Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Child Detention Centres

4:30 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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2. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the position regarding the transition from St. Patrick's Institution to the Oberstown campus, including management and governance structures, staffing, training and rostering arrangements at Oberstown; if her attention has been drawn to the need to provide a specialist unit for highly disruptive detainees; her plans to incorporate this in the planned development of the site; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38916/13]

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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In line with the programme for Government commitment, I am working with Government colleagues to end the detention of children in St. Patrick's Institution. To achieve this objective, my Department has provided €50 million for the development of national child detention facilities at Oberstown.

Following extensive work involving my Department and the Office of Public Works since early 2012, the design process is now complete, planning permission has been secured and the tendering process has been completed. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, and his Department for the work they have done in this area. BAM Building Limited has been appointed as the main contractor for the project, as well as several sub-contractors. I am happy to report to the House that construction is to commence on-site next week. The timescale for completion of the first three detention units, which will provide a total additional capacity of 30 spaces, will be third quarter of 2014. The remaining three detention units, required to replace existing buildings on the site, will be delivered in 2015. My officials will continue to work with the OPW to ensure the successful delivery of this project.

In addition to the capital project, my Department is overseeing a further programme of reforms aimed at enhancing the effective management and capacity of services on the Oberstown campus. A recruitment process has recently been carried out for the appointment of a campus manager for the Oberstown site, who will report to the board of management. A candidate is under consideration by the Public Appointments Service and I expect this position will be filled in the near future. I see this appointment as a crucial element of the reform of the child detention service.

I will shortly be presenting to the Oireachtas a set of amendments to the Children Act 2001 which will provide a mechanism for the merging of the three existing child detention schools into a single legal entity. These governance reforms will complement the ongoing work over recent years to develop integrated care policies and share services across the Oberstown campus.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I wish to further advise that a care staff recruitment programme has been sanctioned by Government and will shortly be commenced in conjunction with the Public Appointments Service, with the aim of deploying the new staff in Oberstown for orientation and training on a staged basis from early 2014.

In addition, a business review process is to be carried out on the Oberstown campus to ensure that all services for young people up to the age of 18 can be delivered in a manner that ensures safe and secure custody. My officials will also shortly be meeting with the Irish Prison Service to establish a Steering Group charged with overseeing the transition of responsibility for 17-year-old males from the prison system to the Oberstown campus over the coming months.

In line with an agreement made at the Labour Relations Commission earlier this year, agreement has been reached with staff representatives on the appointment of a third-party arbitrator to oversee a joint staff-management review of the operation of the campus staffing roster in Oberstown which was implemented in February 2013. I intend to see that this review commences this month and is completed as soon as possible.

The design process which was carried out in consultation with staff for the Oberstown development has fully taken into account the need for safe and robust buildings capable of accommodating children presenting with challenging behaviour. The use of individual buildings will be considered as part of the business review programme referred to above for the Oberstown site. I would note, however, that staff training, professional supervision and individual care plans for each child in detention are at least as important as physical facilities and both aspects will be considered as part of the planning for the new child detention service.

In conclusion, a major programme of change and reform to the child detention service is currently under way, and my Department will continue to work the board of management, staff representatives and other agencies to expand the range and quality of services on the Oberstown campus.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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It is good news that we are at the stage at which work is ready to get under way at the Oberstown site. I welcome the Minister’s indication that she intends to introduce legislation to merge the three existing child detention schools into a single legal entity. At what stage is the preparation of this legislation? When will the appointment of the campus manager be made?

I raised this matter with the Minister before the summer recess. While I welcome the information she gave us today, I must raise the issue of disruptive young people in these centres. Within the plans for the Oberstown development, will a unit be designated to deal with difficult cases of disruptive young people?

There is a significant and marked difference between a 13 year old and a 17 year old. Will the new centre be arranged so that there will be a suitable mix of ages?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The key point about detention is that it should be a measure of last resort. We are building a new facility because we do not want 16 and 17 year olds in St. Patrick's Institution but in an appropriate care centre.

Great care been taken with the design of that new building. International best evidence has been taken into account to ensure the mix the Deputy is describing is appropriately met and the facilities allow for the kind of integration needed for the young people, but also that they get the care and attention they need in a secure facility, and this is a secure facility. This is children being kept in detention. Every advanced country, including Ireland, is seeing a reduction in the numbers of children being detained, and I welcome that. Although there has been an increase in referrals from the courts in recent times, the overall trend is downward. As the Deputy rightly says, the young people who come to the attention of the care services and the detention services have very complex needs.

I am pleased to say that a care staff recruitment programme has been sanctioned by Government and will shortly commence in conjunction with the Public Appointments Service, which will help to manage these young people. On the Deputy's question about when the campus manager will be appointed, the interviews have been held, the offer has been made and we are waiting to hear from the individual concerned, so it should happen very shortly, as will the legislation.

4:40 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister rightly refers to Oberstown as a secure campus, but there have been incidents when the word "secure" would hardly apply. Individual detainees have been able to virtually close down a whole section of the existing structure with the threat of violence against the care staff in that complex. These are very serious matters where staff and other detainees in the entities on that site are being put at very severe risk. Is the Minister aware of the seriousness of at least one recent event? What does she understand is being done to ensure that risk factor is reduced to the lowest possible level in the interests of the safety of all detainees and staff who are entrusted with the oversight and management of the complex?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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As the Deputy is aware, residential care in detention centres is very demanding work. We have appropriate practices in place to deal with those violent incidents, as Deputy has described them. They take place in every detention centre. We want to reduce these to a minimum, ensure staff are supported and that appropriate interventions are in place to support both staff and young people and ensure best practice is immediately implemented when there is an incident like that. I have appointed a very highly skilled board, led by the chairman, Mr. Joe Horan, whose members are very experienced in the law and young people. Great care and attention is being given to the issues the Deputy has described in order that they are handled in the best possible way and staff are supported.

There is very active union engagement on the campus over a long period. There has been much involvement with the Labour Relations Commission. Yet another roster assessment is going on at the recommendation of the Labour Relations Commission to examine the question of rosters and staff ratios. It has been a very troubled issue on the campus but progress has been made. It should be a great source of support to the staff that the Government has made the investment in building and staff recruitment to ensure the kinds of issues the Deputy described are kept at a minimum and the support services are in place, which both the staff and children need.