I thank the Chair and all the members of the committee for the opportunity to be here to discuss the recent Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, report following the 27 March inspection of the Oberstown Children's Detention Campus.
I am aware that the committee has had the opportunity to hear from Mr. Pat Bergin, director and Professor Ursula Kilkelly, chair of the board of management at Oberstown, as well as representatives from HIQA in November 2017 on these matters. I welcome an opportunity to update the committee on the progress on some of the issues identified. The Chairman has already welcomed my officials.
On the reviews that have taken place, I think the committee is aware that in recent months there have been many positive changes in Oberstown. These changes are continuing to address the challenges at the campus. In 2016, the Oberstown board of management commissioned independent reviews in a number of key areas of operations, security, health and safety and behaviour management. In addition, examination of all of the policies in Oberstown, including care, safeguarding and professional standards on the campus, has also taken place.
There were a number of objectives for these reviews, and a key objective was that optimum care continues to be given to children residing in Oberstown following the changes that have taken place in the past 12 to 18 months. Essential to this is ensuring the people working in Oberstown are supported through good organisation, training and development. The recommendations of these reviews, as well as the action plan developed by Oberstown following the HIQA report, will point the way forward in ensuring the highest standards of care for these young people are being sought to be implemented.
To ensure the implementation of each of the recommendations in the various reviews, as appropriate, I established a review implementation group in March 2017. This implementation group was tasked with analysing the recommendations of the operational review, the security review, the behavioural management review and the two health and safety reviews. I am pleased to confirm to the committee I have received the final report of the review implementation group, and I express my thanks to the group. Having studied the report, I am confident there is evidence that positive change is taking place and that further change is planned for the campus. The report highlighted the work that has already taken place in implementing the recommendations and the timeframe for work on outstanding recommendations.
The full implementation of the recommendations must be viewed as a long-term strategy for the campus, while some of the recommendations are more immediate. Implementation of the recommendations of each review is under way on campus. It is led by the board of management, in collaboration with management, staff and the Irish Youth Justice Service of the Department. One of the best ways of knowing whether things have changed is by hearing from the young people themselves. With regard to their participation, I am pleased to say I received a letter from the young people in Oberstown inviting me to visit to tell me about their accomplishments while in Oberstown. I plan to visit very soon. I would have visited earlier except I have not been well, but I am back in action and I am very interested to hear what they have to say. I am pleased they invited me.
The Department is consulting young people in Oberstown, through the participation hub in the Department, on revised national standards that set out the rules that govern Oberstown and how it is run. The hub supports implementation of the strategy through the provision of information, training and advice for Departments and agencies and the non-statutory sector. The consultation in this regard with the young people in Oberstown is nearing completion and has involved intensive engagement since November 2017. The purpose of the process is to ensure the Department's new national standards will reflect the views of the young people. A child friendly version of the standards will also be published.
In December 2017, which is not that long ago, I was delighted to launch Oberstown Children Detention Campus's strategic plan for 2017 to 2020. I welcome the commitment of the board of management, stated in the Oberstown strategy, to working with me and the Department as we progress the common goal in the youth justice sector of supporting children to move away from offending behaviour and towards making a more positive contribution to society.
The committee is aware that Oberstown has gone through considerable change in recent years, with the amalgamation of the three detention schools into one campus, the development of new buildings, staffing issues and a number of serious incidents at the campus. Oberstown is now a more stable environment than it was at the time of the serious incident in 2016. The issues relating to the buildings are mainly resolved and staff are now deployed throughout the new units. In addition, as far as practicable and in accordance with international best practice, young people on remand are kept separate from those young people convicted and serving a sentence.
Other developments relating to the campus include an increased focus on, and awareness of, health and safety and greater focus on ensuring the safe and secure care and work environment for the children and staff. The assessment consultation and therapy service, ACTS, is a specialist service provided by Tusla. It provides on-site multidisciplinary therapeutic services for the children in Oberstown. ACTS has been reviewed by Tusla. It is an opportunity to develop further the service in Oberstown, including the incorporation of HSE mental health services. A communication plan has been adopted and launched by the board of management to improve internal and external communications among staff, young people, their families and all stakeholders.
As the committee is aware, the HIQA inspection in March 2017 identified areas that required improvement. An action plan to address these areas was agreed between HIQA and Oberstown. I understand work in this regard is progressing in line with the timetable agreed in the action plan. It is important to point out the HIQA report also identified a number of positive improvements at the campus. The inspectors observed kind, warm and appropriate interaction between staff and children in what was generally a relaxed atmosphere in the units and during activities. For me as Minister this is really important. It also highlighted that the overall provision of health care had improved, with dental and psychiatric services now being provided on campus. It also observed the availability of nursing services has increased, while other important changes in the management structures were noted. As I mentioned, I very much welcome the comprehensive action plan to address the areas identified by HIQA that require improvement. I will keep the implementation plan under review.
With regard to restrictive practices, issues were raised by HIQA in its most recent report on restrictive practices, which include, as the committee is well aware, single separation and the use of physical restraint and handcuffs. It is the Department's policy that the use of any restrictive practice should be a measure of last resort and part of a continuum of planned interventions. The decision to separate a young person must, at all times, be a proportionate response to the risk posed by the young person. A review of the restrictive practices, including the separation policies for Oberstown, took place earlier this year and a revised single separation policy was approved by the board in April 2017. I am assured by Oberstown management that a process to ensure greater monitoring of single separation has been put in place. An improved system of record keeping on the use of such practices, the extension of single separation and the types of restraint used have been informed further by the audit review.
It is, of course, widely accepted that supporting and training staff in behaviour management and the concerns raised on the use of separation and restraint cannot be addressed in isolation. Meeting the complex mental health needs of the children in detention and supporting staff to develop therapeutic relationships with children is an essential component of addressing the current difficulties in addressing the use of restrictive practices.
The committee is aware of the recent High Court judgment relating to single separation in Oberstown. It was found the constitutional rights of the applicants were breached in so far and for so long as they were deprived of daily exercise and any contact with their families during the period of separation, and by the failure to provide the applicants with some form of opportunity to make representations. It was also found there was a lack of procedural safeguards relating to separation, in particular the formal written recording of decisions was found to be unconstitutional.
For the sake of accuracy I confirm it was not found that the duration of the separation was unconstitutional or that the conditions of detention during separation in their totality amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. Importantly, it was noted in the judgment that while the response "may have gone too far in certain respects, and failed to observe procedural safeguards, the overall context was one of trying to make safe an institution which had just been through a major upheaval".
I know that there has been a lot of learning in Oberstown from this incident.
I wish to comment on the bail supervision scheme and take this opportunity to inform the committee of other measures that will impact on the detention of young people. I was happy to launch the bail supervision scheme on 12 June 2017 on a pilot basis. The programme provides the Dublin Children's Court with the option during remand proceedings to grant bail to a child rather than detaining the child. The option offered to the court would be to release the child on bail with conditions set by the court. This would involve intensive supports being provided to the child and his or her family. The pilot is for an initial two-year period, during which a review and evaluation will be conducted to determine the future path of the scheme with the intention of its being rolled out nationally. The approach is in keeping with the principle that the detention of a child should only be imposed as a last resort. A proposal for an extension of the scheme is currently being examined by my Department.
Since 31 March of last year no new children have been detained in adult prisons. Signing that order was one of the most important highlights for me as Minister so far. Since then, all 17 year old boys referred by the courts are detained in Oberstown and now finally the policy to end children being detained in adult facilities, which I have attended, has been achieved. The policy has had long-standing support in the Oireachtas and among organisations and people who actively promote the rights and welfare of children.
The key to achieving the policy goal of ending children being detained in adult facilities was the completion of the capital development project at Oberstown and the subsequent amalgamation of the three children detention schools in June 2016. While these changes have brought great advantages, they have also inevitably brought many challenges. The key to overcoming these challenges and maintaining good progress has been the dedication and co-operation of the key stakeholders, in particular, the children, staff, management and the board of Oberstown, who are supported by my Department and in particular by the Irish Youth Justice Service.
It should also be kept in mind that our paramount objective in our work is the safety and well-being of the children, while they spend their time in Oberstown, as well as that of staff and people living in the local community.
I wish to underline my commitment to the further development of the youth justice system in Ireland. I wish to acknowledge the dedication of the staff and management. I commend them, the director and the board on their work in addressing the daily challenges. I thank those responsible in HIQA – I meet them as well - for the valuable work they undertake in highlighting issues that, in turn, allow us to achieve higher standards of care for young people.
The key to all of this is co-operation among all those involved. My Department and I are fully supportive of working with all parties for the smooth operation of Oberstown. I am happy to take questions from the committee.