Republican News · Thursday 21 December 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Failing the `problem child'

ROISIN DE ROSA examines the case of one child who has been failed by the 26-County authorities and reflects on the crisis in accommodation and services to cater for children who are at risk and in need of care.

There were over 650 children in the 26-County state this year identified as seriously at risk and in need of care. These kids are viewed as the `anti-socials', the `uncontrollables', the `highly disturbed'. They often end up being branded the `scumbags' who set fire to your car, rob your house, vandalise and intimidate your neighbour. They are made out to be the `enemies of decent god-fearing people', as they are undoubtedly the enemies of themselves.


Over the last five years, there has been a succession of judgements in the High Court where it was recognised that the rights of children are continuously breached. All too regularly, there is nowhere suitable to send these disturbed kids except prison

But these are the same children who society has failed.

One of these children was Kim O'Donovan, who died of a drugs overdose after she had absconded from the home to which she had been sent. She had written to Judge Kelly, who had presided on many occasions over her tragic case, pleading with him not to send her back to that home. She wanted to return to mainstream education, not to any care setting. Another is an anonymous 15-year-old boy who bedded down in a garda cell on Sunday night last when the Gardaí ran out of options, caught in a Catch 22 of a judge ruling that a Garda station was inappropriate place of detention for a child and a system that had no beds available. Another 15-year-old boy was remanded to St Patrick's Institution in Dublin on Monday, again because there were no places available at Oberstown House to detain him in a suitable environment.

Solicitors in the 26 Counties are highly critical of a system that has a scarcity of high secure, low secure and community places for children at risk.

other odf those children is Billy. He a bright looking, affectionate teenager with a mop of thick hair and a warm smile. Billy was abused when he was little. His parents grew alarmed by his strange behaviour and discovered what had happened. The abuse had occurred in a locked room, a bedroom. Billy's behaviour grew worse and became uncontrollable. He wouldn't go to bed at night.

His parents sought help. He drifted into serious antisocial behaviour, arson, robbed cars. He was sent home every other day from school.

His parents tried everything, but could do nothing. Repeatedly, they asked the social services to help them, but there was no help available, until, perhaps in a cry for help, he cut his wrists, which shook social services enough to obtain him an emergency appointment in a therapeutic clinic.

His parents pleaded in court for him to be sent somewhere he could get the help he needed. He was sent to St. Michael's (now the National Child Assessment Centre) in Finglas for three weeks for assessment. He spent 13 months there, and his parents say he received no therapy to help him address his difficulties.

The assessment read that he was suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and suffered flashbacks from the abuse.

Finally, Billy's case came up to Judge Peter Kelly in the High Court. The judge said it was a disgrace that he had no choice but to return the child and others like him to totally unsuitable accommodation, substandard to their needs. It forced him to act in breach of the child's constitutional rights. He berated the health board for its lack of planning. ``This case demonstrates how spectacularly badly the state had failed,'' he said. This was months after the same judge had injuncted the health board to provide high support unit places. But it wasn't done.

Meanwhile, a worker from St. Michael's, Anthony Keating, told the court how unsuitable the institution was for Billy, how he was absconding, riding in stolen cars. The health board told the judge there were 24 children waiting for a place in a High Support Unit, but there were only 12 places. The court returned Billy to St. Michael's ``with great reluctance'', for another month.

Then, at last, a place came available in a high support unit, Newtown House. Billy's parents were told it was a centre from which Billy would attend the Children At Risk Institute in Drumcondra for counselling, that his out of control behaviour would be addressed, that the unit would cater to all Billy's needs. His parents were ``over the moon.'' At last Billy would get treatment and the support he needed, which they couldn't provide.

But Billy didn't like Newtown. He found the `behaviour modification' regime there too authoritarian and couldn't adjust. Children had bed times of between 8.30pm and 10pm, depending on their level of behaviour, and all were called for showers and breakfast from 8.30am onwards before school started at 10am. Billy ended up being restrained three or four times a day, and locked in the timeout room again and again (an unfurnished room in which the children were locked to calm down if they became uncontrollable, checked every five minutes by staff).

He started absconding, running. He'd always be found. Usually he'd just come home. He couldn't bear it, being locked up. It brought it all back. Sometimes his parents just could not bear to bring him back to Newtown.

Because of his absconding, Billy more often than not took his schooling in the unit. Often, however, he'd not get taken to counselling. Either there weren't the trained staff to take him, or there was riot in the house, or maybe Billy would abscond again, and no one wanted to take responsibility. Easier to keep locking him up.

In despair, the parents went back to the High Court. They told the judge that the unit was not helping Billy or meeting his needs, that they were concerned about Billy's welfare. Pending a full hearing, Billy was released into the parents' care. It lasted ok for a while, but then Billy started off again, running. Judge Kelly sent him to St. Lawrence's, a unit run by the Department of Education, no lock ups, teachers and care staff, counselling available. But it was not a secure unit. For three months Billy seemed to settle down, then back out again messing with cars, bikes, drugs.

Billy's parents went to the Junior Minister for Health, Mary Hannifin. At first she could only tell them that the health boards were running a good system, thanks to the judgements in the High Court. But then, just before Kim O'Donovan died, the Minister offered to set up an investigation into Newtown. Their report is due shortly.

The Failures

The nightmare that Billy and his parents have lived through over the past seven years highlights deep fault lines in the state, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and the Gardaí. At the heart of it is a mindset - the mindset of punishment, incarceration, stick and carrot, or, in language of the experts, `behaviour modification'. It's the belief that behaviour can be forced into the straightjacket of conformity with the norms of society, by reward and punishment.

First there is the failure of the social services to give adequate support or therapy to a child who has been abused. But this failure is only the reflection of the fire brigade approach of social services. Numerous court cases where Health Board social workers have carried the blame for failing to protect children lead to a situation where their priority task is to watch their backs, to ensure that in ten years they will not have to stand in a court and explain why they did not remove a child from an abusive situation. Compounded by appalling overwork and shortage of resources, social workers continually fail to provide the support and help for which families are crying out.

Then there are the cracks in the system. One of the main complaints is that the Gardaí, as a matter of routine, did not take the issue of absconding children seriously and did not make an effort to search for them.

Over the last five years, there has been a succession of judgements in the High Court where it was recognised that the rights of children are continuously breached. All too regularly, there is nowhere suitable to send these disturbed kids except prison. Twice the High Court has injuncted the Department of Education and the Health Boards to provide the high support places needed. Recently, in desperation, the judiciary even threatened to make ministers carry the can and to hold ministers in contempt of court and personally liable for the failure of the executive to do what the legislature has instructed it to do.

It goes to the very heart of good government - the failure of the executive to implement what the legislature has instructed. There are endless examples - the rights of Travellers to accommodation, the rights of kids to education, the rights of people to a job, the right of people to health care, the right not to be discriminated against, the right of refugees to sanctuary. What may look good on paper may mean nothing in practice if the executive doesn't have the mindset to actively comply.

But at the end of the day, when the Health Boards do happen to provide High Support Units, what good will these be if they are like Newtown House, operating behaviour modification, where, at the end of the day, children are locked up to encourage them to behave better and to punish them for their misdemeanours.

Does the judiciary concern itself with that? Who, after all, is concerned with what happens within the secure unit? Who looks after these kids and ensures that their needs are met? Who stands in loco parentis?

If nobody does, then we are back to where we began, locking up the `antisocials' or the `illegitimates', who, through no fault of their own, are a nuisance, or an unwelcome encumbrance who we'd prefer to have out of sight.

There have been success stories of disturbed children who are cared for in intensive support units, by care workers who, under unbearable stress, persist and help to settle those children. At the end of the day, society dumps its prpoblems on the care workers, the social workers. These professionals have to give care at the coalface of mindless aggression and hate, irrationality and abuse, from youth who have known no justice and will recognise none.

Yet in our society, where government resists directing resources into the services that everybody needs, the lack of sufficient numbers of social workers, resources, and training for care workers, whose work is perhaps one of the hardest that can be taken on, could not be more evident.

In Ireland we lock our undesirables away, just as we did the illegitimates in yesteryear.

The mindset that thinks you must punish the `offender' (and the offended against) - the exceptions to the norm, the minority - and that way get them to conform, is what has to be changed. It is the lynchpin of the denial of human rights. It emanates from Hobbes' view that ``life is nasty, brutish and short''. By this measure, making it a bit nastier for some doesn't really matter. But it does.

The change required in the new Ireland is one that creates the conditions of equality to facilitate this change in mindset. Human rights? Human beings have human rights by virtue of being human beings, not by virtue of the fact that they are citizens, or have bits of paper, or were born in wedlock, or have supportive parents, or just happen to have been born here.

Billy could have been your son. His parents' nightmare could have been yours.

Over the last five years, there has been a succession of judgements in the High Court where it was recognised that the rights of children are continuously breached. All too regularly, there is nowhere suitable to send these disturbed kids except prison

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