Personal touches encourage aura of recovery for children

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

Personal touches encourage aura of recovery for children


THE first time I visited Paisley, Renfrewshire, it was a trip to see friends of mine who had, almost by accident, signed up for degree courses at Paisley University. The first thing I saw on leaving the train station was a conga line of Hare Krishna dancing up a decidedly grey, damp street. It was quite a contrast.

On the day of my second visit, a blasting wind howls through the place. Scotland has awoken to a gale. Bins have been knocked over, debris blunders along the streets, and reports on the radio are full of road closures and lorries being tipped over, but such is Kibble’s modernist design that it seems impervious to the elements. A collection of low-lying brown brick buildings sealed with flashes of coloured steel, it could be a small-scale college, rather than a care home that caters for some of the hardest welfare cases and toughest young offenders in Scotland and beyond.

At its heart is its ‘safe centre’, the secure care setting that has capacity for 18 children, with a 19th room in case of emergencies — that is, the most extreme cases.

On this day in December, the safe centre has 14 child residents. None of the residents are Irish but, in recent years, Irish children have stayed here. Kibble executive director John Harte says: “It would be something like half a dozen.”

The flat rate is £6,000 (€7,300) a week and, in the past, the HSE has been happy to pay it. At the time of the visit, there are two possible referrals from the Irish system earmarked for Kibble, but John is not overly expectant. He refers to one recent case in which a boy was due to come over. Due to the efforts of the young man and his parents, the placement stalled.

“I would have said that our secure care services are certainly world-leading,” he says. Kibble has certainly had a long time in which to build its reputation. It began 150 years ago and is a secular institution. While it is independent and not-for-profit, it is actively seeking business.

Kibble employs more than 400 staff and, says John, is the biggest employer in Renfrewshire. Kibble began as an alternative to sending children Down Under to Botany Bay and now runs programmes both on- and off-campus for around 100 children, including fostering services for hard-to-place children. The safe centre, which cost £11.5m, is the beating heart of the campus, a state-of-the-art facility full of sliding doors and two-way entrances. Once inside, you are effectively sealed off from the outside world.

As the sound echoes through the corridors, John explains how all access points can be centrally controlled from a hub which has numerous security cameras. The only bedroom with a security camera is the 19th room, also known as ‘the dental room’. John explains that when the safe centre opened six and a half years ago, staff were unsure about the presence of the ‘Big Brother’ cameras, but argues that they provide safeguards for children and staff alike from “spurious allegations” of assault or inappropriate contact.

All the bedrooms are basic affairs. The doors open “out the way” so children can’t barricade themselves in, but they can lock them if they want to; they can be opened from the outside anyway. The room is designed to be anti-ligature and so clothes are stored in central lockers.

However, children can self-medicate if it is deemed appropriate. “That is risk-assessed with their age and responsibility,” John explains. “It’s encouraged that they look after themselves and self-medicate. The majority of them don’t.”

The beds are seemingly indestructible, the cupboards likewise, and fireproof, while each bedroom has a Swedish-designed water sprinkler system installed. The toilet is also bomb-proof.

“It was designed for people who would come in and kick a toilet to bits,” John explains.

On looking into one of the rooms, in many ways they mirror those in Ballydowd. There’s a Cheryl Cole poster, there’s one of Tupac, there’s a print of a ganja leaf. With these personal touches, the rooms seem cosier than at first glance.

In other ways, Kibble strives to be different. For example, in its expansive recreational room, the massive flat-screen telly is open to the elements, or rather, the bursts of elemental anger that can flare up in a residential centre. “I don’t know any secure unit in Britain that has a telly like that,” John beams. “We’ve lost one telly in six and a half years. One fella stood up and threw a coffee mug at it.”

The 19th room, however, is a reminder that we are not in a college dorm. It’s a search and containment facility complete with in-built camera and special blue lino on the floor, designed to deal with children who are “highly suicidal”. John admits that, if he was in this room, he wouldn’t be happy about it. “It only gets used in extremes,” he says, “kids coming back from leave getting searched for contraband and so on”. If a resident is kicking lumps out of his bedroom door all night meaning others can’t sleep, it is easier to move him here, away from everyone.

The routes around the safe centre are bewildering to first-time visitors. Rooms can be accessed from one or two exit points, at different times, meaning they can be used by those in the safe centre and by others in other parts of the campus without any overlap.

As John explains: “It’s not helpful to see someone do things that you can’t do.” An example of this occurs when a girl, otherwise engaged in class, spots my phone and recording equipment as we pass down the corridor. “Hey, no phones! No phones in Kibble!” she shouts, the sound muffled by the thickness of the window.

There is an infinity pool, an indoor football pitch, an outside recreational yard, and a gym room with no weights. “Despite what people may think, I am not running a San Francisco jail where you pump iron all day and come out and deal drugs,” John says.

“We took a kid from another unit and he couldn’t move his wrist [from pumping iron], the tendonitis was so bad.” There are also constant reminders of the intensive security infrastructure; on at least two occasions John and myself are stuck between rooms, waiting for intercom staff to release one of the doors. The only place you can move around freely is inside the roof, which replicates the skeleton of the safe centre and holds all the wires and electrics that are otherwise invisible at ground level. The scale is vast — the generator, used in power cuts, is so big, it’s located in a separate block. “I dread to think what the electricity bill is....” John says.

JOHN says he knows what bored teenagers are like. “There are loads of facilities here,” he says, “second to none, and even then, teenagers are bored.”

Kibble also has its renowned Kibble Works programme, which allows residents and others on its programmes to gain educational or vocational skills. It also houses children who are in secure care for their own protection under welfare legislation, and those who are being detained by the state because of criminal activity.

People staying in Kibble have killed, but they are treated the same as everyone else. According to John: “The behaviour of both those children will be very similar but for different reasons. So really, we are dealing with their behaviours and their underlying needs.”

There are differences, and he says, similarities between the Irish system and its occupants and their Scottish counterparts. “If you take away the accent there isn’t culturally that much difference,” he says, before qualifying that statement for anyone who has yet to experience a deep-fried Mars bar. “A sociologist would hit me over the head [about that] — there are cultural differences but they are small compared to other cultures. Half of western Scotland is Irish. Half the people in this campus all have Irish names.”

When it came to the HSE asking Kibble to take on some Irish children, John saw it as an opportunity. “In some ways, I was trying to establish both a market and a reputation,” he says. Some of the Irish cohort were, he says, “really difficult kids, even by Glasgow standards”.

He says any Irish children here at the same time knew each other. “They all kicked off at some point,” he says. “They kicked off because they were just repeating the behaviour pattern that had been successful up to then.” However, most achieved some success during their stay.

One Irish boy had what sounds like a miraculous transformation, although his two-year placement had a few ups and downs, not least when on a different stepdown part of the campus, he struck a night worker with a statuette.

Overall, he blossomed, as did another Irish lad who came and went in six months, apparently a completely changed individual. In almost all cases involving Irish children, the Kibble staff believe that, at the very least, their behaviour stabilised, even if some were moved on to other facilities. “We never write off kids,” says John. “The only kids who actually get excluded or transferred in a sense are kids who have got severe mental health problems and this isn’t the right place for them. They are not getting the right treatment.”

I ask whether the growing number of Irish children in St Andrew’s — a specialist facility which requires the placement to be conducted under mental health rather than child welfare legislation — indicates that Ireland may have a rising tide of adolescents with profound mental health difficulties. He’s not sure, but about other aspects of the special care system, he is unequivocal.

“You’ve got this idea that you should be in secure care for the least possible time, there is this implication that it must be harmful, a bit like treating leukaemia — [that] we need to expose you to the dose for the minimum time,” says John. “But, in actual fact, that flies in the face of what we try and do in here, which is put in therapeutic programmes, some of which last for three months, and there is evidence that if you start them and don’t finish them they are doing more damage than not doing them in the first place.”

SECURE care in Scotland is “not now in fashion”, John says. “Broadly speaking, people think [with] locking up children [that] there has to be a better way. And up to a point, for 99% of the population, there is. But there is 1% of the population — I’m not quoting numbers there — there is a small number of children for whom secure is not only necessary but is a benefit. We have had a few kids from the Republic who have really benefited from being here because although on a blueprint it seems draconian, the way we work is quite liberal.”

He says the wages in Scotland can’t compare with those in Ireland, and so Kibble decided years ago to “grow our own” staff, picking top graduates and helping them gain further qualifications on the job. It has limited staff turnover and resulted in a high degree of expertise — even the chef has won awards and the nurse is, by all accounts, the most qualified in the country. He also cites what he sees as an attitudinal difference between staff in Ireland and Scotland — “the attitude in Scotland, I would contest, is perceptively different from the attitude in Ireland”.

One Irish boy is still referred to by Kibble staff as “our Irish miracle”; other Irish children who have passed through stay in touch. John believes the Irish High Court facilitates “responsible oversight” and recalls that Mr Justice George Birmingham, who regularly hears the Minors List in the High Court in Dublin, has paid a visit. Visiting parents and family members have been “easy to accommodate”, he says, although it’s obvious he feels the Irish system still needs some work, and often has the same problems as Scotland in relation to tracking the progress of care cases, and ensuring aftercare meets their needs.

“I think it’s difficult — the average age of a young person leaving home now is 25 and we are asking these kids, with their disastrous background and a dearth of skills to do at 16 [in the UK] what you expect your university educated son to do at 25. It’s going to be difficult for them. These kids, the one thing they need above all else is stability.”

Kibble gained unwanted headlines back in July 2009 when 13-year-old Bryan Ross took his life in his room in the safe centre using his dressing gown. In an official report into the tragedy, Sheriff Neil Douglas wrote: “[Bryan’s] death at his own hand was entirely unforeseen by the staff at Kibble. It is impossible to know whether, if there had been no dressing gown, there would have been no death.”

John says the death was “traumatic” for everyone at Kibble, and says self-harm and suicidal behaviour is increasingly apparent in a “contracting” system. “We are having more and more attempted suicides in the open school as well,” he says. If Kibble and other centres are increasingly dealing with children “at the sharp end”, he believes sufficient oversight is in place. “We get inspected more than nuclear power plants here,” he says, and a look at recent inspection reports from the Care Quality Commission, shows Kibble to have been performing well of late. Issues still remain, however.

“There is this unrealistic expectation that the rest of the system had eight, nine, 10 years to try and sort it out [a child’s issues] and have totally failed but we are meant to do it in three weeks or six months in secure? If you stand back, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The longer it takes to fix it the more entrenched it is.

“The government is not tracking them, so you’ll get these academics coming along saying that, you know, 40% of the young offenders or 60% of young offenders have been in residential care, as if somehow that’s residential care’s fault. Whereas I would say that they have been identified at an early age as going to jail and that’s why they were in residential care.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some young people are turned around and some aren’t. If you read some of their backgrounds and some of their files you know you wouldn’t expect to turn them around. Shocking. Shocking.”

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