Children in care much more likely to end up in court, study finds

No national data on how many children in care come in contact with gardaí, report says

Children in residential care are far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted compared with those cared for at home and in foster placements, a new report suggests.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust interviewed representatives from several agencies involved in childcare including Tusla and the Garda as part of an exploratory study into the interaction between children in care and the criminal justice system.

Respondents said some childcare facilities were not equipped to deal with children with complex needs and traumatic backgrounds, meaning the gardaí were more likely to be called when trouble occurs. Others criticised the lack of planning for children who transition out of residential care when they turn 18.

The study noted there is no national data on how many children in care come in contact with the gardaí and courts. Respondents working in the Children Court in Dublin said that about a third of the cases there concern young people in care.


Data from the Children Detention Campus in Oberstown in Dublin showed 40 per cent of its detainees in 2018 were either “in care or had significant involvement with Tusla”.

Tusla workers reported that it is usually older children who go into residential care because it is difficult to find foster placements for them.

If they act violently or aggressively in a residential setting gardaí are likely to be called, whereas foster parents would be more likely to deal with the issue themselves, respondents said.

“We tend to see that the young people who have spent part of their childhood in residential care are among the most vulnerable and have particularly high support needs,” a Focus Ireland staff member said. “Children who spent time in lengthy placements in foster families tend to fare better.”


The Cork Life Centre, an alternative education project, said it was “greatly troubled” that many of the charges children accumulate relate directly to them staying in a care home, charges such as “destruction of property, assault of care staff and other issues such as drug possession in the care placement.”

“While not condoning the behaviour of young people who act out, and understanding the consequences for behaviour are important, it has been difficult to note in many situations we have encountered that the gardaí are involved in issues that if happening in a family home they would not be involved with”.

One garda responded that gardaí are being called to care homes for sometimes trivial matters which could be dealt with internally.

Poor relationships between children and care staff might be one reason for these “domestic incidents” ending up in court, said Le Chéile, an educational trust which manages 60 schools.

Children with highly complex needs and a history of aggression who come in contact with the criminal justice system are not being adequately dealt with, a Tusla respondent said. This leads to further difficulties down the road.

They cited one case where a teenager had been convicted of an offence. There was no room in Oberstown and the child’s parents refused to take him home so the judge requested that Tusla provide residential care.

The placement was not set up to care for the child and the young person didn’t want to be there.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times