It takes a village to raise a child in detention

Oberstown needs support from the community to ensure the critical and diverse needs of children are met

The woodwork room at Oberstown Children Detention Campus. Photograph: Iain White/Fennell Photography

The woodwork room at Oberstown Children Detention Campus. Photograph: Iain White/Fennell Photography

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According to the traditional African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child, demonstrating how collaboration within and between communities is essential to safely guide young people to maturity. In the same way, the complex needs of young people who come into conflict with the law require a multi-agency response to have life-long positive impact.

In Oberstown Children Detention Campus, we are committed to ensuring the needs of young people remanded or sentenced by the courts are met. But we also know that, like the proverb, we cannot do this important work without the expertise and support of our partners in the community.

To foster this collaboration, Oberstown seeks to work with community-based organisations both in Oberstown and in the community to ensure the critical and diverse needs facing young people in detention are met. Oberstown also seeks to work with community organisations to share knowledge, to increase awareness of the challenges faced by young people in detention and to foster even greater collaboration in developing supports for these young people.

At a recent event, leaders with experience of mental health, substance misuse and trauma (Tony Bates, founder of Jigsaw, Tony Geoghegan, chief executive and co-founder of Merchant’s Quay Ireland, Dr Sharon Lambert from UCC and Lena Timony, Oberstown) highlighted strong evidence of common themes across these areas. The event established that there is clear commitment for everyone to work together to ensure a more coherent community-based response to these issues.

Most vulnerable

For the second year in a row, data compiled by Oberstown on the 92 young people in detention in the first quarter of 2018 highlights that these young people are among the most vulnerable in society, with a set of diverse, complex and acute needs that create particular challenges for them and for those who care for them. Many have experienced significant adversity in their young lives, with half reported to have a mental-health need, with either a history of ADHD diagnosis, referral to mental-health or psychiatric services, or experience of medicated illness.

Of the 92 young people, 66 had substance misuse problems, and of these, 38 had a mental-health problem, with 17 indicating self-harm concerns. In addition to the mental-health concerns, more than half of the young people in detention were not engaged in formal education prior to arriving in Oberstown. Our data indicates a substantial overlap between those young people with experience of mental health and addiction concerns and those young people not in education prior to their admission. One fifth of the young people in Oberstown during the first three months of 2018 had a diagnosed learning difficulty, with some overlap, again, with those presenting with mental-health and addiction concerns.

To compound their difficulties, between one third and half of the young people were found to have suffered the loss of one or both parents either through death, imprisonment or no long-term contact.

What emerges from the Oberstown data, therefore, is a picture of acute adversity and of complex, unmet need. While these young people are sent to Oberstown as a result of their offending behaviour – they are charged with or have been convicted of a criminal offence – this is clearly only one element of their story.

At Oberstown, we use this data to ensure the needs of young people in detention are met and we have developed an integrated framework called CEHOP that ensures that care, education, health, work on offending behaviour and preparation for leaving are addressed in a co-ordinated manner.

Addiction counselling

Prof Ursula Kilkelly

In addition to schooling, Oberstown has a comprehensive health service and professionals provide specialist services in the areas of psychiatry, psychology and addiction counselling on site. Staff provide a relationship-based model of care and young people participate in offending behaviour programmes, like our restorative practice programme which helps young people to resolve personal difficulties without conflict. We seek to maintain and develop the links that young people have with their families and other supports in the community so their positive progress can continue when they leave.

This includes important programme and initiatives with organisations like Le Chéile and YAP (Youth Advocate Programmes) which provide mentoring and related supports to young people and their families. Collaboration is thus at the heart of everything we do.

However, regardless of how effective these supports and services are for young people, ensuring their needs are successfully met requires the input of others, especially those in the community who support young people before and after their detention. Only by working together and sharing both expertise and experiences, will our collaborative efforts successfully address the unmet needs of young people in detention. And as the proverb says, only through collaboration in our ‘village’ of services and supports will young people be enabled to mature and develop away from offending behaviour to their benefit and to the benefit of all.

– Professor Ursula Kilkelly, School of Law, UCC, is chairwoman on the board of management of Oberstown Children Detention Campus

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