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Secure Child Unit Closure 'Will Not Harm Services'
Irish Times, Fri, Nov 06, 2009 by Paul Cullen

lThe special care unit for detaining children in Ballydowd, west Dublin, which cost €13 million to build.
The special care unit for detaining children in Ballydowd, west Dublin, which cost €13 million to build.
Photograph: Photocall

THE HSE says its decision to close the State’s main secure unit for highly disruptive children at Ballydowd in west Dublin will not result in fewer places for vulnerable young people.

The 12 children housed in Ballydowd are to be transferred to an existing facility in north Dublin in the coming months. The HSE announced the decision to close the unit yesterday immediately after the publication of a highly critical report which found it no longer fit for purpose.

The report by the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa), while not explicitly calling for the closure of Ballydowd, said it was no longer an acceptable premises in which to detain children. It detailed a series of areas where the facility failed to meet acceptable standards, including management; staffing; the promotion of good order, accommodation and security.

Opposition parties and childcare professionals expressed concern at the closure of the unit, but the HSE said it aimed to replace and even enhance capacity for accommodating children with behavioural difficulties.

“The plan is to transfer the service, not close it,” Hugh Kane, assistant national director of childcare services at the HSE, told RTÉ Radio yesterday. The children at Ballydowd would be moved to a more modern facility in north Co Dublin and the children in this facility would be moved to another unit with a lower level of support.

Fr Peter McVerry, who works with Dublin’s young homeless, described the closure as a “total disaster” for the young people involved and a total indictment of the HSE.

He said it was essential to have a facility available for youths who were too disruptive to be accommodated in normal hostels.

Ballydowd, which cost €13 million to build nine years ago, houses 12 children, though it has a capacity for 24.

It has been bedevilled by staffing and management problems throughout its short history. It is the largest of three special units for non-offending children with extreme behavioural problems who have been placed in care by order of the High Court.

Minister of State for Children Barry Andrews said the move to a new location would be done in an orderly and professional manner. “Future decisions in respect of special care must be informed by the latest expert opinion and must respond to changing needs of the children who require access to special care.”

According to the report, serious difficulties of trust between management and staff created a “crisis of confidence and authority” in the management of the unit. While Ballydowd had a history of problems, the situation had worsened, with a reciprocal lack of trust between senior managers and many staff.

The unit’s 47 staff was not enough to run it consistently and safely, the inspectors found. There were eight staff disciplinary processes in the year up to last August.

The inspectors expressed concern over high-risk events such as an outside visit when three children absconded, two children climbing on the roof of the unit several times and assaults on staff. “In the view of children and some staff,” they stated, “some of the children were from time to time beyond the control of staff”.

Physical restraint was used 186 times in a year, children were separated singly on 163 occasions and there were 31 unauthorised absences, the report found.

The hospital grounds on which Ballydowd was built has since been developed and the facility is now overlooked by new apartments. This impact on the privacy and living space of the children added to its unsuitability, the report said.

The unit was in disrepair in many areas and was generally not fit for purpose, the inspectors found. In one unit, the floor was bare concrete while in other areas there was a persistent problem with drains, scratched Perspex and broken panelling on roofs.

“The overall condition of several of the rooms was poor, and several of the rooms provided a bleak and severe environment for vulnerable children.”

Fine Gael spokesman on children Alan Shatter said the closure showed that lessons had not been learned from the Ryan report and the States litany of child protection failures.

He said the Minister of State for Children must explain how a purpose-built property was being decommissioned.