Inside Oberstown: Education and responsibility clouded by violence

Staff at Ireland’s main detention centre for young people set to strike next month

The youth detention centre in Oberstown, north Dublin, stands on a 25-acre campus in countryside near Lusk. Surrounded by high railings and imposing, heavy metal gates, it is a place that rarely attracts positive headlines.

Oberstown can hold 48 inmates. This week it had 36 within its fences. All of the boys are aged between 15 and 17. The majority are from outside Dublin. Half of them have been detained by the courts. Half are on remand.

Some have committed assaults, burglaries and "some awful offences", says the facility's director Pat Bergin. They are accommodated in ten-bed units or "houses". Each has their own small, en suite bedroom, but they share living and eating quarters.

Oberstown has a school, astro-turf pitches, gardens, gyms, a kitchen which produces over 300 meals a day for staff and residents, as well as offices, a GP surgery, a dental surgery and family meeting rooms.


School principal Martin Treacy says the "vast majority" of the young people "love school, and even complain there isn't enough". Classes are small – three to a lesson. All State exam subjects are taught. Some are doing Fetac apprenticeship courses.

“They really do love school here – the structure, the sense of achievement they get. I think for some it’s the first time they’ve had the chance to breathe and focus in a school setting and to create their own learning trajectory,” says Treacy.

“Most of the lads want get what they can from being here,” says Bergin. Oberstown has a student council, where the boys can give their opinions about issues, including the charities to benefit from fundraising events. Project work and “student of the week” certificates adorn the walls.

Serious uncertainty

This week, however, some of the State’s most troubled young people face serious uncertainty as staff at the centre, worried about their personal security and other issues, prepare for an all-out strike next month.

If education is clearly Oberstown’s greatest highlight, then it is equally apparent that violence is its most dire challenge.In recent months, some of those staying in Oberstown rioted, setting fire to a roof and taking over units of accommodation for up to 12 hours at a time

The most recent figures from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs reveal there were more than 100 violent incidents at Oberstown last year, about half of which were classified as "critical". There were 3,005 sick days taken by 65 staff, who are members of the Impact trade union. Management is in denial about the risks faced daily by staff, the union maintains.

Last month 128 staff – including care workers, supervising officers and middle-management – voted by 94 per cent to take industrial action, citing increasing violence and demanding protective clothing.

If the strike goes ahead on January, then all of the inmates in Oberstown face being guarded not by the care-workers who normally work there, but by gardaí. However, it is clear, too, that some of them may even be released early.

In the eyes of some, the issues at Oberstown reflect fundamental disagreements about how best to care for children in the custody of the State with claim and counter-claim being made by management and staff.

All the boys are “very damaged . . . some from the care system originally, chaotic families that needed support. They will probably have been exposed to physical, emotional or sexual abuse”, says Bergin.

On 29th August, when staff cover was down 60 per cent due to a one-day strike, some boys got out of their accommodation and broke into another unit to allow others to escape. Significant damage was done and a fire broke out, leaving three units uninhabitable.

In September another unit, known as Cuan Beag, was seriously damaged when one of the children  gained possession of a care-worker's keys. He released other boys from their rooms and together they removed doors from hinges, broke windows and smashed furniture. Staff vacated the building and relinquished control for about 12 hours.

On Halloween night gardaí were called to the campus when two boys escaped from their unit and sat on a roof for three hours, refusing to come down.

There would be "no repeat" of such events, says Bergin, during the planned strike, as "conversations" were underway with agencies, including An Garda Síochána, about securing the campus. He was also considering temporary or early release for some of the boys.

‘Out of control’

However, one care worker who spoke to The Irish Times says things are now "so out of control" in Oberstown that they are worried about what might happen over Christmas, following charges that an attempt to kidnap a staff member was unearthed.

Management and staff at the facility are fundamentally divided on how children  should be handled when they become aggressive. In the past, the source says, staff intervened when a child was becoming aggressive to physically restrain them, take them to their room, and “let them scream it out”.

However, some of the staff claim that violent outbreaks in Oberstown have grown worse under Bergin due to the “mismanagement of violent and aggressive behaviour”. Staff, they claim, have lost “lost confidence” in senior management.

Since his arrival three year ago, Bergin has directed staff not to restrain inmates as they had been doing. A number had been disciplined for incorrectly restraining detainees and last year one was dismissed.

“Staff are afraid of losing their jobs if we intervene, so we have to stand back and let the child act out – that’s how Cuan Beag got wrecked,” the source says.

“We need to be allowed to step in at the first sign of trouble, to talk them down and restrain them for their own and others’ safety. Generally when you do that, they know it’s going to happen and they generally go off to their room anyway.”

It is abusive the worker says, to allow young people – many of whom had experienced extreme trauma in earlier childhood – to get so out of control. It gave them a “false sense of themselves” and a belief they could “take things and smash them and no one cares”. The majority of the young people were “terrified” by these events.

“So we are creating monsters. These children are not monsters. What kind of opinion do people have of these boys who smashed up a unit? But current policy validates that behaviour.

“What will happen is when they leave us they think they’re so powerful, that they can walk down the street, punch the head off anybody and just be violent, or do whatever and nobody cares.”

While “only a handful of kids [were] acting out,” the source says, some felt pressurised to join in, which was “further abuse”.

Physical intervention

Bergin, however, says he wants staff to intervene early, physically if necessary. The methods used, though, must be in line with international best practise known as Management of Actual or Potential Aggression.

Staff had been carrying young people face down and holding them face down on the ground. “That had to stop” he says. He issued a directive to that effect to all staff in November of last year, following an inspection by the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa). The Hiqa report said such practices as “lifting a child in a way that would be dangerous for the child” and some “methods of physical restraint” must “cease with immediate effect”.

Questioned about the staff’s demands for protective clothing, Bergin is insistent. It will not be provided. “They’re talking about armoured vests, shields and helmets. This is not a prison. It is a child detention centre.”

All staff are being trained in the best practise programme, he says.

Meanwhile, Bergin says that when all units were returned to use, those held on remand in Oberstown will be separated from those who are there because they have been convicted by the courts.

Separating remand and detained children would help stabilise conditions, he says. “The lads with detention orders tend to settle better – they are more invested in the place and the staff.”

He hopes the strike could be averted and the dispute referred to the Workplace Relations Commission before Christmas.

The care worker, however, says: “We need to go on strike now for our own sense of self-worth and for the public to know staff are demoralised and not able to do the job they are employed to do.”

What the first week of 2017 holds for the centre’s young residents remains unclear.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times