VERY few societies can be as sensitive as Ireland to suggestions that young people held in State care might be in jeopardy.
Very few societies need to be as alert to the suggestion that child-care or juvenile-detention systems are less than optimal, or that being a resident, or an employee, in one carries a palpable level of threat. Our terrible record of abandoned children, in State-endorsed and funded care, and the terrible legacies of those scandals mean any other response would be impossible and immoral.
Yet, that seems to be the situation at Oberstown, the juvenile detention centre, in north Co Dublin, where a recent riot exposed many weaknesses in the newly-revamped system. The rampage led to injuries among staff, and industrial action over what has been described as bad planning and management during the transfer of offenders from the St Patrick’s youth prison in Mountjoy over the last two years.
The Government, through Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone, has responded to this unacceptable, unsafe situation by appointing two international experts to review Oberstown. As many as 100 young offenders, some of them the most violent young criminals in the State, and many of them with multiple convictions for serious offences, are held at the facility. It is very difficult to understand, or accept, that a public project on which €56m has been spent over the last few years has proved to be so inadequate and so very unsuited for purpose. It is shocking that international intervention is needed to resolve issues at a facility where so much public money was spent so very recently. Were the appropriate experts not engaged before the project began? If not, why not? Was advice rejected and, if so, by whom and why? Will there be any consequences for those who presided over it? And pigs will fly.
Those are important, symptomatic questions, but they cannot take precedence over the core issue, the safety of residents and staff. And can the facility support processes that might help residents restore some equilibrium to their lives? This, after all, must be the overriding objective of a centre like Oberstown, because without that redemptive ambition it will be just another revolving door in our penal system, another symbol of abandonment and rejection of vulnerable young people.
Some Oberstown residents are barely teenagers. Last January, there was one person aged 13, two aged 14, six aged 15, 21 aged 16, and 17 aged 17. Anyone with a happy, normal child might give a moment’s consideration to the experiences that would condemn a 13-year-old to a juvenile detention centre. No matter how easy it is to offer, from a swelling chest, the tough-love argument, this represents spectacular societal failure. The current failings, and their causes, are in a kind of bureaucratic limbo, a kind of official sub judice silence, until the international experts’ report. But it is essential that the policies (and those who designed them) that have failed Oberstown’s residents and employees have real consequences. Otherwise, what’s the point in trying to reform anything?
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