Facilities for violent children half-full despite ‘unprecedented’ demand

Assaults on staff and resignations result in Special Care Units running under capacity

Since new legislation came into force, the Child and Family Agency  has applied for orders to detain 24 children. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Since new legislation came into force, the Child and Family Agency has applied for orders to detain 24 children. Photograph: Dave Meehan


Frequent assaults on staff and difficulties in hiring qualified personnel mean facilities for some of the most troubled and violent children in the country are operating at half capacity.

There is an increasing demand for places in the three Special Care Units operated by the Child and Family Agency (CFA) around the country. These secure units cater for extremely vulnerable children who are too violent or aggressive for ordinary care centres.

As of this week, there are 14 children, seven male and seven female, in these centres despite a total bed capacity of 26, according to figures released to The Irish Times.

These children, which are aged between 11 and 17, have not been convicted of a crime but require care in a highly secure environment similar to that provided in the State’s child detention facility in Oberstown.

The newest of the facilities, Crannog Nua in north Co Dublin, has only five children (two girls and three boys) despite a 12-bed capacity.

Ballydowd Special Care Unit in Lucan, Dublin, has a theoretical capacity of 10 children but only five are currently detained there. The only facility running at full capacity is Coovagh House, a four-bed unit in Limerick.

The High Court recently noted there was an “ever-increasing and unprecedented” demand for places in Special Care Units and said it was “incomprehensible” they were not running at full capacity.

Liberty restricted

The Special Care system was put on legislative footing in January 2018. Because it involves such severe restrictions on a child’s liberty, an admission must be sanctioned by the High Court.

Since the new legislation came into force, the CFA has applied to the High Court for orders to detain 24 children in the units. It was successful on every occasion.

Last year, one of the units, a two-bed, female-only facility in Cork – Gleann Alainn – was permanently closed after a report found it “was not suitable for the provision of special care”.

The Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) found the unit experienced a large number of “significant events” including children being handcuffed and pepper sprayed by gardaí who had been called to the house.

In 2016, a Hiqa report found five staff in the Coovagh House facility suffered serious assaults over a number of months.

High levels of sick leave due to assaults on staff are one of the main reasons the units cannot run at full capacity.

“There are a small cohort of children and young people within the care of Tusla who require special care,” a CFA spokesman said.

‘Complex needs’

“However, some of these young people often present with complex needs, including a propensity for aggression and violence. The level of staff assault directly impacts on levels of staff sick leave and our capacity to provide special care.”

The other major issue is difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. In response, the CFA is to ask the Government for extra funding to increase the allowances for special care workers.

It will also consider “extending the skills mix of those employed in a special care setting”, a spokesman said.

Even if more funding was approved it would still be difficult to recruit staff, he said. “The low level of interest as a result of recent recruitment campaigns indicates that special care is not viewed as an ‘attractive’ employment option.”

There is also a lack of places for children when they leave the units. Special care is designed as a short-term intervention to stabilise troubled children and calm their behaviour. Placements are supposed to last no more than a few months.

However, in a High Court judgment last October, Ms Justice Leonie Reynolds noted that children were being forced to stay in special care longer than necessary because of a lack of places in step-down facilities.