Currently, according to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, five young people in special care units have accrued criminal charges during their time in care. Given the low number of placements nationally — about 20 — and the fact that the placements are short-term, this is a significant proportion at any one time.
Children’s defence solicitor Gareth Noble, who represents three of the teens, said charging young people in these settings appears to be a policy decision to crack down on challenging behaviour.
“These children, who cannot be safely maintained because of emotional disturbances, require urgent therapeutic interventions. The idea that they are brought in and out of court arising out of incidents during that process of therapy and stabilisation is against their best interests and welfare,” he said. “The criminal justice system should not be used as a substitute for care.”
Children in special care units are detained on foot of a High Court order, not because they have committed an offence, but because they have serious emotional and behavioural needs.
A spokesperson for Tusla acknowledged there has been “an upsurge in challenging behaviour, specifically violent and high-risk behaviour among young people in its care”.
In response, Tusla said it is preparing to investigate alternative models of care to “meet the new levels of demand”. Once the research is complete, Tusla said it will engage with “all relevant agencies” to ensure appropriate responses for young people who fit this risk profile.
In recent weeks, it is understood the armed regional response unit was deployed to Coovagh House, a special care unit in Limerick. Gardaí confirmed they are investigating an incident of criminal damage at Coovagh House, adding that a teenager was arrested and detained, but released without charge.
Noble contends the violence young people are exhibiting could be directly linked to the circumstances under which they are being kept.
“Special care facilities are not meeting the therapeutic needs of these children. In Ballydowd, for example, young people are subject to long periods of isolation, they have very limited access to the outside world, they are eating food in isolation in their room from a paper plate pushed under the door. Is it any wonder they deteriorate and engage in violent behaviour?”
Children’s rights expert, Prof Ursula Kilkelly, with UCC’s school of law, said criminalisIing a child taken into its care is a sign that the system is not coping with challenging behaviour.
In 2014, Tusla said special care capacity would double to 34 beds in by 2016. Tusla now says the intention is to have 30 beds by mid-2017.