Can a detention centre turn around the lives of young offenders?

Oberstown staff talk about the regime for its ‘involuntary clients’

Two bare statistics about the Oberstown Children Detention Campus speak volumes: 55 boys and one girl. They are the August figures for the north Co Dublin campus and they confirm the view of a holding centre for primarily testosterone-fuelled, out-of-control teenagers. For many months earlier in the year, there were no girls at all.

The common public perception is that these are hardened lads, coming from dysfunctional backgrounds to which they are destined to return so, with the best will in the world, what difference can be made during the time they spend here?

“It is a valid perception,” agrees Cara Driscoll, a work and organisational psychologist, “because some of these young people have disappeared off the grid, so to speak – dropped out of school, chosen a path in which their behaviour is anti-social and there is a huge complexity of needs.”

There’s certainly a challenge in working with involuntary clients, she acknowledges. “What’s more they tend not to be clients the public really want to hear about.”


“For us it’s that dilemma around care and control,” says Oberstown’s deputy director of care services, Lena Timoney. “It is right, proper and fair that criminal detention is for the shortest time possible; they should not be removed from their community for any longer than is necessary. However, the flip side to that is it gives us a short time to work with them.”

Driscoll has helped design and develop a unique programme of care for all individuals placed in Oberstown by the Children's Court, the implementation of which Timoney has been overseeing for the past year. But for the first time, the two of them, along with campus director Pat Bergin, talk publicly here about what it entails, as Oberstown tries to break the cycle of juvenile crime leading to an adulthood of more convictions.

The “flog ’em” brigade should look away now as the emphasis is very much on rehabilitation rather than punishment and each placement costs almost €1,000 a day.

Known as CEHOP, the programme derives its title from an acronym of the five strands that the detention centre has a legislative responsibility to address when young people are here: Care, Education, Health, Offending behaviour and Preparing for release. So, the framework is “not a made-up concept”, explains Bergin.

He came in as director in 2013 when legislation had provided for the amalgamation of Oberstown Boys’ School, Oberstown Girls’ School and Trinity House into one campus in Lusk. That only finally happened in June 2016 and Bergin had the task of unifying policy as the three institutions with distinct philosophies merged.

Journey through care

What Oberstown now calls “a journey through care” begins for a young person the moment the centre is contacted on the day of a court appearance, to see if they have a place at a few hours’ notice. It ends on the day of release, although the centre sees itself as part of a bigger picture in the trajectory of young offenders’ lives.

Most youngsters come in initially on remand, usually for a week. “They are awaiting a decision on whether court is going to sentence them here, or come up with an alternative sanction, or if there is any sanction at all,” says Bergin.

Accommodated in separate units from those serving sentences, children on remand are unlikely to engage much with what’s going on as they will be back in court in a week, possibly never to return. But they could continue to be remanded, week on week, for up to three months.

The “not knowing” is a different mind-set and these children go to a different on-site school from those on committal orders. Also, as Timoney points out, “because they are in and out of court, they may bring back contraband to the campus. We have to manage that so we need very robust systems in place.”

In August, there were 22 on remand: 13 aged 16 to 18 and nine between the ages of 13 and 15. This compared to 34 on committal, of whom 27 were aged 16 to 18 and seven between 13 and 15.

The variation in circumstances means the CEHOP programme must be tailored to each individual.

“We map out the journey depending on their age, their offence and their care and health needs,” says Bergin. “The key idea is to ensure that, when they leave here, there is a better chance that they won’t be involved in offending behaviour.”

What Driscoll describes as the “chariot that enables this journey to happen” is placement planning. The key people in a young person’s life, including family members, gather for a placement planning meeting every six to eight weeks to discuss goals with that youngster and to review progress in all the areas covered by CEHOP.

The goals should be attainable between meetings, so the young people don’t see them as something far off, she explains.

“The primary idea around having the placement plan is really about relationship building and engaging the young people because, ultimately, they are involuntary clients.”

Research carried out in the first quarter of this year on the children in Oberstown gives a snapshot of their troubled lives. “Only 14 per cent of young people were engaged with education immediately prior to their detention and 36 per cent had a diagnosed learning disability,” reports Timoney.  Some 84 per cent had identified substance misuse concerns.

CEHOP has shifted the emphasis from looking back at what the young person has done – although this is still worked on, Driscoll stresses – and is much more future focused. Short-term goals might be engaging to look at their drug use, or attending the mental health professionals on site for assessment or addressing a low BMI or health needs in terms of diet, deciding to give up smoking and making sure they attend school on campus.

So, what can a 16-year-old sentenced to a year’s detention in Oberstown now expect when he is driven through the gates? Timoney outlines the system:

There’s an admission process “that starts when we receive information from court that he is coming our way”. They start to gather details from the Garda and the Probation Service, looking for a copy of the probation report that would have been filed in court and for contact details of any service that has been working with that young person and his family

A 12-month sentence would be regarded as a longer sentence and they would try to accommodate him in a unit with children serving a similar length sentence. Eight young people live in a unit, each with an ensuite bedroom that they are responsible for keeping tidy, and there’s a common area, kitchen and laundry.

On arrival, the teenager will meet the unit manager, be familiarised with the routine and then assigned a key worker.

“The aim is that within 24 hours of a young person arriving on campus they will have an identified key worker – a residential social care worker who will be responsible for liaising with them and their family/guardian and services working with them.”

While some may be using substances, they are not like adults who might have an entrenched addiction for many years.

The priority is to develop a placement plan for what he will be doing in Oberstown, and what supports are needed to enable him to do that. He also goes through a medical admission.

“Some young people coming in here would report having significant drug habits and test positive for cannabis or cocaine,” says Timoney.  But there is no medical detox facility.  While some may be using substances, they are not like adults who might have an entrenched addiction for many years.

After 24 hours on the campus, he will be expected to start attending the on-site school and he will also go through mental health screening within the first 48 hours.

“Any areas of concern identified will be highlighted to the clinical team from Tusla, the Child and Family Agency,” she explains, “and a plan put in case between that team and Oberstown staff around trauma, addiction, suicide ideation, self-harm, low moods, etc.”

Not only are they learning a lot about him within those first 48 hours but also giving information to his parents/guardians.

“What we want to do is to establish a rapport both with the young person and the parents/guardians as quickly as possible,” Timoney says. He can receive phone calls at his unit and staff liaise about this with parents, who might have concern about who would be calling him.

There will be a placement planning meeting within 72 hours, at which staff want to hear the views of the child and the family.

“We calculate their date of release and we are starting with the end in mind. That is a really important part of this,” Timoney stresses. “They are here for offending behaviour so we do have a responsibility to address the risks associated with the individual young person and to try to put a plan in place to mitigate that – and that leads us to their preparation for leaving.”

Activity programme

School finishes around 3.15pm and the children return to their units for a snack before an activity programme starts at 4pm, such as cooking classes, music, art, pyrography (wood burning) and down time in the cinema room.

Coming from a chaotic lifestyle, they “haven’t had fun the way other teenagers have been able to have fun”, she explains.  It is important for them to be able to play a football match and have fun in the same way as an ordinary, school-going teenager who doesn’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Allowing a young person to be a young person is part of our regime here, says Timoney. That’s not to say there isn’t conflict – as demonstrated by several incidents reported over the summer.

“We have some very challenging people on this campus – hugely challenging,” she says. “On occasion, if a young person is demonstrating very risky behaviour, if they are being very challenging, if they are being abusive, if they are presenting as unwell, we do have to put certain limits on their routine.”

In August the Health and Information Quality Authority (HIQA) criticised Oberstown for some of the practice around confining children to their rooms.  But their inspectors, who had visited last March, also praised the provision of education and reported children’s enjoyment and satisfaction with the schooling.

The teenagers are entitled to visits, initially from parents/guardians, but placement planning meetings will look at who else might be appropriate.

“We don’t want young people to lose complete touch with their community,” says Timoney. “It is very important that we are supporting appropriate contact with family, some friends and again we will link with community-based organisations.”

Once a teenager has served 40 per cent of his sentence and, provided he is demonstrating appropriate behaviour, he will start to have some off-campus trips accompanied by staff, such as to a gym or meeting family members away from Oberstown. These so-called “mobility” trips are enshrined in legislation to foster both their sense of responsibility and their ability to engage in the community.

“The risk is if we don’t engage them with a certain level of off-campus trips, that they will become institutionalised.  If we are looking at preparation for leaving, we have to look at meaningful reintegration.”

A home leave programme can start once there is just a quarter of the sentence left to go. This involves going home for one night a week, after which they may be tested for drugs and debriefed on how it went for them.

Although Oberstown staff have no further role with a young person after release, while he is there, they collaborate with Le Chéile, which offers mentoring to young offenders and their families, and also with the Youth Advocacy Programme and with Empowering People in Care (Epic), in preparing young people to leave the State care system.

However, despite all their best efforts, “unfortunately you do see the same faces coming back again”, says Timoney. They try to learn from that by sitting down with the young person – “you were here six months ago, what didn’t work on your release?”  and focus on that.

"We have to believe in change and have to try to see the positives," she adds.  So, does CEHOP work? This is being researched, says Bergin, but some work done on it by the Centre for Effective Services has "shown that the relationships young people have with staff here can actually make a difference", he reports. That's something they are "trying to build into the culture of the organisation here", he adds.

“People always ask about the success rate,” says Timoney. “Success means different things for different young people.  For some of our very chaotic, high-risk young people, success is that they are alive; that they are drug free; that they are not self-harming.”

For another young person, or later in their sentence, it is that they are engaging with their key worker and services, she continues.  “Success means they are going to get QQI level 3 qualification in art and in English [Junior Cert or equivalent] and will now be able to fill in a form to go to Youthreach when they are released.” It’s all relative.

One undoubted success story of CEHOP is a lad who is studying for the Leaving Cert next June and who recently gave a talk to other young people on the campus.

“Twelve months ago, he would have been a million miles away from that,” says Driscoll. He didn’t want to engage with it and would have looked down his nose at anybody who was going to do that.

“Here he is trying to figure out when his sentence ends in the middle of his exams, where he is going to do the rest of his exams. That is positive.”

In Numbers: Oberstown Children Detention Campus

48 boys and six girls can be accommodated at any one time

€350,000 cost of each place per year

265 staff covering 24/7

12 minimum age for a child to be detained there

18½ age at which a young offender must transfer to adult prison

2017 the year in which the practice of having some under 18s in adult prisons finally ended.