Residential care workers and night supervising staff at the youth detention centre have voted in favour of industrial action over safety concerns, citing more than 3,000 work hours missed last year due to assaults involving 65 staff members in 100 violent incidents.
As many as 200 workers represented by Impact and Siptu at the facility in Dublin could now engage in work stoppages, although both management and employees stressed they are keen to resolve the issues.
In a statement, Oberstown manager Pat Bergin said he was disappointed with the outcome of the ballot and argued that positive changes have been introduced over the past year to help protect staff. He said five employees are on assault and injury leave, with 18 on ordinary sick leave.
Tom Hoare of Impact said some of those 18 on sick leave were on stress leave following a physical assault. He claimed design issues on the campus are putting staff at risk, as are the operations of units, including the age mix and the mix of young people, some of whom, he said, were better suited to the care system.
Mr Bergin said there were “issues” regarding assaults on staff, but that there had been significant progress, including a fall in absenteeism from a high of 17%.
He said a memo to staff last November outlined how the level and frequency of restraint used were to be lowered, and he told the Irish Examiner that staff were not expected to put themselves in danger.
He said young people on remand and those on committal will be separated in due course, with those on remand to use the older units, including one that will be an intake unit. Three units are currently not open, including one in which three doors were damaged in March.
Mr Bergin said there was a review being carried out into different mechanisms that could be applied to the doors before they are replaced.
“There have been a number of difficult issues here and we have to take time to work through them,” he said.
Ultimately, Oberstown could have 90 beds available which would see complete separation of those on remand and on committal, as well as taking 17-year-olds out of Wheatfield Prison.
However, Mr Bergin said staff had been asked to change their approach and that this was a challenge.
“We have to ensure that the concept of riot gear is not part and parcel of the approach here to deal with the young people, and that is a substantial issue for some of the staff here,” he said.
“It is a cultural change and that is difficult and I am not taking away from that.”
Deirdre Malone, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said all sides need to ensure that young people in Oberstown do not have their own difficulties exacerbated as a result of any industrial unrest.
Ms Malone said some of the young people detained at Oberstown were on remand and had therefore not been convicted of any crime, adding that remand was “clearly over-used”.
Mr Bergin said the implementation of the proposed bail supervision scheme by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs should assist in reducing the number of young people in Oberstown on remand.