Decision not to publish Oberstown review ‘deeply problematic’

Authors of report into period of disorder at children’s detention centre in 2016 speak out

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said an operational review of the children’s detention centre will not be published because of the “passage of time”.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said an operational review of the children’s detention centre will not be published because of the “passage of time”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

A decision by the Minister for Children not to publish a report that followed a period of disorder at Oberstown children’s detention centre two years ago has been described by the report’s authors as “deeply problematic”.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone said an operational review of the children’s detention centre, commissioned in response to significant challenges at the facility in 2016, will not be published because of the “passage of time”.

A major fire causing €3 million in property damage, protests by youths, and strike action by staff over health and safety concerns during 2016 were among a series of incidents to trigger reviews of security, health and safety, behavioural management and operations at the facility.

Prof Barry Goldson, a child law expert from the University of Liverpool, and Prof Nick Hardwick, former chair of the UK’s parole board, were commissioned to assess the Oberstown facility against international human rights standards and best practice. They also looked at the use of restraint and single separation at the facility, which can hold up to 54 young offenders.

Speaking publicly on the issue for the first time, Profs Goldson and Hardwick said the decision not to publish the report was “deeply problematic”.

The UK-based academics told Belfast-based website The Detail: “We have very grave concerns about what we learned, what individuals told us, and what we discovered during the operational review and believe it would serve the public interest for our findings to be published.

Redacted version

“A number of boys involved in an incident at Oberstown in 2016 were given extended prison sentences when they came before the courts this year and further children have been issued with lengthy prison sentences for incidents that occurred shortly after we completed our review. If our report had been published it may have been of interest to the courts and relevant to the sentencing of these children.”

The authors said a redacted version of the report could be published.

A representative for the Minister said: “The department is aware of the view that publication of the report is in the public interest. However, given the passage of time it is considered that it would be misleading to publish the report now, having regard to progress that has been achieved in the interim.

“The review was carried out following a particularly difficult time in Oberstown. There had been serious incidents involving young people which threatened the safety of the campus. However, we are advised by Oberstown management that the environment in Oberstown is now more stable. There is evidence of positive change in the day to day operations.”

Asked to clarify the reasons for not publishing, a representative for Oberstown said: “While due to legal advice it was not possible to publish the report in full, the recommendations of all reviews have been published in full, and a review implementation group was established in March 2017 to consider these recommendations.”

‘Legal risks’

The board of the facility confirmed legal costs of more than €19,000 between February 2017 and April 2018 to assess the operational review findings.

Profs Goldson and Hardwick, however, have broken their silence on the unpublished report, which has been the subject of protracted correspondence between the UK-based academics and the board of management of the centre and the Department of Children.

Documentation obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation reveals the children’s experts sought clarification on the decision not to publish their 67-page report and on “legal risks” associated with their findings.

The Health and Information Quality Authority (Hiqa) requested a copy of the Goldson/Hardwick findings and was given an opportunity to read the report on site in May 2018.

The State watchdog said: “While it would be preferable if Hiqa were to be issued with the report, as Hiqa has had access to the content of the report, our statutory powers of inspection and monitoring have not been hindered.”

In May, three youths were handed down sentences of five years for their role in a “rampage” at the facility in August 2016, which involved a fire causing more than €3 million in property damage. In a separate case, a youth detained at Oberstown was sentenced last month to four years in prison for causing €50,000 in damage at the facility during four incidents between January and October 2016.