Childcare unit faces crisis after spate of staff resignations

 

A spate of resignations among childcare staff has caused the worst crisis yet at Ballydowd special care unit in Dublin, the State's first custom-built facility to cater for disturbed children in a high-security environment.

The South-Western Area Health Board (SWAHB) has rejected claims by one former staff member that the unit, at Lucan, was on the verge of "collapse". But a spokesman admitted that it faced an "extreme challenge" to operate as originally intended, adding: "Failure is not an option."

An independent review of the working of the unit is being carried out, and a report is expected shortly.

Only seven children are currently housed in the facility, which was built at a cost of €8.9 million to deal with 24 youngsters. Plagued from the start by recruitment difficulties, it has never been able to deal with more than eight children at a time. The latest resignations, of as many as six childcare staff, mean the unit is relying on agency personnel to continue to operate even at the current level.

Both management and unions agree that Ballydowd is a "very difficult working environment". Assaults by teenage inmates on staff are commonplace, and there has already been extensive damage to facilities.

Indeed, sources familiar with the operation of the unit question whether the original targets are now realistic in the light of the experience gained since the facility opened in autumn 2000.

The SWAHB says there is anecdotal evidence that the young people referred to the unit are increasingly violent. With staff already stretched to compensate for a shortage of numbers, this can create a "highly-charged" situation, a spokesman admitted.

Inmates are sometimes locked in their rooms "for their own safety and the safety of others".

The State's education system is not producing sufficient numbers of adequately trained childcare professionals, the board believes, with the result that it has had to look overseas for suitably qualified staff. Workers have been hired from the UK, Finland, Canada, and South Africa. But with better paid and easier work available to them elsewhere in Ireland, these often move on.

At least 12 children have been identified in the eastern region as needing special care, with probably as many more in other parts of the State who would be referred to Ballydowd by the High Court if the places were available.

In the High Court last year, Mr Justice Kelly complained of a situation of near chaos surrounding the working of the unit, and told the SWAHB that he would stop referring children there if it did not improve arrangements. But in a report last autumn, the Irish Social Services Inspectorate praised the working of the unit and said the children detained were being looked after "very well".