CONCERNS have been raised by an independent watchdog over a 75% increase in the number of self-harm incidents at Northern Ireland's Juvenile Justice Centre.
Figures contained in a new report by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) highlight the significant rise in self-harming incidents since 2011.
The report revealed there were 84 incidents of self-harm in 2011 compared to 146 in 2013 at Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre (JJC).
However inspectors recognised that the centre is “improving the child custody system in Northern Ireland” during a process of complex reform.
This comes as director of the facility Phil Tooze, in an interview with The Detail, said the centre is accommodating more young people with complex medical needs than ever before.
Prior to November 2012 older teenagers were detained in Hydebank Wood prison in south Belfast, but they are now all housed at the JJC in Bangor.
It provides six residential units, an education and learning centre, recreation facilities and medical services.
Mr Tooze said: “In dealing with an older age group what we have seen is an increase in young people coming in who have misused substances, as well as an increase in people coming in with some mental health issues that we have to deal with.
“It can be challenging. We have had occasions when have had to take young people to A&E because of drug use, but I would say it’s quite rare for them to get drugs when they are actually in here. It’s usually because of something they took before they arrived.
“However I do think we are in a better position to deal with these children than a prison setting.”
Include Youth is an organisation that works with young people in conflict with the law. It was centrally involved in the campaign to ensure that under 18's were no longer detained in Hydebank Wood prison.
Paula Rodgers, policy co-ordinator for the organisation, said questions remain around whether or not custody in any location is appropriate in the case of vulnerable young people.
She said: “Evidence shows time and time again that very often those children detained within the JJC are incredibly vulnerable, often displaying high levels of mental and emotional health needs.
"The dramatic increase in the incidents of self-harm highlighted in the inspection and the disproportionate number of girls self-harming is cause for particular concern. Once again we ask, is the JJC the right place for children displaying such complex mental health needs?"
Woodlands JJC in Bangor is the only custodial facility for children in Northern Ireland. The CJI inspection found that children received high levels of care and support while they were in Woodlands.
However inspectors said the challenge of having to deal with an increased number of older boys was “testing both the resilience of staff and appropriateness of the child-centred regime at Woodlands”.
The CJI inspection took place in September 2014 with the findings being published today. Prior to the publication The Detail was given permission to visit Woodlands.
As well as receiving a tour of the facilities we interviewed Director Phil Tooze.
During the interview, he addressed many of the issues highlighted in today's CJI report. This includes:
- An increase in the number of older children coming into the JJC who have misused substances such as legal highs and have mental health issues.
- The difficulties in maintaining security and safety when managing some of Northern Ireland’s most challenging children, including speaking about an incident which involved a fire being started in the canteen.
- Managing staffing arrangements and dealing with sickness levels.
- The need to keep placement in the JJC as a last resort and not a temporary short term location for children.
In a seperate article today we examine the impact of childhood crime.
Commenting on the publication of the CJI Report Justice Minister David Ford said: “The Inspectors found that children continue to receive high levels of care and support while in Woodlands and that a significant childcare ethos prevails there.
“This is most welcome and is particularly commendable given that the report also acknowledges that Woodlands accommodates some of the ‘most difficult and disturbed children in our society’."
DETENTION BY POSTCODE
In Northern Ireland when a young person is arrested and subsequently charged with a criminal offence, the PSNI has the power to continue to detain the young person under the Police and Criminal Evidence Order (PACE) instead of releasing them on bail.
This power is only meant to be used if police decide detention is necessary for the young person’s own protection, to prevent them from committing an offence or if they believe that they will fail to appear at court.
When a young person is detained under PACE they can be sent directly to the JJC.
The latest inspection report by the CJI found a disproportionately high number of PACE admissions with the rate having almost trebled since 2008.
The Detail previously reported on the fact that two thirds of PACE detentions came from PSNI stations within a 20 mile radius of the JJC.
CJI inspectors echoed these findings and said that the high level of PACE admissions to the JJC appeared to be based on “geographical proximity”.
The inspection found that the JJC was being used when no alternative accommodation was available for some children and that this was “inappropriate”.
Commenting on PACE admissions to the JJC Phil Tooze said: “The numbers of PACE admissions are usually very small at any one time, but I’m glad that Woodlands is seen as a place of safety for young people. Rather than a police station, we can better assess their needs with healthcare staff who are trained to do so.
“The biggest challenge with PACE admissions is those children who are coming in that have not been admitted before and we know nothing about. We don't get much warning, we will get a telephone call from the police and my staff will have to collect a lot of information.
“This will include contacting parents and finding out medical information to ensure we can meet the child's needs while they are in here.
“But we do work very closely with our colleagues in the PSNI, who are very good in supplying us with as much information as they have.”
Inspectors found that things became difficult to manage in the summer of 2014 when a rise in the number of children in the JJC coincided with an increase in the centre’s staff stress and sick leave.
The report stated that following three serious incidents in September 2014 a “restricted regime” was put in place with the intention of reasserting control and providing respite for staff.
One incident involving a fire led to staff requiring hospital treatment for smoke inhalation and damage within a house caused by three boys who broke out of their rooms.
A restricted regime limits access to certain facilities and confines the movement of children and young people within the JJC.
However inspectors found that the use of a restricted regime was a “necessary and proportionate response” in these circumstances.
Commenting on the specific matter of restricted regimes and the incident involving the fire, Mr Tooze said: "In situations like this you are talking about children who come into custody who present with significant problems.
“Sometimes they can be aggressive, sometimes they are under the influence of drugs and they don't know what they're doing. When you get a situation like the aftermath of a fire you have to think of the wellbeing of everyone.
“So for that purpose a restrictive regime is not about punishment, it's about providing safe and secure care. It doesn't happen every day of the week, but when it does happen you have to guarantee the safety of all concerned.”
However Paula Rodgers from Include Youth said she still had reservations about the use of restricted regimes.
She said: "It is very worrying that the JJC has had to resort to implementing restricted regimes in recent months. The use of restrictive regimes cannot continue to be used on a sustained basis – it impacts negatively on the children’s access to education, training and programmes aimed at addressing their offending behaviour.
"The JJC has a huge task in addressing the changing profile of children detained or remanded there, but it must adapt to these challenges and protect the child centred model."
RISE IN SELF-HARM "CONCERNING"
The inspection report also highlighted a “concerning” rise in self-harm incidents. The figures show that from the time of the last inspection in 2011 the figures of self-harm increased from 84 annually to 146 in 2013. This represents a 75% increase in incidents.
The report said that 16% of the self-harm incidents involved girls. Inspectors said this was disproportionate to the numbers of girls in the JJC, though in keeping with the UK-wide higher rate of self-harm among females in custody.
Managers suggested to inspectors that the rise in self-harm incidents was due to increased numbers of children coming off drugs as they entered custody.
CJI inspectors agreed that one of the biggest challenges facing staff in the JJC was that many children who enter custody “are coming down from a cocktail of alcohol and illicit drugs”.
Speaking to The Detail about drug use in the JJC, Mr Tooze said: “In society in general there has been a significant increase in the substances available, such as legal highs. Naturally that has had a knock on effect and has become an issue for us also.
“It can be challenging. We have had occasions when have had to take young people to A&E because of drug use, but I would say it’s quite rare for them to get drugs when they are actually in here. It’s usually because of something they took before they arrived.”
Mr Tooze said the changing profile of young offenders within the JJC had presented new challenges but that his staff were up to the task.
He said: “In dealing with an older age group what we have seen is an increase in young people coming in who have misused substances, as well as an increase in people coming in with some mental health issues that we have to deal with.
“But I think a lot of us have been doing this job for a very long time now and you have an understanding that you can't fix things overnight. Sometimes it takes a number of efforts by a lot of different organisations of people trying to actually make young peoples’ lives change for the better.”