John agrees, and says that he thinks back to some of the children who were sent overseas and believes that, were those children to present now with the same problems, “we would be able to deal with them”.

“It’s about milieu, ethos, culture, it’s not an exact science and it’s not always perfect,” he says. “Some of them have not been at school for years, have not had lunch at a table or didn’t get a towel for a shower. It all comes down to how you measure success.

“They all kick when they come in first. We are adults and adults and services have promised them a lot of things. The reality is they can’t get away from us.”

They would like more, such as a forensic mental health service, and until such time as domestic authorities can provide services across the board, then the likes of St Andrews will still be in use. While some former residents do not hold fond memories of the place, others, even those who stayed during Ballydowd’s more troubled days, remain in touch.

“We would have people who would ring back here 10 years on, in times that were not good for Ballydowd, and they call back and say ‘it’s only now I understand what you were doing’,” John says.

“We have limitations with regard to the facilities,” Michael says, mentioning the KibbleWorks care centre model as one that he would like to emulate in Ballydowd.

“All the research indicates that these are things we should pursue. There would be potential for development for that area.”

However, he says “firing money does not always solve the problems — it requires vision and tenacity”.

According to John Fox: “We now have the basic standards right. I have enough staff when I need them and flexibility in how I manage that. Do I have enough for everything that I want to do? No. But I can manage resources to do what I need to do. You always have sick leave, maternity leave. You just put your shoulder to the wheel.

“Obviously, it is an expensive service. I have enough now but if I was to expand [it would need money], to develop a vocational and education programme.”

Regarding the salaries paid out, he believes it is “a balance between efficiency and quality”.

There is a new stoicism at play in what is, undoubtedly, one of the most challenging arenas in Irish life. “No matter what they throw at our staff at this stage, 99% of the time, we both get up and get on with it,” he says.

You get the feeling that he means it in literal terms. “They learn that we are in it for the long haul,” he adds, referring to the “captive audience”, living within the grounds. “We can’t force them to make a decision, but you can put an environment in place. Michael and I would feel strongly about extending educational and vocational opportunities.”

“Our approach is there are always consequences for things,” he says, mentioning the need to act as a “strong parent”, offering motivation and incentives to the residents to behave and treat people with respect.

In the spring of last year, a new publication hit the street of Ballydowd — the Ballydowd Times. It was the first in-house publication at the unit, and among the feelgood stories regarding positive inspection reports, as well as the fact that four residents sat the Junior Certificate. John Fox made brief mention of a project in collaboration with EPIC (Empowering People In Care) “where we plan to rename Ballydowd”. The project involved renaming the units. It’s another move away from the past.

In the woodwork room another young lad, built like a junior footballer, is working on a clock face for a class project. He says his next project will be a frame for a picture of his father’s dog. If the bosses at Ballydowd wanted someone to put together some new signs for the soon-to-be named buildings, they need look no further.

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.

Let Me Tell You

Let Me Tell You is a new bespoke podcast series from 

Logo IE

Hosts Daniel McConnell and Paul Hosford take a look back at some of the most dramatic moments in recent Irish political history from the unique perspective of one of the key players involved.

Bespoke political podcast series from

Logo IE