Cork City Council, one of the biggest local authorities in the State, is violating the human rights of Traveller children by leaving them in filthy, overcrowded, rat-infested, unsafe and cold and damp living conditions, a damning report published on Monday finds.
The statutory investigation from the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) into the “living conditions of children in a local authority halting site”, does not name Spring Lane halting site in Cork – though it is the subject of its first report into the living conditions of Traveller children.
It details "failure" after "failure" by the council to improve living conditions at the site in the Blackpool area of Cork city. It notes the council's "failure" to consider the interests of the children living here; its "persistent" failure to address illegal dumping; its "passivity" in addressing overcrowding, and, its "carelessness" in housing application record-keeping.
The ombudsman’s office “cannot accept” some of the council’s explanations for overcrowding, while its “failure to comply with the minimum requirements of the law” in implementing its own Traveller Accommodation Programmes is “discriminatory”.
Spring Lane, a 10-bay site open since 1989, is now home to 38 families including 66 children as households with nowhere else to go have moved in over the intervening 32 years. Approximately 140 people share toilets and washing facilities designed for 40.
The office’s investigators observed children sharing makeshift beds in cramped living areas; damp on the walls and ceilings; cracks in walls, ceilings and windows, and children playing amid rubbish. Parents detailed lack of hot water and unreliable heating, while the Health Service Executive public health nurse said Spring Lane’s children “suffer skin conditions and respiratory problems at a much higher rate than the general population.
“She told us that in her opinion these health conditions were a direct result of the conditions of the halting site . . . the children had to live with.”
The 17 children aged between three and 16 the investigators met said they knew their living conditions were different from other children.
They said: “Walking up to school you see all the rats” (girl, 12); “People ask why I’m dirty, but I’d be ashamed to say. I don’t want to say it was from walking out of the site”(girl, 14); “It takes two or three hours to heat up a bath and we’re all using the one water” (girl, 13); “We only play in puddles” (boy, 7); and “When you put your hands out of the bed in the mornings, the blankets are all wet” (girl, 16).
A 12-year-old girl told them: “It’s like an abandoned place that people forgot about. It’s like we’re forgotten. We feel like garbage.”
Weekly caretaker reports, between January 2018 and December 2019, show the same issues arising “year on year” including ceilings in [toilet and washing facility] huts falling, toilets blocked, large potholes, uneven ground, dampness and damaged fencing.
“The caretaker stated that maintenance issues on the site are a significant and ongoing concern. Significantly, the caretaker advised that since 2012 ‘very limited improvements’ have been made in relation to the . . . hut facilities.”
The council’s chief fire officer reported in 2016 the majority of units had no working fire or carbon monoxide alarms while mobile homes were so close to walls and other units as to prevent escape via windows. He said this was “an unacceptable risk to life”.
Traveller advocates told the ombudsman’s office they were “exhausted by efforts over the years to try to make things better.
“They believed their efforts were in vain as they struggled to get improvements on the site.”
Cork City Council said they were trying to improve things at Spring Lane but some residents’ hostility towards staff and contractors, local resistance to the rezoning of adjacent land for residential purposes and persistent illegal dumping hampered its efforts.
It later clarified none of its current Traveller accommodation staff had experienced hostility. The ombudsman’s office said the council, “appears to be penalising all residents and further endangering the safety of children living on the site” by focusing on the behaviour of some.
The council, it said, had “not demonstrated any actions taken” to deter dumping, while its repeated failures to improve living conditions came when it had “surplus allocated funding”, says the report.
“While the [council] insist residents’ refusal of [housing]offers is a significant contributor to overcrowding on the site, the OCO cannot accept this in circumstances where there was a total of eight offers of accommodation made to the 11 families between 2006 and 2019, of which two were accepted.
“The local authority has been unable to show evidence whether the refusals were reasonable or unreasonable.”
The Ombudsman for Children’s Office makes 10 detailed recommendations, to each of which the council responded positively, including that it would: “Prioritise and immediately re-emphasise the needs of the resident children in all its actions and plans relating to this site, and, if necessary, will provide enhanced staff training and monitoring to keep this to the forefront of all its deliberations.”