A flying visit to Ireland’s Secure Care Centres

CYCJ’s secure care lead Ruby Whitelaw recently visited two of Ireland’s secure care centres. Here’s what she learnt about the similarities and differences – and what both countries can learn from each other in providing a trauma-informed environment

Following the innovative presentation by Professor Ursula Kilkelly at CYCJ’s National Youth Justice Conference in June, I had the pleasure of visiting two services in Dublin this September – the Oberstown Children’s Detention Campus in Lusk and the Crannog Nua Special Care Unit in Portane, which house Ireland’s children who have been detained on either justice or welfare grounds.

Having worked in residential and secure care services in Scotland for more than two decades, I was keen to see what, if anything, we could learn from our colleagues across the water. The following narrative shares observations from my trip which must be seen in the context of what was a flying visit – I spent just over three hours within Oberstown and under two within Crannog Nua. Nevertheless, these observations provide some insight into what Ireland has to offer.

The external buildings of all secure care centres could be viewed as stark and imposing; there is a sense of the need for security due to the perimeter fencing reaching high into the skyline. Within Scotland there is a secure care feel about this that is difficult to articulate if you haven’t seen it, whereas within Ireland the style of the campus or centre feels slightly more formal and akin to a Scottish YOI without the harshness of branding.

This in part may result from the use of steel external and internal doors in all but the bedrooms which gives the environment the air of a prison, However, while the steel doors are imposing, the use of keys to open and shut them promotes a quieter ambience that cannot be experienced with an electronic fob system where bleeps and slams can be heard. For children with sensory needs, noise can be overwhelming, so any reduction to this is welcomed.

Oberstown has more than 50 acres of land which is well maintained and inhabited by rabbits and hares promoting a sense of calm and nature that is reassuring. Crannog Nua is located at the bottom of a hill leading to the state hospital which is urban but surrounded by greenery. Both facilities in Ireland are state run and offer placements for either children placed through the district or circuit court on remand or detention orders, these children are housed in Oberstown. Children who could be described as in need of care and protection are placed within Crannog Nua. Neither placement mixes welfare and justice needs, although there is inherent crossover.

As national facilities they do not have the capacity to reject a referral, although Crannog Nua advised that they have referred on to services outwith Ireland. The history of the origins of both establishments were rooted in the 1990s where Ireland’s legislative change led to a different approach to children. While this is not akin to Scotland’s Kilbrandon approach, more recently cultural shifts have been reflected in a trauma-informed approach to care and both sites have an integrated specialist interventions service designed to take a holistic approach to the health and wellbeing of the children within their care. Unfortunately, due to time constraints I did not have an opportunity to meet with any of these practitioners, perhaps reason for a follow up visit. Oberstown also have an onsite medical team with Inreach provided by a GP, dentist, and other health professionals.

One thing I was most impressed with in Crannoch Nua was their ‘safe room’. This is to the off side of the garage, where children may be admitted to the service, although it was stressed that for some time admissions have been risk assessed and children enter via the front door in the majority of cases. The safe room consists of a large room with an ensuite shower and bathroom. Like other bedroom areas, including Oberstown, the TV was housed behind a Perspex glass, negating the need for replacement – this did not feel institutional to me, although this room did not have any other materials therein. Adjoining the safe room was a lounge area where staff could support the child by either engaging with them away from other children or monitoring them if there was a need to do so – I was advised that this room was used when risks were elevated. This safe room can support a child receiving additional support without it impacting on the rest of the group. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet with any of the children in Crannoch Nua so I was not able to ascertain how this was experienced for them.

Both services were running under capacity and while many services after the Covid-19 pandemic have experienced staff shortages, this has not been the experience of Oberstown. Staff qualifications are set at a minimum of a social care degree as well as practical experience so that they are equipped with the necessary skills and experience to meet children’s needs. Unlike residential care staff in Scotland who are registered with the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC), this process is not currently in place within Ireland for secure care staff.

The services appeared to have a high staffing ratio and when this was discussed, Oberstown stated that an amalgamation of services and stakeholder engagement informed their staffing complement within the new campus initiative.

Oberstown have a clear vision and development plan and they have a different focus from the other service. Their vision is ‘to provide young people with the highest standards of rights-based, child-centred care that meets their needs and enables them to maximise their potential’ . They have an impressive education facility which promotes a wide range of opportunities for children to learn academic, vocational and practical skills. Crannog Nua also promotes care and education, but the focus is on risk reduction so that children can move on to a less restrictive placement. The duration children lived within the respective settings also varied considerably with the average time spent in Crannog Nua three months, while in 2021 the average stay for children in Oberstown was 364 days.

Risk management strategies differed across sites, with Oberstown using a programme delivered through the Crisis Prevention Institute, known as Management of Actual and Potential Aggression (this has recently been re-branded as CPI Verbal Intervention and CPI Safety Intervention) and Crannog Nua used Therapeutic Crisis Intervention, neither are pain compliant or control based. Both Directors of services spoke about links that have been developed with Secure Care Centres in Scotland as partnerships are seen as a way to help develop and enhance services, through learning from each other’s practice.

As Oberstown is part of the wider justice system, the Director has the capacity to facilitate early release and he advised that this can be effective in promoting engagement and buy in. I met three children during my visit there and the two children I conversed with spoke very positively about their experience.

I was struck by the significant contrast within Oberstown between the administrative and education provision and the ‘unit’ where children lived. A lot of thought had gone into surroundings; whether this was murals in family rooms, art work in the education building or thoughtful observation windows in corridors. Within the unit large comfortable sofas and a TV dominated the space. While this environment was softer in Crannog Nua, staff advised that children preferred to spend time in their own living space.

It is encouraging to know that links have already been made between Ireland and Scotland as I have been impressed with what I have seen in both countries and feel that they could learn from each other. It was also encouraging to know that while Oberstown have received very positive inspection feedback on their progress, they recognise that there are things that can be done to improve the service. I look forward to seeing how things progress in the future.

About our blogger

Dr Ruby Whitelaw is a Practice Development Advisor and Secure Lead at CYCJ. Read more.

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