Our justice system is failing children in need of secure care

3rd July 2009

On June 30th IPRT co-hosted with the Irish Criminal Bar Association and the Dublin Solicitors Bar Association the third in our Prison Law seminar series on the topic of youth justice.

At one level the seminar was hugely encouraging: over 115 lawyers attended and it was clear that they were all passionate about vindicating the rights of the young people in trouble with the law – usually young people coming to court with a range of family and personal problems. At another level, though, the experiences of the solicitors and barristers who practice in the Children Court and who act on behalf of children seeking the protection of the HSE was incredibly depressing. Listening to the excellent presentations of Gráinne O’Neill and Catherine Ghent, once again we were brought back to the quite incredible ways in which the State fails vulnerable young people. We heard of the over use of imprisonment in parts of the country and the chronic under-resourcing of many aspects of both the social care system and the progressive justice system introduced under the Children Act 2001. The Children Act promises a constructive range of intervention to divert young people out of the criminal justice system, but this promise is undermined by long delays in processing cases, a lack of judicial training, and a failure to provide the alternative sanctions the legislation promises.

Most shocking and depressing of all is the failure, and even the resistance, by the HSE to provide secure care to young people in immediate danger of exploitation or harm. The lawyers present told of the clear preference of authorities to process the most vulnerable young people as criminals rather than deal with them as children in need of State support. In particular, the young people coming before the High Court seeking secure and emergency care – the most vulnerable children in the State – are being denied access to that protection. This is a human rights issue of the gravest kind, highlighted by the tragic deaths of a number of these children in recent years and yet little or no progress has been made in addressing their needs.

The purpose of these seminars is to encourage lawyers to push the envelope of human rights protection within the legal system and to allow a sharing of innovative best practice and creative use of human rights standards. To that end we are confident that, working with our colleagues in the legal professions we can make an impact – but it is nothing less than a scandal that, in the wake of the Ryan Commission report, our society continues to treat children in this way and it behoves everyone in society to highlight the failures of our care and justice systems.

In the coming months, IPRT will be publishing a number of policy papers in the area of youth justice, addressing both the necessary standards that should govern the detention of young people and, building on the approach of the Children Act, looking at how we can move towards an emphasis on prevention and early intervention for young people at risk of being drawn into the criminal justice system.

For more information on IPRT research, please contact Agnieszka Martynowicz, IPRT Research and Policy Officer: research@iprt.ie

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