Children held for long periods in isolation at Oberstown, says Hiqa

Inspectors criticise lack of proper oversight but praise education, improved atmosphere

Some children at Oberstown detention centre were forced to spend prolonged periods in isolation or “single separation”, a report by the State’s health watchdog has found.

Poor practice was found in some instances in the management of challenging behaviour and when prolonged solitary confinement was used, there was a lack of robust oversight in the monitoring of these incidents .

In some cases staff at the north county Dublin centre did not consistently follow policy on the practice of isolation, records of incidents were not properly completed and there was no evidence that the practice was authorised or reviewed.

The report by the Health and Information Quality Authority (Hiqa) was based on an inspection in March this year. It also identified serious risks in relation to the secure storage of medication and in safeguarding a child in the administration of medication.


Inspectors said that while children’s healthcare needs were appropriately assessed on admission, they did not always receive hospital treatment in a timely fashion, despite a recommendation by the campus nurse.

But inspectors praised the provision of education and reported children’s enjoyment and satisfaction with the schooling.

At the time of the inspection 35 boys were on campus and the facility is licensed to hold up to 54 children.

The inspection follows industrial action and an incident in August 2016 when a major fire was sparked on the roof of the centre after detained teenagers climbed on to it during a protest.

In May of this year two young offenders escaped from custody after attacking staff in a riot. Director of Oberstown Pat Bergin suffered a minor injury during the incident.

Serious risk

The Hiqa report said last year there were 3,027 single separation incidents – where a child was held in their room on their own. The policy for isolation is that it be used only on the basis of serious risk and not as a form of punishment or for disciplinary purposes.

While it was occasionally used appropriately, inspectors found it was used variously including for the management of violent or threatening behaviour, when a child was found with prohibited substances, and when a child damaged property or was in conflict with other children

The Hiqa inspectors expressed particular concern in the cases of three children held in single separation for between three and nine days. One case was subject to an independent review.

In the two other cases, records did not show the rationale for extending the children’s time in isolation or the required management approval for the extension.

Mr Bergin said an action plan for the report had been completed and accepted by Hiqa. “We know what we need to do, we need time to implement the improvements,” he told RTÉ’s News at One. “It is an issue of recording, authorisation and monitoring single separation orders.”

Children's Rights Alliance chief executive Tanya Ward said the new policy of single separation would have to be closely monitored because of its use in inappropriate situations. She stressed that Oberstown was a detention centre and not a prison and when children "acted out" the response should not be the same as in a prison.

“Depriving a young person of social contact is a very serious action and should never be used as a form of punishment or discipline,” she said. She also noted concerns around a lack of children’s access to fresh air or outdoor exercise while in single separation.

But Ms Ward praised the improvements since the 2015 and 2016 reports.

She said that in 2015, when single separation was a form of punishment, a child in one incident was held for two days with no mattress and no toilet and had to urinate on the floor.

She said there had been a “clear change” since then with a lot of investment in training and in the staff. The inspectors could feel the change, with children respected and being treated respectfully.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times