Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 1 Mar 1990

Vol. 124 No. 4

Adjournment Matter. - Detention Centre for Dublin Girl.

At the outset I would like to say I want to share my time with my colleague, Senator Costello.

This motion has been inspired by the experiences of a 15-year old girl who has been before Dún Laoghaire court for quite some time, at this stage her case has been in the court ten times and she is due to appear for the 11th time at 2 o'clock today. Until the Minister for Justice, came into the Dáil last Tuesday there seemed to have been no response to the exhortations of Mr. Justice Wine in relation to the provision of a detention centre for this girl.

The background to this case is that since early January she has appeared in the courts ten times. At some stage in January the girl attempted to take her life. That event did not provoke any action. Mr. Justice Wine earlier this month spoke in stark terms. He said: "Time is ticking by. We cannot wait for a tragedy to occur and then say something should be done." On Thursday evening, after one of her more recent appearances, Justice Wine's warnings almost become a reality. The girl climbed on to the roof of a building in Dalkey, threatened to commit suicide and had to be talked down. That was achieved due, to a large extent, to the exceptional skill of the rescue services and, in particular, to Sergeant Keane from Dalkey Garda station who played a vital role in getting that girl off the roof. Even at that stage the girl's problems were not accepted as urgent. They have not been accepted as urgent since January despite the exhortations of Justice Wine, despite my colleague, Senator Costello, and I seeking to raise the issue in this House on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, despite our having resorted to emergency resolutions under Standing Order 29, and despite a considerable number of press statements.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

The Senator is now going into a particular case and I must warn him that that case is sub judice.

The problems of a secure detention centre have been kicked around for quite some time now. There has been a lot of apparent ministerial feuding, there has been a series of buck-passing episodes. In last Sunday's Sunday Tribune it was stated that all three Ministers refused to accept any responsibility for providing a secure detention centre — this is specific to the case I mentioned earlier.

The Minister for Justice stated that the problems being faced by people like the young girl I have already mentioned were matters for the medical services and not the Department of Justice. On Tuesday the Minister made a very welcome announcement when he said that a new detention centre will be provided to cater for the needs of approximately 20 to 25 young girls. The Minister further referred to the acquisition of the site and said the planning work would start immediately and that the building would be opened as soon as possible. Would the Minister clarify the details of the facilities which are proposed for the new centre? Will there be an assessment unit? Will it have a detention centre? Will it have a secure unit? Will all these facilities be provided in one location as seems to be the advice from various experts? When is it likely that these provisions will be made available?

The problems I am alluding to, the problems of detention, assessment and so on, for girls with behavioural disorders and who are in trouble with the law, have been kicked around for over 20 years. In 1973, the Kennedy report was published after a considerable amount of preliminary debate. Why has none of the advice in the Kennedy report regarding the treatment of girls with these severe behavioural disorders who appear before the courts been followed? Why has no meaningful action been taken over this 20 year period? Why was nothing done over the past two months despite the exhortations of Justice Wine that a secure detention centre and treatment unit should be provided to cater for the needs of people like this young girl, who is before the courts? Why did the Government allow the deadlock to continue until we had the Minister's intervention last Tuesday? Will the Minister give us a clear statement of when we can expect this new centre to be built? More importantly, when can we expect this new detention centre to be opened? We have to realise that because a detention centre is built it does not necessarily mean it will be opened. Other detention centres have been built and there was a prolonged waiting period before they were opened. I suggest that a year is long enough to get this centre built and opened. I would be very grateful if the Minister could give me an answer on that specific suggestion.

I have viewed the whole problem of detention facilities and therapeutic facilities for disturbed girls with increasing frustration over the past few weeks. I have, to a large extent, shared the same frustration as Mr. Justice Wine. Until last Thursday, all the exhortations of that justice, who has behaved with exceptional compassion in this whole affair, have been ignored. People spoke about tragedies but nobody seemed to care very much when Senator Costello and I sought to raise this issue in this House. I promise this House that as far as we are concerned we will continue to keep a watching brief in this area and we will certainly monitor what happens to this girl who is before the courts today and what happens to people in similar circumstances. We will monitor the building of the centre and when it will be opened.

I join my colleague, Senator Upton, in expressing my concern and the concern of the Labour Party about this episode that has been going on now for two months in the Dún Laoghaire District Court.

I ask the Senator not to go into the details of the case.

I have no intention of going into the details of the case. I am glad that at last the Cathaoirleach in his discretion has allowed us to discuss this matter which we have raised for a number of weeks. It is a very important issue, and it is very important that this House should have the opportunity to discuss it seeing that it is being debated at virtually every other forum throughout the country.

Firstly, I should like to pay tribute to District Justice Wine for highlighting the whole area of accommodation, and the lack of accommodation for young people particularly teenage girls. It is highly significant that the only choice facing the District Justice was to release the girl on to the streets or to send her to Mountjoy Prison. That was no choice. The district justice must be complimented. I hope other district justices take it to heart that, while we have a sentencing policy it does not provide alternatives that are useful and meaningful. They should stand up and say something must be done by the relevant Ministers. This district justice has done that and brought this case to our attention.

The Minister's response has been a very sad, unedifying spectacle of buck-passing between the three Ministers with responsibility — the Minister for Education, the Minister for Health and the Minister for Justice. Over the last few weeks these three Ministers have put it on record that they did not consider this particular case their responsibility, but instead of getting together and saying that the care of the child was the priority issue, as any good Ministers should it was a case of two men and a woman engaging in very undesirable buck-passing when a child's welfare — particularly a child who is seriously at risk — is at stake.

The further response from the Minister for Justice was of that a centre in Lusk has to be looked at very carefully. We have at present an interdepartmental committee in operation which has as its mandate the drawing up of a set of proposals to deal with young girls at risk with certain disorders coming before the courts. We still have not got that report. Already renovation work has begun in Lusk which is in the Minister for Justice's constituency, to provide a detention assessment centre. The local people are up in arms about the establishment of that centre. Apparently now that decision has been rescinded and the renovation work has stopped. As I understand, in architectural terms, the accommodation would be more of a prison than residential centre. It had prison style doors, spyholes and all the other accoutrements suitable for a secure detention centre but would not be suitable for young girls at risk.

I would like the Minister to clarify the Finglas proposal. Not a brick has been laid upon a brick. It seems that this proposal was drawn out of the air because the Lusk proposal has gone down the tubes, for political reasons, not that it was a desirable proposal in the first place. Now he is kicking to touch, hoping that the present storm blows over because he has put forward something that looks like a solution. It is only a solution to the present embarrassment of the Government but it is not a resolution to the problems facing children at risk. Can the Minister tell us what will be the nature of this new structure? Will it be a three in one centre where assessment and remand will take place, where there will be residential long-term care, and secure detention? If it is and if those three categories of girls are dumped in one single unit, then it is a recipe for disaster. It will compound the problem. The remand and assessment centre in Cuan Mhuire at present is a home. That is the way it operates for girls who are there for a three week period, where they get a family-type atmosphere in a suburban house. If we replace that with what the Department of Justice regard as a detention centre where the emphasis will be on security, that will be a disaster.

We have been looking for a long time for adequate facilities for adolescent people in trouble before the law and, as my colleague, Senator Upton, remarked, we had the Kennedy report in 1970 and nothing was done with that. A further task force was established and in 1974 an interim report was produced. Nothing was done about that. In 1980 we had the full report of the task force. What has been done about that? Nothing. There is still no residential or therapeutic facilities for young girls coming before the courts. That has been the case since the 1989 Children Act was introduced. That Act is before the Dáil and there is no sign of it being dealt with and passed.

We have a very serious matter here, highlighted by one particular episode which, thankfully, the district justice has had the courage to take a strong stand on, but it relates to so many other areas of child care. I am worried that the Minister has in mind a type of secure detention that would give rise to another mini-Loughan House affair, where the emphasis goes on security. This house was opened in 1978 to deal, to a degree, with specific similar problems for boys between the ages of 12 and 16 and it had to be closed down in 1983 because it was a total disaster.

We have got from the Minister a proposal to end a particular political embarrassment. I want that proposal teased out so that we know precisely what is entailed in it. We heard on "Morning Ireland" professional childcare workers rejecting that proposal because they felt that childcare could not be dealt with in the manner in which the Minister seemed to be making his proposal. I would like to reiterate what Senator Upton said, that the Labour Party group in the Seanad and the Labour Party in the Dáil, will be constantly raising this issue until there is a proper, meaningful resolution of the matter.

The institutions for young offenders operated by the Department of Justice cater for male young offenders aged 16 years and over the female offenders aged 17 years and over. In addition, young offenders aged 15 and 16 may be committed to prison in accordance with the provisions of Sections 97 and 102 of the Children Act, 1908.

While it would not be appropriate for me to go into details on the circumstances of an individual case, it is, I feel, understandable, in view of concerns which have been widely expressed, that Senators would expect that I should comment generally on the subject of detention facilities for young girls coming before the courts, where the court considers that a girl should be securely detained, though not in prison.

Many of the comments reportedly made on the subject in recent days have focused the issue that no secure unit is available for young girls similar to that provided by the Department of Education for young boys at Trinity House. The lack of this facility was considered by the interdepartmental group on the administration of justice and their report, which I expect will be submitted to Government in the coming week, makes a recommendation that such a facility should be made available as soon as possible.

I can announce here and now that the Government, in advance of consideration of the full report, have given approval for the provision, as a matter of urgency, of a special centre for 20 to 25 girls which will, (a) take up to eight girls for remand and assessment; (b) provide long-stay accommodation for 12 girls, and (c) contain a small number of places (not more than five) for secure use if, and, as needed.

Acquisition of the necessary site and planning work will commence immediately and building will be put in hand at the earliest possible date.

The point may, of course, be made that this issue has been around for some time and has been the subject of detailed consideration by various groups in the past. That is certainly true. However, I am not sure that it would be in any way helpful, now, if I were to proceed to outline what has been said by these groups on the subject of departmental responsibility. I consider it best that I simply acknowledge that the matter of departmental responsibility clearly must be settled once and for all and that this should be done without delay. The process of doing so is well under way.

It is only fair, however, that I should point out that where difference of opinion exists on the subject of departmental responsibility, these differences are not, as some have suggested, simply a matter of buck-passing. There are genuine differences of opinion among the many professional, administrative, social and care agencies who have responsibility in this area as to whether provision for children who find themselves in difficulty with the law should be made within an educational, health, or law and order setting, nor is it simply a matter of interpreting existing legal provisions on the subject.

These provisions are not exactly clearcut and different interpretations are possible. In my view, the core issue is what type of setting best meets the needs of the difficult child in each particular set of circumstances and the understandable concerns of the community in general about such children. Facilities are necessary to cater for a wide variety of different cases and, as I have said, steps have now been taken to fill a very long existing deficiency in the system.

With regard to the need for interim arrangements to deal with the particular case which has been the subject of publicity, the position is that the resolution of that case is now a matter for the court and the assessment as to what interim arrangements will provide a basis for its satisfactory resolution is obviously a matter for the court. Discussions are taking place between officials of the Departments of Justice, Health and Education as to what options may be open and the intention is that the health board representatives will advise the court, without delay, as to what arrangements are possible.

Can the Minister give us any indication of the timescale regarding the provision of the facilities he has announced, other than using phrases such as, "urgent" and so on, which are vague?

As I stated, the intention is to proceed immediately with the planning of this facility. It is the Government's intention that there is no delay in the actual construction work. They accept that the provision of this facility is a matter of urgency which will be given a top priority.

Will it be a matter of months or years?

It is impossible to say at this stage. Certainly it will not be years.

The Seanad adjourned at 2 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 7 March 1990.