Special report: Behind the walls, and the headlines, at Oberstown

Crime correspondent Cormac O’Keeffe goes behind the headlines in this special report on the fall-out from recent incidents at the Oberstown Children Detention Campus. As part of his report he meets Pat Bergin,  the centre's Director, and hears his assessment of the situation and of his plans for the future.

A place of contradiction. An apt description that emerges during our tour of Oberstown Children Detention Centre.

But it’s something that strikes you as soon as you enter the facility, located in rural north Dublin.

Behind the imposing, army-green perimeter railings and main gate, you enter what could be the car park of some sort of trendy Scandanavian facility.

An arc of white concrete walls, comprised of large geometric slabs, are capped in the colours of the rainbow.

Buzzed through a second set of perimeter gates, you enter a large, attractive, courtyard.

Again, bright colours adorn the capping on the walls and the square-patterned walkway is marked in sections of purple, turquoise and cream.

Either side, trees and shrubbery flank the courtyard all the way down to the modern reception building.

A place of some aesthetic and architectural beauty; but most definitely a secure detention facility.

We are brought to the main offices, which would fit in with a large corporation.

A tough few week

Special report: Behind the walls, and the headlines, at Oberstown

There we meet Pat Bergin, director of Oberstown.

It’s been a tough few weeks for him and the facility.

It started early on August 29 with the industrial action, then erupted with a roof-top demonstration by eight young people, significant injuries to a member of staff, and a fire causing extensive damage — all requiring the intervention of gardaí and the fire brigade.

This was after an escape on August 13 by five youths who managed to scale perimeter fencing with a ladder they were able to take from a maintenance shed.

Our tour also comes at a sensitive time, with the resumption of talks between staff and unions.

Our visit came a day before a court challenge was taken by three teenagers involved in the roof-top demonstration, who, it is claimed, were subject to strip searches by gardaí and have been held in “solitary confinement” in Oberstown since the incident — claims rejected by the State.

And it also came before last night’s announcement that external experts are to examine the operation of the facility.

Mr Bergin explains that much of the complex is out of bounds because of a strict policy of not coming into contact with the juveniles.

The visiting facilities on the ground floor are modern and spotless, with comfy red chairs for waiting families.

The meeting rooms are clean. They include private, screened rooms, where there is no contact between the young person, often those on remand, and their families.

All rooms and corridors, apart from bedrooms and bathrooms, have CCTV.

We are shown one of two protection rooms — essentially bare, windowless box rooms, with CCTV, where anyone who “starts kicking off” is put into to contain them and allow them to calm down.

The Health and Wellbeing Suite, as it is called, looks impressive, replete with a proper GP room (a GP comes three mornings a week) and a modern dental room.

A modern conference room — akin to a board room — gives an air of a place where serious professional work is conducted.

“In the old Oberstown Boys School [now abandoned], the place was run down,” says Mr Bergin.

“There were no facilities, there was no in-room sanitation, and case meetings were held in small rooms, which were also a library or where the photocopier was. It was not geared for trying to do business.”

He says that, over the past six to nine months they have developed their JTCs (Journey Through Care) programme.

“We are mapping out with professionals what is required for a young person, right from referral to when they leave,” he says.

He insists this is not just management-speak.

“Absolutely not. The issue for me when I arrived two and a half years ago, was that it wasn’t joined up. I went back to the core piece of legislation, the 2001 act.

“We are directed to provide care, make sure children are educated, we have to look after their health and we need to ensure work is done around their offending behaviour and we have a responsibility to plan for them. That’s what we are supposed to be doing.”


We move through a series of thick reinforced doors, opened by the fob in his hand.

Asked is Oberstown a place of contradictions, he says: “It is. First of all, it’s a place of security. There’s a fence around it — there’s actually three sets of perimeter fencing. It’s a detention facility.”

We look out a series of windows across part of the sprawling campus.

It’s an incongruous mismatch of buildings, from the now abandoned buildings, such as Oberstown Boys School, to the modern accommodation blocks, a high-quality astro five-aside pitch and gyms, to Trinity House — an older, more grim, high-secure building with fencing around it and the scene of the recent fire.

Where there were three distinct centres — Oberstown Boys School, Oberstown Girls School, and Trinity House, each with their own staff and governing structures — there is now a single Oberstown Children Detention Campus.

The new buildings, part of a €56m capital project, were constructed between March and June 2015.

“The idea is to give a sense of space,” says Mr Bergin. “With the old Trinity House, you never left it. The full site is 65 acres, 25 acres of it is buildings. So there is a sense of being able to move around here and create a campus.

“That word was specially picked. It is a facility where there are different activities in different parts of it.”

He expands on the contradiction question: “I started this game 20 years ago. There is a real challenge between care and control. So there is a contradiction. We are trying to find a middle road.”

He says this middle road involves boundaries and expectations: “When someone does damage, they are held responsible, when they are being abusive to staff, their programme stops, their routine stops.

“We say ‘you are not progressing any further until you address this behaviour’ and that is a real, real challenge for this campus.”

He says this was a “significant piece of change for staff” as it involves the integration of staff from three old schools.

“There are different cultures and different teams, who did not really know each other, who didn’t work together and are now side by side.”

He says there was a perception that Trinity House was “only for the most difficult of young people” and had a “very strict regime”.

He says Oberstown Boys School was an open centre and had young people running away on an “ongoing basis”.

He says staff there would try and use their relationship to create control.

“We brought the two of those [schools] together and people asked ‘which one are we’ and in the midst of this we create this campus.”

As well as this integration, Oberstown’s remit has been expanded in recent years to take 16-year-olds and, from March 2015, 17-year-olds, from the prison system.

As it stands they take all young people under the age of 18 on remand (charged and awaiting trial) and all those up to the age of 17 who have been sentenced of an offence.

It is thought they will soon take those sentenced between 17 and 18.

Mr Bergin says the typical offences by youths include car theft, burglaries, assaults, and serious assaults, with sentences ranging from months to years.

Incidents fall-out

Special report: Behind the walls, and the headlines, at Oberstown

Because of the fire and rampage, Trinity House is now vacant of young residents as the damage is being repaired.

A bit shabby from the outside, Trinity House also has a different vibe inside from the bright, spacious, modern blocks.

Mr Bergin says young people on remand come to Trinity House. And the plan is to keep the remand people here.

The protection rooms here have a more grim, basic, feel to them.

Mr Bergin says people are put into this room for as “short as time as possible”, but that it could be for hours.

Various rooms were trashed in the rampage by eight inmates over two weeks ago, which lasted throughout much of the day.

It happened on the day staff staged their first day of industrial action, although many of them went back into the unit to assist in dealing with the trouble.

Images of the children — captured on camera — showed a group of young people on the roof of their unit, eventually setting fire to it, which required an extensive fire brigade and police response.

We see the roof, which was significantly destroyed. Many other rooms were trashed, and numerous windows smashed in.

The bedrooms the kids have in Trinity House will not give hardliners cause for outrage.

They are similar in many ways to, though bigger than, prison cells — although any mention of the ‘p’ word prompts a strong reaction in Oberstown.

But prison cells they look like, with old walls, screened TVs and basic en suite toilet and shower facilities.

Mr Bergin admits the rooms are “stark”, but says rooms in the newer blocks are more attractive.

There is a large indoor gym hall and full-size football pitch outdoors, both apparently very popular.

He says there are three units in Trinity House that can take 24 people, but that there is only 16 in two units.

“It’s an historical issue around staffing,” he says, a subject we return to later.

During a quick coffee break, the conversation turns back to the fire.

“The fire substantially set us back,” he says. “It was a knock for everyone and hit people’s confidence.”

A staff member received significant facial injuries during the rampage.

“It occurred when people kicked out a door and he was behind it,” he says.

“There’s a question whether the people knew he was there or not, but there was a significant cut to his face.”

He says a garda criminal investigation is underway.

The clean up and repair work required moving the 16 young people to other units in the newer buildings.

Daily risk of assault

At the time of the industrial action, the unions cited official figures showing that there were more than 100 violent incidents in 2015, almost half classified as critical and that 65 staff were on sick leave.

Impact official Tom Hoare said there was a “daily risk of serious assault” which left many staff “literally in fear of their lives”.

Mr Bergin says: “We have people who have been hurt by young people, absolutely.”

He adds that verbal abuse to staff “must be taken seriously” and are a “significant” issue, which are considered in the context of each young person, their demeanour and history.

He says five staff members are out sick on Oberstown’s assault and injury scheme.

He says there were also 11 assaults between young people in 2014 and six in 2015.

This compares to 57 assaults among young people and 48 assaults on staff in St Patrick’s Institution in 2013. This was in a prison where around a fifth of the youths were locked in their own cells 23-hours a day.

Mr Bergin says Oberstown’s response to managing young people is “based on risk and not sanction”.

He says there is a rating system where young people earn access to levels 1-5 based on behaviour. The higher they go the more extra activities, phone calls, late nights, etc they are allowed. He points out that the eight people involved in the fire were back on level 1.

He says single separation of a young person from other people was “not a punishment but risk-based intervention to manage high levels of risk to the young person, to others, to staff or to the security of the facility” and after other options were considered.

He says he has also changed policy regarding the physical restraint by staff of young people, involving the lifting of the youths, after he reviewed CCTV of incidents.

“Last November, I issued a memo to all staff that physical interventions they used were to stop.

“I could not understand the amount of injuries the staff had. It meant three people could not get through a door [carrying the person]. They were hitting off doors and radiators. Historically, it was the approach taken here.”

Now, he says, if someone needs restraining, staff do it “properly” and do not try and lift, but restrain the person with their bodies until they calm down.

If the offender has a weapon, staff are told not to engage, to bide their time, and close the door behind the person.

He says the amount of assaults, and related sick leave, have dropped.

He accepts staff are frustrated and says he awaits the outcome of the Workplace Relations Commission talks.

“People are frustrated. They are looking for answers. I’m glad with the WRC. If there is a clear remedy I’m happy to go ahead with it, but the solutions haven’t been clear.”

He says he currently has a licence to take 48 boys and six girls and that on the day of our visit he had 44 young people — 43 boys and one girl, 27 committals and 17 remand. The Children’s Court often hears cases where juveniles, even those who consent to custody, cannot be sent to Oberstown because it has no beds. Mr Bergin says there are 90 beds on the campus, in 10 units.

“Realistically, we probably will go to about 76,” he says.

Before the fire, eight units were open, now they have seven.

A battle on two fronts

“Staffing is one issue and another is that some of the units are not up to scratch,” explains Mr Bergin as to why they can’t take in any more juvenilles.

“Each unit has eight beds and, for every eight people, I need 15 residential care workers.”

He says they were “constantly recruiting”, but that he is fighting a battle on two fronts.

“We will not take new young people until we have the staff. I could open another two units if I had the staff.

“We’ve been on the recruitment campaign since 2014, but I have the extra problem in that a lot of staff are leaving.”

He says there were many staff with 20-25 years experience and that many have indicated they want to retire.

“I am back filling posts becoming vacant at one end, and at the other, trying to expand.”

He says that, from the social care perspective, the pool of workers was “very small” and most preferred to work in community services.

“The amount of negative publicity that is incorrect is causing me problems. So it is very hard to get in staff then.”

He had planned to open two more units by Christmas, but that the fire had set things back.

“Now, I plan to get another one open by Christmas, then the end of Quarter 1 for the second unit.”

He says a big area of work was addressing the offending behaviour of the young people — an issue highlighted with the recent rampage.

“We have to address the offending behaviour and that has been a deficit here over the years.”

He says they have identified a suitable programme for young people, called Risk Induction Programme.

“Historically, the approach here was based on a particular staff meeting young people on their own. That’s not what we are looking for. What we’re looking for is for offending behaviour to be part and parcel of our day-to-day discussion. We have been implementing it over the past two to three months and have trained a number of staff.”

Mr Bergin says he has been in the job two and a half years and that the change has been “astounding”.

However, he adds: “There’s another two years of work just to get everything up and running. I said, when I came in, this was a five-year project regarding change so people know what they are doing.”

Staffing shortages noted in inspection

Special report: Behind the walls, and the headlines, at Oberstown

Staffing shortages. Management failures. Offending behaviour unaddressed. These are some of the negative findings of an inspection report on Oberstown by Hiqa, conducted last November and published in June.

Hiqa noted that Oberstown had undergone a process of “major change” within the previous year with the construction of a new facility on the existing site and the merging of three schools — Oberstown Boys, Oberstown Girls, and Trinity House.

It said key initiatives were under way, including the development of a programme to assist staff in delivering a consistent approach to meeting children’s needs.

Of the 10 standards set by the health inspection body, just one was met — that in relation to education provision.

It said there was “significant” risk associated with the safety of premises (fire safety) and its staffing and management. The remaining seven standards “required improvement”.

Regarding child care services, the report said there had been improvements in the promotion of children’s rights.

It said external professionals noted that senior management “were very conscious and respectful of the rights of children”.

In relation to complaints, care records did not routinely capture the effective management of complaints. Children’s parents said staff were approachable about any concerns.

Some of the complaints related to children “being kept in their rooms for long periods of time due to alleged staff shortages”.

Regarding safe and effective services, the report said placement planning was not robust, but new projects were being rolled out.

It said children’s privacy was “respected as far as possible in a restricted setting”.

On quality of care, it said: “Inspectors observed warm, appropriate, and respectful interactions between staff and children on the units and during activities.”

However, it said “staffing limitations had impacted negatively on services”.

It said that, through the assessment consultation and therapeutic support teams, children had access to speech and language therapy, addiction counselling, and psychology services.

Inspectors found that only seven of the children were participating in an offending behaviour programme, and that just three had completed it since the previous inspection in June 2015.

Just half of staff had received up-to-date training in behaviour management.

Staff said that only a small number of them had received training in restorative justice practices.

In some units, inspectors found that neither staff nor children had engaged in any work around offending behaviour.

The report found that 14 (29%) of the 48 children were from the Travelling community and six (12.5%) were from foreign national backgrounds.

The report said children were provided with a nutritious and varied diet.

The report found cases of “poor direction” to staff in how to respond to different levels of escalating behaviours.

“Management reports and minutes of meetings found that the campus continued to face substantial challenges in the management of children’s behaviour.

“There had been a number of significant incidents since the previous inspection in June 2015 which included attempts at self-harm, staff assaults, and serious property damage to the units and educational facility.”

A management review resulted in the immediate end to certain practices, including the physical restraint of people involving the lifting of a child “that would be dangerous for the child”.

Inspectors reviewed 107 incidents of restraint, including 39 cases of physical restraint, but said records were not routinely completed. It identified 813 incidents of single separation.

These were used as a result of assault or threatening behaviour, use of banned substances, disputes with other children, property damage, or barricading themselves into a room.

The report said records of single separation were “poor” and did not always record why separations went on as long as they did.

It said that, in one case, a boy spent 27 hours in single separation over a period of three days. It said there was “inadequate evidence” to indicate it was necessary to separate the boy for so long.

It said there were six incidents of absconsion since June 2015.

The report found the quality of preparation for the departure of a child “varied”, with no clear plan in a number of cases.

The report said there was a system in place for staff members to summon help, and that emergency communication was primarily by way of hand-held radios and pager systems.

Inspectors were told by staff that these systems “did not work” in every area of the campus.

“This had the potential to impede a timely response in the event of an emergency.”

Inspectors also identified instances where staff did not have the necessary keys to open door or hatches in older buildings.

The report said the provision of psychiatric services needed further development. It said that children from different units accessed the education facility in a phased manner because a risk assessment said if children from different units “crossed paths en route this had the potential to cause serious incidents”.

Children told inspectors they enjoyed school and wanted more time there.

On governance, the report said staff did not receive regular formal supervision. It said middle management struggled to lead effectively and support their teams.

It said this issue — and the lack of performance management — “compromised” the capacity of some staff to do their job.

The report said staff were clear about their roles and responsibilities, but told inspectors that they felt it was “difficult to have the time to build relationships with children due to staff shortages”.

‘Vulnerable kids can still be dangerous’

Special report: Behind the walls, and the headlines, at Oberstown

Just because young people in Oberstown are vulnerable “does not mean they cannot be dangerous”, according to a spokesman for the association representing social care workers.

Noel Howard, who worked in the juvenile justice system for 40 years in Finglas and Clonmel residential centres, says this reality needs to be accepted.

“We were told it would be a wonderful world now children would no longer be incarcerated in St Pats and would be going to Oberstown Centre,” says Mr Howard, spokesman for Social Care Ireland (SCI).

“That’s all fine and dandy, but staff in Oberstown have to face up to the challenge, which will not be easy and unfortunately, as turned out, it hasn’t been easy.”

He says children who come into State care of whatever kind — residential care or detention centres — typically come from deprived, marginalised backgrounds and have had terrible lives and are very vulnerable.

“But just because they are vulnerable does not mean they cannot be dangerous: verbally aggressive and physically aggressive at times,” says Mr Howard.

“One of my problems with the response at times from the Government and ministers and from child advocacy or reform groups is that they don’t seem to be able to publicly say that as it will be perceived as not being on the side of the child.

“Until that fact is accepted, that very vulnerable children can be highly dangerous — to other kids, to staff and to themselves — and can do terrible damage to property, we are not dealing with the problem.”

He says Hiqa can come in “in the cold light of day” and say that such an action was not best practice or breached a standard.

“Sometimes all the rules and regulations cannot cover the dynamics of situations,” Mr Howard says. “Care workers have to use their professional judgement in the moment.”

He fears that in response to past abuses of children in State residential settings, regulations go beyond what is necessary and that the “pendulum was swung too far”.

He asks what social care worker would now apply for a job in Oberstown?

“After the fire, somebody has got to examine closely if the system social care workers work within is a contributory factor to behaviour.”

He questions approaches where care workers are told to step back, rather than intervene, when an offender is causing a lot of damage.

“What message is that sending out?” he asks. “It increases the sense of power of the young person. They shouldn’t feel they can do what they want.”

A recent report by SCI of their members across all services found that 75% experienced physical assaults, 70% experienced verbal abuse, and 60% were threatened weekly or more.

The ‘Crisis, Concern, and Complacency’ report found that 60% of respondents said their employer “sees violence as an acceptable part of their job”.

These were general findings and Mr Howard says they may apply more to the mainstream services than detention centres.

But he says there was a “widespread culture of violence” that needs to be addressed. “It’s not a risk of violence, it’s a reality.”

With unions at Oberstown currently back in talks with management, staff were not willing to speak in recent weeks about their experiences there.

At the time of the industrial action at the end of August, union officials said assaults had risen and that they had inadequate personal protection and safety equipment.

They said the expansion and refurbishment of Oberstown had resulted in a “totally unsafe living and working environment”.

Impact official Tom Hoare said: “The result is a daily risk of serious assault, which leaves many of the staff literally in fear of their lives.”

Never giving up

In Le Chéile, the philosophy is ‘never give up’.

“It can be difficult to work with young people in trouble with crime,” says Anne Conroy, chief executive of Le Chéile, “but we never give up, we keep after them and stick with them through thick and thin.”

Le Chéile is a charity that provides mentoring services to young people and have 200 trained volunteers across the country.

“The volunteer is matched with the young person,” says Ms Conroy. “They build a relationship with the young person through a mixture of activities and meeting and chatting.

“They support them, they are a positive role model, a caring adult.

“We are not do-gooders. We do not condone their behaviour or crime. We are trying to intervene to change that.”

She says the problem was that if the young person was detained to Oberstown, the connection ended and the relationship broke down.

Last year, Le Chéile and Oberstown director Pat Bergin set up a pilot project to keep up the contact.

“We started on a small scale and it’s working very well. We had 15 last year and four so far this year,” says Ms Conroy.

She says the relationship is more restricted, but that they can still meet up and talk and also prepare for their exit.

Ms Conroy says Oberstown was “absolutely” better than the St Patrick’s Institution.

“Oberstown is going in the right direction,” she says. “We support the change in their approach. That takes a long while to bed in.”

She says they now plan to expand the mentoring to the parents of young people in Oberstown.

“Pat Bergin is very keen on it, so that’s the second part of the pilot, where a volunteer mentor will meet parents or guardians in the community.”

She accepts many of the young people are not easy to work with.

“Young people in trouble with the law are in trouble with their own lives,” says Ms Conroy. “They come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, family breakdown, addiction, mental health issues. Most of our young people are not in education or training. That’s a terribly serious situation. It shapes their entire futures.

“Oberstown is very good at getting people into education.”

— Cormac O’Keeffe

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