Shifting from punishment towards care

Thu, Jan 24, 2013, 00:00

Child detention:The limestone facade of the Children’s Court in Smithfield, Dublin, resembles a memorial to neglected youth. It bears hundreds of names, each one crudely etched into it by a child passing through the youth justice system.

Alongside the names sit territorial allegiances, “west Finglas” reads one. Perhaps it is not surprising that an area that is sometimes associated with anti-social behaviour would be represented here, but then there is a depressing predictability about the type of children who go through the system and end up in detention.

“The vast majority of kids in the detention centres come from the two lowest socio-economic groupings,” says Pat Doyle, chief executive of the Peter McVerry Trust, a homeless support organisation. His work brings him into regular contact with former residents of child detention facilities and in his experience “they all share all the wrong common denominators”.


Typically they will have grown up in a deprived area, left school between 12 and 14 with little prospect of employment, and got involved in drug dealing or petty crime. “It’s not rocket science,” identifying children susceptible to criminal behaviour, Doyle says, “but it keeps coming around.” They drift out of school and into alcohol, drugs, and antisocial behaviour before inevitably coming into contact with the justice system.

Traditionally Ireland has pursued quite a punitive approach to child discipline, according to Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. But the Children Act 2001 marked an attempt to shift the emphasis away from punishment towards care.

As an alternative to custodial sentences the Act introduced the Garda diversion programme to deal with young people between 10 and 18 who accept responsibility for their offences. The programme allows gardaí to issue cautions and sometimes enrol the offending young person on a course of study or training.

The more nuanced measures have met with some success. As Herrick points out, the number of young people in detention has remained steady, while the population of adult prisons continues to rise.

When a court does sentence a child to detention, they will be sent to the 66-acre Oberstown site in north Co Dublin, which comprises the State’s three child detention schools, Oberstown Boys School, Oberstown Girls School and Trinity House. At one point these were independent institutions but they now operate as a single entity under the aegis of the Irish Youth Justice System, an office of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

The centres detain girls up to the age of 18 and boys up to 17, with a total of 52 available spaces. Unlike adult prisons, overcrowding is not a problem: each child has an individual cell.

Yesterday the Department of Children and Youth Affairs announced the issuing of a request for tenders for the construction of a new facility at Oberstown to replace the outdated boys school.


The department says this “will result in sufficient capacity to extend the child care model of detention to all young people under the age of 18 years by mid-2014”, and thus end the practice of detaining 17-year-olds in the woefully inadequate St Patrick’s Institution.

The department says the ethos of the schools is “based on a secure care model as opposed to the more structured, formal prison regime”. Staff, unlike prison officers, don’t wear uniforms and school directors have “control over the child as if he or she were the childs parent or guardian”. The schools assign a member of care staff to each child “to assist and guide them for the duration of their respective periods of detention”. This close attention means it costs about €300,000 a year to detain a child in Ireland.

Yesterday, when The Irish Times visited the site, the three centres held 34 children: 18 boys, two girls, and 14 remand detainees. Although some children are sentenced for serious one-off offences, most are detained in Oberstown because of continuous reoffending.

As a member of staff points out “to end up here you really do have to have been given every other opportunity”.

Deirdre Seery, director of Trinity House, says education forms the core of the centre’s work. In the morning children will have breakfast together before starting class at 9.30. Although most would have had a volatile relationship with mainstream education, Seery says “we rarely have somebody who doesn’t want to go to school inside”. Teachers say the classes offer pupils practical skills for life on the outside. One of the students simply says “it kills the time”. Currently 10 residents are due to sit the Junior Cert, while two are studying for the Leaving. The school feels like a typical national school with narrow corridors and artwork on the walls. The classes are small, with three or four pupils per teacher. For the most part it is a normal school but with some differences. For example, principal Anne O’Sullivan says the children don’t engage in group work. “Young offenders do not think outside of themselves,” she says, and their impulsiveness would make group work “challenging”.

The school offers core subjects like English, Irish and maths but students tend to prefer vocational lessons like woodwork and metalwork. Memorial carvings sit on the shelves in the woodwork room: “I love you, ma,” reads one, “granny” another. “Most of have experienced tragedy that none of us have,” Seery says, adding that many of them would have seen close friends and family die from drugs, violence and alcoholism.

Vegetable garden

Outside of school hours the children play football in the large playing fields, work in the vegetable garden, exercise in the gym or relax in the living areas, where they have flat-screen TVs, comfortable couches and board games. It feels homely, like a common room in a hostel, but Oberstown is first and foremost a detention centre. The small cells with their single beds are all locked by 10:30pm; should an emergency arise, corridors and wings can easily be shut down.

There have, of course, been security issues. Fights are frequent, Seery says, but “that’s the nature of the children who are here”. Previously a few children have attempted to escape “but they didn’t get too far”.

The issue of smuggling, meanwhile, is ongoing. Sometimes people try to sneak drugs into the centre in their shoes, but apparently staff can quickly identify would-be smugglers by their nervous demeanour.

Young lives: ‘Lots of opportunities to get led astray’

Young people in deprived areas can grow up to think drug-dealing and violence are “an everyday kind of practice”, according to Mick McCullagh, a youth worker with the Finglas Youth Resource Centre.

He works with some of the most at-risk children in the area, getting them involved in activities such as sports and media projects.

“If I sit down with a group of young people and say, ‘Okay, let’s make a movie’, it’s invariably going to be negative, it’s invariably going to be about drugs.” There are about 30,000 people living in Finglas and “by and large most people are just getting on with their lives.” But “it’s a balance”, he says.

“The negatives are out there: there is drug-dealing, there is massive antisocial behaviour, there are a lot of opportunities for young people to get led astray.”

Those who do get led astray are in the minority, he maintains, but that element is “a very visible presence within the community”. The centre works with young people aged 10 to 21.

“If they’re still engaged with us by 17, 18, 19 they’re not going to be getting involved in stuff, but it’s the ones who will get disengaged early, the ones who will have trouble staying in school, they’ll fall through the cracks.” DAN GRIFFIN