Youth detention staff voice concerns about moving young offenders to Oberstown House

Thursday 9th May 2013

Staff working at the Oberstown House facility have raised concerns about plans to close St. Patrick’s Institution and move older offenders to Oberstown House.  Ciaran Lyons raised the issue at IMPACT’s health & welfare biennial conference in Portlaoise today (Thursday) during an emergency motion proposed by the union’s Irish Youth Justice branch.

Mr Lyons explained that, since April 2012, due to an amendment to the 2001 Children’s Act, the age limit for Oberstown was raised to 18 years, which means that the facility has been taking in young offenders aged 16 and over since that time. He said that the move has led to a large increase in assaults on staff, “In the space of one weekend recently, there were nine assaults on staff. This is unacceptable. Staff coming into work no longer know if they will be returning home to their families, or having to visit A&E before their shift is over.”

Mr. Lyons emphasised that the union’s branch has welcomed the initiative to accommodate all under-18s, ordered to be detained by the courts, at a single location. “It’s a far more appropriate model of care than the current arrangement at St Patrick’s Institution. However, it needs to be implemented in an appropriate manner” he said.

He added “This is one of those measures that will change the face of the youth detention system. We want to get it right, and we’ll only ever have one chance to do that. Get it wrong, and you risk missing the chance to genuinely improve the prospects of rehabilitation for young offenders. Or worse, getting it wrong means you risk institutionalised failure, and years of trying to unravel the consequences of a failure to plan properly.

“As the prison officers pointed out last week, many of these young people will have committed serious crimes, but they are also most likely to have other issues, such as neglect, addiction, education deficiencies and often homelessness. If we’re going to change the way in which these young people are admitted into the juvenile detention system, let’s get it right first time.

“We’ve raised concerns because the current level of staffing on the campus is inadequate to meet the very specific needs that emerge in this type of setting. We’re concerned about the potential impact on the current services. We know too that, in order to improve outcomes for young offenders in this older age bracket, there are a wider range of activities and a more extensive skills base needed. This will allow them to reach their full potential, and may provide them with a much better chance of a fresh start after they are released” he said.

Mr Lyons explained that staff are concerned that the introduction of older clients, who have committed more serious crimes, could have immediate and negatives effects on the services available for younger clients, “We need to properly establish the capacity to meet the increased demands associated with larger numbers and a wider category of clients; not just assume that this can be achieved with the stroke of a pen.”

Mr Lyons added that staff were also concerned also at the lack of engagement to date with staff in relation to the issues. “The Government’s stated intention is to move all 16 and 17 year olds to the Oberstown campus by mid 2014 and to consider commencing this process this year. For this to happen, it is vital that we can engage with the minister on the staffing requirements, including appropriate staff to client ratios and specific training. It is also crucial that a risk assessment on the potential effect of the move  on existing clients and staff takes place.”

Mr Lyons said that he was encouraged to know that the Minister has recently had an initial discussion with IMPACT national secretary, Louise O’Donnell, “This is an encouraging development, and opens up the opportunity for further dialogue.”

The Oberstown board has also approved an independent examination of the proposals, which is ongoing.