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€5m Care Unit for Troubled Boys to Open Next Month
The Irish Times - Monday, August 25, 2003  by Gordon Deegan

Coovagh House in Limerick, a special care unit built at a cost of €5 million to accommodate five troubled young boys, which remained unoccupied one year after completion due to staffing difficulties, is to open finally after eight recruitment drives for care staff.

Mr Ronan Fitzgerald, manager of the centre, who was appointed in January last year, yesterday defended the decision not to open the centre earlier. He said: "It would have been easy to compromise on the type of staff and level of skills needed and open the centre earlier, but that would have been to the detriment of the service and of the young people concerned."

The centre is the third and final special care unit to be established by the State in response to a High Court order by Mr Justice Kelly in February 2000 compelling the State to provide such care.

Mr Justice Kelly made his order after a succession of cases where non-offending children had to be detained in inappropriate centres because of the absence of proper accommodation.

The opening of Coovagh House will bring to 36 the number of places in special care units in the State - currently, there are 24 places at Ballydowd in Co Dublin and seven at Gleann Alainn in Cork.

Health boards have invested over €40 million in the development of special care and high support units which provide 120 places, an increase from 17 in 1997. The Limerick centre is in the grounds of St Joseph's Psychiatric Hospital and within the 14ft perimeter wall.

It includes a residential centre, a school, an administration building and sports facilities with a medium-sized soccer pitch, an indoor basketball court and a gym.

The centre is to have a staff of 25, which will include 20 care staff providing 24-hour one-to-one care with the five children. The annual operating costs will be €1.85 million.

Mr Fitgerald said: "A large part of the budget goes on staff costs, and staff are our greatest resource. In order to provide proper care, you need skilled and qualified staff to support vulnerable and damaged young people.

"Fundamentally, we are taking away the young people's liberty where they haven't broken the law, so you have to ensure that placement in Coovagh House will be of benefit to the young person."

Special Care Orders, soon to be introduced, last for a period of three months and, according to Mr Fitzgerald, it is the unit's intention that no child will remain longer than three months and that the children living there will lead as normal a life as possible.

He said: "They will get up at 8.00-8.30 a.m., have breakfast, go to school, after school do their homework, do normal chores, play sports or have outings, which are supervised by staff and are a fundamental part of a young person's placement in Coovagh, particularly in maintaining links with the young person's family and community."

The Social Services Inspectorate (SSI) was established by the Government to monitor the progress of child residential centres ,and yesterday an inspector with the agency, Mr Michael McNamara, said: "The loss of liberty isn't the cure.

"Children should be detained in special care units for the shortest possible time in order to address the circumstances that led to their admission, and services need to be put in place in the community to reintegrate them."

The need for such centres also came under fire from child-support groups yesterday. The chief executive of Barnardos, Mr Owen Keenan, said the need for special care centres reflected a failure of the system in providing for children.

Mr Paul Gilligan, of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said yesterday: "There doesn't appear to be an overall understanding within the system on how to deal with these children.

"The incarceration model of care being practised at special care units is further alienating people already alienated from society, resulting in all the kids' energies being spent on trying to run away from these centres."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health acknowledged that special care facilities were not the only solution for the small number of children involved, pointing out that very substantial progress had been made in recent years in putting a continuum of care in place.