Young people’s lives being turned around despite challenges

Picture: David O'Shea

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone explains the changes being made to Oberstown Detention Centre to help young detainees have a future

IT IS a stark reality that those who profit from crime do not think twice about putting young people in the frontline.

Ending this danger is not easy. It requires youth organisations, sports clubs, professionals who work with children and policies which work.

As minister for children and youth affairs, making sure that we have policies which deliver the best results for young people is a responsibility I take very seriously.

Later this month, I will meet with campaigners, frontline agencies and the dedicated staff who work with some of the most vulnerable children. We will gather at a key moment for youth justice in this country. The era where we sentenced children who offend to adult jails is over. Last month, I signed an order which effectively ended the sentencing of children to adult institutions.

It is a move which ends the risk that those convicted of crimes as juveniles would be mixing with hardened criminals. Those small number of children who are sentenced to detention are now placed in the care of the dedicated professionals who run the Oberstown Campus.

Last summer, you would have read and heard a lot about the campus. It was an enormously difficult time for all involved. Since then I have visited the campus on many occasions. I spent time listening to and talking to the children who live there, the staff and the managers.

I also met with representatives of local residents and heard their legitimate concerns about security.

Together we identified some solutions which have brought stability. This was done through improved security arrangements, extra activities for the young residents as well as various improvements to the buildings for the benefit of the children and the staff.

Education is central to the daily life of the children. I am impressed by the school where some of the children are currently preparing for state exams and are also doing work towards Gaisce Awards. They are also involved in writing, art and other projects. It is an inspiration. Young lives are being turned around.

Having said that the campus is a place of detention, and there will always be challenges because of the nature of the work involved in Oberstown.

When it comes to youth justice, detention is always a last resort.

At the end of last year, my department commenced a groundbreaking project with the leading social justice charity extern, the courts in Dublin, the gardaí, Probation Service, Tusla and Oberstown.

By introducing a pilot bail supervision scheme we gave judges a new option for teenagers who are on remand.

Instead of being placed in detention young people were given the opportunity to be released on bail into their family environment.

The children agreed to engage with the scheme and to take up the support offered to help them. This support helped them with issues they encountered in meeting the conditions set by the courts.

This work is taking place in their home and in the community — other family members too would be involved. In addition they re-entered education, training or work.

The results of the pilot project have been very encouraging. Ten young people have benefitted so far and hopefully this will has helped them to turn their lives around.

This is a great result not only for the individual and their family but for our society. It has also reduced the level of children in detention. Overall there is a decrease in the numbers in detention, last year the average on any week was 43 young people. This is a huge sea-change from just a few short years ago.

For example, in 2004, when the first Youth Justice Review commenced, the principal place of detention for children, whom the courts determined should be detained, was St Patrick’s Institution. Children aged 16 and 17 were also detained in adult prisons such as Cloverhill, Limerick, Cork or indeed in Fort Mitchel, more generally known as Spike Island.

Then there were 208 young people detained in the prison system. There were also 177 children remanded to or sentenced in what was then the reformatory and industrial schools operated by the Department of Education. Detention, bail and progressive youth justice policies must be part of a cross Government approach involving many Departments working together.

I have outlined some of the results we have achieved by working together —but that must continue.

For my part as minister and a life-long community campaigner I know first-hand that the best approach is to ensure our children do not fall into trouble in the first place.

Community work, sports and arts all have a role to play. This year we began reversing the cuts of the past with €57m for youth groups, organisations and projects. It is a 10% increase.

In every part of the country I have seen at first hand the impact of these projects, in particular on the lives of young people who are at risk of falling into crime.

This is work which deserves Government support and as we prepare the hard bargaining for the next Budget I will be fighting for these projects.

Keeping our young people safe and out of trouble is a big challenge. There is no simple solution. It requires a package of measures and we will continue to develop our response and examine how we can best deliver for our children.


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