Adjournment Debate. - Detention Centres.

I thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me to raise this important matter on the Adjournment and I thank the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Hanafin, for coming into the House to respond to the debate.

While there are 185 places in children's detention centres funded and supervised by the Department of Education and Science and a further 63 places for disturbed children funded by the health boards, the residential services for disturbed and delinquent juveniles are totally inadequate. It is a regular occurrence that judges castigate the Government for failing in its responsibility to these children.

I recently became acquainted with such a case, a truly sad and disturbing case, where a 14 year old boy, his parents and family are getting shoddy treatment from the organs of the State. This 14 year old boy has had a troubled few years. He became unmanageable at school and because of his delinquent behaviour he could not continue at that school. He became aggressive and unmanageable at home also. The health board was asked for help and support but unfortunately it was slow to respond and its efforts to provide real support were minimal.

On the advice of the health board the parents reluctantly initiated criminal charges against their son. The District Court sentenced the boy to two years at Oberstown detention centre. Following a period of assessment at St. Michael's, the boy again appeared in court and, as is now a regular occurrence, no place could be found for him in Oberstown. For the past few weeks this boy has made weekly appearances in District Courts in the midlands, always accompanied by three gardaí, his parents, their solicitor and his own solicitor. He must take the day out to make the long journey down to the midlands. Despite the stated threat from the District Court judge that he will send this child to Mountjoy Prison, no place has been provided in Oberstown, to which he was originally sentenced.

On his most recent trip to the District Court, he was locked up in a cell in the local Garda station in that midlands town. Let us not forget that we are talking about a 14 year old disturbed boy. His cell mates were, first, a middle-aged man who claimed to be in the IRA and told very colourful stories about his shooting and robbing escapades around the country. His second cell mate, a younger man, boasted of his skills as an armed robber. That child was left with these companions in that cell for up to two hours.

This incident, and this boy's case, give rise to a number of questions. First, who agreed that this was a suitable holding arrangement for this boy on the day of his court appearance in that town? Second, what efforts were made to find more suitable arrangements? Third, is it acceptable that such a vulnerable young person should be dragged up and down the country one day each week, with the obvious neglect of therapy, counselling and schooling? Fourth, did his assessment indicate that there would be a suitable detention centre in the UK catering specially for the needs of children such as this boy? Fifth, is the Minister in a position to confirm that the boy was not sent to this centre in the UK because the health board refused to pay the requisite fee of £40,000 per annum? Sixth, is it reasonable that this disturbed adolescent from a rural setting should be detained in Oberstown – whose inmates, on release, have a re-offending record of more than 80% – with juvenile criminals, many of whom are very experienced, at an annual cost to the State in excess of £80,000? Seventh, why did the health board not intervene earlier?

The boy in question comes from a decent family which is highly respected in its locality. His parents want the best for their child and they want him to receive the treatment to which he is entitled and which he deserves in order that he can be reintegrated into the local community. The State has failed this boy and his family. Despite the benefits of the Celtic tiger, he will be labelled a criminal rather than receive the therapy which would possibly enable him to play a responsible role in society.

I thank Deputy McGrath for raising this important matter. I am aware of the case to which he referred, his concerns and the fact that he has been in regular contact with the officials in the Department in the interests of the child in question. The Deputy referred to the fact that early intervention might have helped this child which is the ethos behind the Children Bill, 1999, which passed Second Stage today and which will set out a blueprint for a new and modem juvenile justice system.

A fundamental principle set out in the Bill is the proposition that the imposition of custodial sentences on children should be a matter of last resort. In support of this principle, the Bill contains a comprehensive range of diversionary measures and non-custodial options which will be available to cater for children who come into conflict with the law or who are out of control and have special residential care needs. The key objective of the Bill is to ensure that children will receive the support they require before matters deteriorate to the point where the imposition of a custodial sentence is the only viable alternative. It is particularly sad, as Deputy McGrath indi cated, that a parent should feel the need to press criminal charges against his child. One of the specific aims of the Bill is to ensure that the judicial process cannot be used as a means to obtain care for a child.

Under the Children Bill, responsibility for accommodating all young offenders who have been convicted and sentenced to detention, will be a matter for the young offender centres operated by the Department of Education and Science. However, the objective will be that only children for whom the imposition of a custodial sentence is required as a last resort will be referred to these custodial facilities.

There are five custodial facilities operated by the Department of Education and Science, four of which cater for young male offenders while one caters for young female offenders. Children would be under 16 years of age at the time of committal to these facilities and can be sentenced to detention for periods from two to four years. The centres also include a remand and assessment facility to which children can be referred for periods of up to three weeks .

From time to time, difficulties can arise with accommodating an individual child in a particular young offender facility on the day that the initial placement is sought. I am aware that this was the case in relation to the young boy to whom Deputy McGrath referred. On the day of his committal, Oberstown was under particular pressure and places were not available. However, it is generally the case that such children are either subsequently placed in the nominated facility or in an alternative custodial facility. In the case in question, I understand the child is doing well in his current location.

With regard to Deputy McGrath's comment about children being sent to England, it is desirable that children should be kept within the care of the State but, more importantly, they should be held in a location where their families can visit and support them. Children should be given the type of care which will enable them to be reintegrated into their families and society.

Under the Children Bill, the young offender centres will be required to cater for children sentenced to detention who have serious behavioural problems and would previously have been deemed to be unruly or depraved. Up to now, the centres have been entitled to make application to the courts to have such children transferred to the adult prison system. Under the Bill, however, the young offenders centres will be required to cater for children with serious psychiatric or other difficulties. To date, the centres have not been equipped to cater for the special therapeutic needs of such children. However, individual plans for the development and education of children will help to ensure that they are reintegrated into society.

The Department of Education and Science has embarked on a major five year development plan which includes proposals for the refurbishment of existing facilities and the development of additional capacity. It also envisages the development of a high security unit for seriously disturbed offenders, the development of a pre-release unit for children nearing the end of their sentences and the development of additional places for young offenders. Overall, the plan envisages the development of up to 30 additional places for young offenders.

It is unfortunately the case that the need for custodial facilities to accommodate some children will continue to exist but the objective of the Children Bill is to deflect as many children as possible away from the courts and custodial sentences by making alternative support services available. A key issue here is the need to ensure the availability of suitable residential and day care facilities which can deliver the sort of educational and care services which children at risk require and which are delivered in the sort of disciplined environment which can be necessary in such cases.

Significant progress has been made in this area and the health boards are in the process of providing 110 additional places in high support and special care units. The Department of Education and Science is also making education services available in all such facilities. These will make a major contribution to ensuring that children who are at risk and encounter serious difficulties receive the interventions they require without the necessity for their incarceration in a young offender facility. The special residential services board which I recently established will play a vital role in ensuring the effective and co-ordinated delivery of services for children at risk, both in terms of services provided for such children by the Department of Education and Science and the high support and special care units.

I am satisfied these developments facilitate the additional provision which is needed and services will be more co-ordinated in the future. I am confident that, by virtue of the Children Bill and the policy of early intervention and early support for children and their families, we can avoid having children coming into the care of the State. Where they do, however, they will receive the best care possible.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.27 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 13 April 2000.