Suffer little children: the adults are fighting

First published in the Sunday Business Post 4 September 2016

Why did 38 vulnerable children spend 19 hours in solitary confinement at the Oberstown Children’s Detention Campus?

The Luas strikes were inconvenient. We had to walk, get the bus, hail a taxi or just make different plans. We had a choice. There were different methods of transport we could use. Annoying, but this industrial dispute was not the end of the world.

Now picture this. The Luas drivers go on strike after talks with management fail. They lock the doors of the Luas with the passengers still inside. Although this long-running dispute has nothing to do with the passengers, they are effectively punished for it by being confined inside the Luas for 19 straight hours.

Imagine the public uproar. RTE News would broadcast live from the Luas line.

Radio talkshows would burst with choleric outrage. Politicians would issue portentous statements of concerns for the passengers. Someone would tweet something. The relevant authorities would immediately intervene.

None of this happened last weekend. Some 38 vulnerable children spent 19 hours in solitary confinement at the Oberstown Children’s Detention Campus because the adults had a row.

The 38 children, aged between 14 and 17 years, went to bed at 9pm on Sunday night and were left alone in their rooms until the strike ended at 4pm on Monday afternoon. These children had no choice.

On Monday afternoon, several children escaped from their rooms and climbed to the roof of the building where a fire broke out. A member of staff was seriously assaulted and extensive damage was caused to a unit.

This episode has revealed an ugly side of Irish public life. Have attitudes changed since the vulgar days when children with troubled backgrounds or challenging behaviour were “sent away” to Letterfrack Industrial School or the Magdalene Laundries?

Using the word “child” to describe teenagers remanded in custody or sentenced to detention because of their criminality is a disagreeable task for many, particularly those directly affected by their behaviour. Understandable as that may be, the legal definition of child is anyone under 18 as per the Children Act 2001 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The language used to describe the incident was revealing.

Gavin Jennings on Morning Ireland twice referred to the children as inmates in his interview with Deirdre Malone of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. A headline in the Herald roared: “Oberstown in flames as inmates riot following staff work stoppage”. Three separate Irish Times articles used the term “inmate”.

The word “inmate” implies that the person is a prisoner confined to an institution such as a prison. That inmate is used so casually demonstrates the crass failure to distinguish between the adult prison regime and the children’s detention system.

Oberstown is not a prison. It is a detention campus, an option of last resort, with the purpose of providing care, education and welfare with a view to reintegrating the child into society. Children, by definition, are not adults and therefore not part of the adult prison system. The ethos of Oberstown is deliberately meant to be different to that of a prison. Why? Because the residents are children, not adults.

This point is completely lost on the Impact trade union.

In a press release, Impact said: “Oberstown care workers are doing the work of prison staff with the facilities and equipment of a residential care home.”

This fundamental misunderstanding of what distinguishes a child from an adult is at the heart of the Oberstown dispute between staff and management. This clash of culture which fails to understand that Oberstown is not a prison regime and its staff are not intended to work as prison officers.

The description of children as inmates or prisoners makes it easier to accept the infringement of their fundamental rights. To ignore them in plain sight like we did with Letterfrack and the Magdalene laundries.

The Impact press release also stated: “the number of assaults on staff has continued to grow since the expansion of Oberstown to facilitate the transfer of offenders from the prison service”.

Is this an accurate statement given the ongoing publication of figures from the prison service which clearly shows that 17-year-olds continue to be detained in a separate wing of Wheatfield medium security prison?

Perhaps Impact should clarify exactly how many children have been transferred from adult prisons to Oberstown, ever. That figure should not be embellished by children who served one or two days of remand in St Patrick’s.

The Hiqa reports of Oberstown make critical reading if anyone ever bothers to read them. Even if you did, the criteria used by Hiqa to inspect children detention centres are woefully outdated and were last revised in 2008. The Irish Youth Justice Service, located in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, has responsibility for leading reform in the area of youth justice, including youth detention. Who cares that the last time they issued an annual report was 2010? Or that the incarceration of children at Wheatfield is a contravention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

These exceptions have become the norm with problematic children. Did Irish society care what happened to children in the past? Do we care now? Instead, the acceptable public narrative is to blame the eight teenagers who escaped their 19-hour solidarity confinement. Not the adults who caused it.

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