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'Difficult days in youth detention facilities are a fact of life'

However, Pat Bergin told TheJournal.ie that the system is more capable of handling those bad days now.

Image: Iain White/Fennell Photography

DIFFICULT DAYS ARE part and parcel of youth detention, the director of Oberstown Youth Campus, says.

However, Pat Bergin told TheJournal.ie that the system is more capable of handling those bad days now.

Oberstown this month launched its three-year strategy for 2018-2020, outlining five priority areas including providing the best possible care for children, developments to IT and HR structures and enhanced communications of the campus’s mission.

It’s 18 months since the campus opened last year, after years of delays. Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said at the time it represents a “sea-change” in how young people are dealt with in the criminal justice system.

The closure of St Patrick’s Institution came in 2015, two years after it had been announced. A 2012 report by Judge Michael Reilly found a series of unacceptable acts took place at the institution, including: excessive and unrecorded use of force by staff against prisoners; forced stripping of clothes from the prisoners; excessive punishment, including denying children family visits; and bullying and intimidation of young and vulnerable inmates by certain members of staff.

Bergin has overseen the changeover, but says there is still a lot to do. While touting the achievements in the sector, he points out that

We’ve come very far in one sense. The three schools (Trinity House, Oberstown Boys’ School and Oberstown Girls’ School) have merged, we can now take all young people up to 18 years of age. They were significant.

“But what we’ve also done is looked at how we can support children and families in the community. We have youth advocacy workers in the community working with children.

“What we’ve found, even after all these difficulties, is a clear direction for everybody.”

Difficulties

Those difficulties have come thick and fast at times.

Staff went on strike over safety concerns, a fire necessitated the callout of five Dublin Fire Brigade Units and there were multiple instances of violence. In one of those instances, Bergin himself was injured. He suffered a laceration to his face and two other staff were assaulted as three inmates escaped the north Dublin facility.

“The relationship between staff and young people who come in is a lot better. We have difficult days. We have children who don’t want to be there and they will cause trouble tonight.

There’ll always be difficult days, they are a fact of life.

“The reality is that we have young people who don’t want to be in Oberstown…and how they display their behaviours can be a challenge.

“The challenge is when there is difficult days, how the systems we have in place are able to sustain us. It is around not getting lost in crisis.

“I’ve had a number of texts about one young person who’s with us and his issue is that he has to do something today for a course that nobody ever thought he would do. Six months ago, the guards would have been dealing with him.

“But we have a level of confidence in the staff and the young people.”

Bergin says that part of the challenge is to explain to people that Oberstown isn’t a place where the key is thrown away. He points out that young people can be counselled, can enter education or can simply be kept safe.

He is pragmatic, however, about the strides man.

“There’s a lot of learning left to do. We never stop learning.

Things grow or die – they never stay the same.

At the time of the interview, Oberstown was home to 42 young people.

Read: A year after ‘sea-change’ is Ireland better at dealing with young offenders?

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