I wish the members a good morning. I am very pleased to be here to present my credentials to the Oireachtas in respect of my appointment to chair the board of management of Obsertown children detention campus. Obsertown is the national detention facility for children and is based in north county Dublin. Currently, it accommodates 48 young people in six eight-bed units. It has been through a very process of significant change in the last number of years, a huge part of which has been the amalgamation of three schools - Trinity House, Obserstown Boys' school and Obsertown Girls' school - and a substantial new building which has been part of that whole process.
As a professor at the School of Law in UCC, I have spent more than 20 years researching children's rights and youth justice. I am a multiple-published author and have undertaken research projects at national and international levels, with a range of bodies in a range of contexts. I have sought throughout my work to advocate for improved treatment of children in the justice system and the protection of their rights. I teach juvenile justice on the LLM programme and have done for more than 15 years. In January, I was appointed co-editor with Professor Lesley McAra of Edinburgh University School of Law of Youth Justice, an international journal. This experience and expertise gives me important knowledge of both theoretical and practical concerns related to the detention of children. My current roles as dean of the School of Law and head of the College of Business and Law at UCC mean that my experience of good management and governance can also be brought to bear on the role of chairperson of Oberstown.
Ireland's international obligations, notably those in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, make clear that detention must be a measure of last resort. It is significant that our legislation, the Children Acts 2001 to 2015, contains this principle too. The principle of detention as a last resort reflects the fact that children do not belong in detention but it also responds to the reality that for some children, sadly, a range of circumstances often beyond their control bring them to this point. Oberstown has responsibility for young people referred by the criminal courts either on remand or following sentence. As such, it is a penal institution, albeit one that seeks to implement an ethos focused on the care, health and education of the young people placed there. Where detention is unavoidable, international standards require that every effort must be made to make detention count for children, to address their educational disadvantage, improve their health and well-being and repair the damage to their relationships with family and community. Systems, policies and procedures must be in place to ensure that detention is a safe place for young people and that independent and rigorous monitoring, supervision and complaints mechanisms operate to protect the rights of children in detention and to hold the detention system accountable on behalf of society for the care of children there. It is my ambition that these international standards will have real meaning for every young person detained in Oberstown and that the campus will, in time, become an international centre of excellence from a children's rights perspective.
I have been on the board of Oberstown Children Detention School for almost four years, having taken over as interim chair last year when my predecessor, Joe Horan, stepped down. I pay sincere and warm tribute to Joe for the extraordinary leadership he provided during a very difficult time in Oberstown's development. I also thank all of my fellow board members, some of whom are stepping down after a decade of service, for the depth of their contribution. It is undeniable that Oberstown has challenges. The young people there have been failed multiple times before they reach our doors and the fact that their placement is a last resort means that they have both been challenged and challenged others along the way. In response, we have to do everything possible to ensure that while they are with us, young people enjoy a right to safety, health care and education, are supported to accept responsibility for their behaviour, are heard and are respected. We want young people to leave us better equipped to lead meaningful, constructive lives into the future.
Now that the major work associated with the capital project is complete and the process of amalgamating the schools is entering its final phase, we need to shift the emphasis to the business of making Oberstown the best place it can be. As incoming chair, I have the following priorities. The first relates to staffing. Oberstown needs to have resources at its disposal to ensure that suitable qualified and experienced staff are available to provide excellent care to the young people detained there. There are currently 242 staff employed on campus who have played and extraordinary role through their commitment and hard work, especially during a difficult time of change as we moved to a single campus model. However, we need more staff to ensure that young people have excellent care in Oberstown. In this regard, a recruitment process is under way. We also need more staff to ensure that the three additional units on the Obsertown campus can open. That will enable the final aspect of the transfer of 17 year olds from the prison system to be complete. As somebody who has been highly critical of the failure to end the detention of children in adult prison, I am pleased to see this finally becoming a national priority. At Oberstown, we are playing our part there. We are investing significantly in the management of Obsertown, which is a national detention facility on which very significant demands are placed. We are recruiting unit managers and a new head of operations at deputy director level. A monumental shift has been a significant investment in human resources, IT infrastructure and bringing in health and safety expertise. Staffing is crucial and the professionalisation of the campus through its management structures is also really important.
The second thing we have to do is ensure that our model of care, defined by care, education, health care, work on offending behaviour and preparation for discharge, is available to every child in Oberstown. A key part of this is training and ensuring that all staff are systematically and routinely trained on all aspects of care and the management and organisation of services in Oberstown. A single state-of-the-art school is now up and running on campus providing excellent education to all of the children. That needs to be a flexible service to reflect the particular circumstances of children.
Health care is also a key priority in terms of ensuring that general health needs are addressed but also to provide the particular supports people need around mental health difficulties and addiction issues. We are particularly pleased to see the assessment consultation therapy service, ACTS, working very well on campus. While it is problematic that psychiatry is not part of that service, we have taken active measures to ensure that a psychiatric service will be in place at Oberstown in the very near future. This will be a very significant development for Obsertown and one we look forward to seeing come to fruition.
No matter how excellent the care of children at Oberstown, it will not prevent the harm the justice system does to them. Oberstown is just one part, or cog in the wheel of, the criminal justice system and we need our youth justice partners to play their part too. We must all work to intervene early to meet children's needs and to divert them away from the criminal justice system and detention. It is particularly acute for us in relation to the detention of children on remand, which has increased over the last year or so to a rate of 50%, which is an unsustainable level. It creates huge challenges for the operation of the facility. We need actively to explore ways to respond to the high numbers detained on remand and cannot do that alone. We will be looking to do it with our partners and are committed to making that our priority. It is also true that when diversion is working well and the system is functioning effectively, the number of children in detention should fall. Strange as it might seem, we are keen to see smaller numbers of young people being sent to Oberstown, even if those sent there will, inevitably be older, more serious offenders. Investment in a bigger, modern detention facility must lead to improved quality of care and outcomes for young people, not to an increase in the numbers of children in detention. That is what is demanded by our commitment to the principle of detention as a last resort.
My final point relates to the need for Oberstown to have robust governance and management structures. The board needs strong, independent and professional people who can hold the management to account and to ensure that the best policies and procedures are in place across all areas of the campus.
That will enable staff to do their job of caring for young people but also ensure that we have visibility over the operation of those policies and procedures at board level.
The board at Oberstown is a unique entity. It has a mix of voices and perspectives and works very well in what is a very interesting model. During my time on the board, I have felt the absence of two voices, first, the voices of young people and, second, the voices of their families. Once the board is established, I will be taking steps to put in place appropriate structures so that we can remedy those issues.
Looking forward to the new board, as the members will be aware, there are seven statutory positions that are in the process of being filled from Tusla, the Department of Education and Skills and so on, and a further five members will be appointed through the Public Appointments Service, PAS, system. The closing date for expressions of interest is tomorrow. An independent panel convened by the PAS, in which I am involved, will meet then to propose the names to go forward from that process. We are very much looking forward to a new era in the governance and management of Oberstown that will start in the next month or so.
As a public servant, I do not receive board fees. None of the previous board members did, and I have the same expectation of the new board members. I will be taking considerable steps to ensure that the new board membership is oriented to the objectives and goals of Oberstown but also to develop the capacity of the board to provide the highest possible standards of professional governance and oversight to the institution.
Oberstown is a national facility and everybody here, and those in the civil society sector and statutory bodies and organisations, are looking to us to hold the facility to account for the care of young people. I look forward to working with everybody, including the staff of Oberstown, to achieve the goals I have set out today and to make Oberstown a rights based centre of excellence for the care of children in detention. I am very happy to be here and I look forward to the members' questions.