Welfare Reports, Feral Youth, and Child Imprisonment


Last week painted an extraordinarily bleak picture of being a child in Ireland. Especially one in need of any specialised State support; with not one, or two, but four separate reports outlining serious failings.

Damning Child Welfare Reports

The Mental Health Commission made 49 recommendations after inspecting the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), concluding that they could not provide an assurance to families in all parts of Ireland that children have “access to a safe, effective, and evidence based mental health service.” Existing access was characterised as a “postcode lottery” with deficient staffing evident in almost all areas. One CAMHS team had 140 “lost” cases of children in mental health distress who had been referred for support.

The remaining three reports (two published and one unpublished) on child welfare came from the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA), and were all focused on the Child and Family Agency (Tusla). On Wednesday 26th, it was reported that children who had had child protection concerns due to alleged abuse, inappropriate contact, or sexual assault were left on waiting lists for initial assessments. A review of files in the Dublin South, west Kildare and west Wicklow catchment area found children alleging sexual assault waiting up to 14 months.

On the same day, a further HIQA inspection report on the governance of the Tusla service for seperated children—underage asylum seekers who arrive to Ireland without guardians— concluded the service was “poor and required significant improvement.” Failing to meet all ten required standards, shortcomings were identified in staffing levels, assessment of trafficking risk, and verification when reunifying families. Most worryingly, an unpublished HIQA report claimed that 15 seperated children went missing from State care in 2022 and are still unaccounted for by Tusla. With their multiple layers of vulnerability, these children are at a high risk of sexual exploitation.

An already grim week was then rounded off with the June homeless figures. New records were yet again been set as we continue to “turn the corner.” Of the 12,600 officially recorded in emergency accommodation, 3,699 were children, almost one in every third  homeless person.

The mark of a Republic’s values is how it cares for all those within its borders, especially children. Ireland once valued itself as a welcoming place but—after all these reports— it seems much less so for children with mental health needs, unaccompanied children seeking asylum, children with child protection needs, and homeless children. This is not to mention children living in poverty, Traveller children, and those languishing on hospital waiting lists. All this harm is being accrued and compounded despite the Irish Government forecasting a surplus of €10bn this year and €16.2bn in 2024.

Feral Youth and Gangs of Gurriers

Yet in spite of all these reports desperately demanding mature reflection, a different cohort of children caught the attention of the nation’s politicians and media. On July 19th, an American tourist, Stephen Termini, suffered a vicious and unprovoked assault as he walked along Store Street in north inner-city Dublin. In recent days, he has emerged from a coma but is left with life-altering injuries including the potential loss of an eye. Adding to the poignancy of the incident, Termini was in Ireland to visit his mother’s grave after being unable to attend her funeral. The alleged attackers are three boys aged 14, 15, and 16 years of age.

The justice spokesperson for Fianna Fáil, Jim O’Callaghan, lamented that this attack was another example of the “level of lawlessness” which has been on the rise in recent years and he called for more “physical policing on the streets.” Policing experts reminded us that “we cannot police our way out of some of our crime/social problems.” But, following an unusual travel advisory issed by the US Embassy in Dublin, the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee pledged additional funding of €10 million to increase the visability of Gardaí on the capital’s streets.

Amid the feverish political discourse, we had seasoned journalists propose a police response more akin to the more heavily armed police in France and the US. Others, more familiar with the crime beat, demanded that “a very significant punishment is required here, irrespective of age.” Some were just content with the denunciation of “feral” youth and the almost gleeful use of the alliterative “gangs of gurriers.” In contrast to the children at the centre of the CAMHS and Tusla reports, these boys in their mid-teens are not presented as children but the embodiment of unrestrained violence where the only antidote is punishment in the form of incarceration.

Considering how we begin to end violence in society, Allegra McLeod, from University of Chicago, urges us to “expand our understanding of violence beyond individualized disorder and the immediate scene of interpersonal harm” and unearth its political and economic roots. This can be difficult when a victim has experienced extreme violence and long-lasting harm. But the ambition of criminal justice systems should be the tempering of violence in society and not just meting out more violence in response to the initial offense. Louk Hulsman, a Dutch criminologist, warns that we create a counter-reality when we only understand an individual in the context of their offense, completely isolated from “his environment, his friends, his family, the material substratum of his world.”

Punishing Children Who Have Been Failed by the State is Not the Answer

Amidst the clamour for more police and tough sentences, Fintan O’Toole attempted to expand our understanding of the north inner city and the alleged perpetrators’ environment. O’Toole contrasts the transformation that occurred in the north inner city with the development of the Irish Financial Services Centre during the Celtic Tiger years and the “largely illusory” transformation experienced by the denizens of the area, as the Government purposely created “Ireland’s most starkly segregated social space.”

My colleague, Peter McVerry SJ, confirms this. Last week, when discussing this polarised societal conversation, he recalled living in Summerhill (a part of the north-east inner-city) during the 1980s when there was a similar attention on youth crime. He proposed two underlying issues to why young boys form gangs where violence is a rite of passage or a graduating ritual. Firstly, the community fabric of these areas has been torn asunder by decades of active neglect and under-investment by the State. Secondly, these boys (intimidating as they may be) are alienated from any sense of belonging to a State which values them. Interpreting the assault on Stephen Termini in light of last week’s reports on children in Ireland, my mind cannot escape the fact that the likelihood that some of these three boys, if not all, experienced homelessless, mental ill-health, abuse, or sexual violence at points in their formative years.

When a social issue like youth violence is understood in a simple way—“feral” youth or an uptick in lawlessness— the solution offered is likewise simple. If the only answer is punishment (some like the Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman have noted the need for community investment), it should be acknowledged that “the pains of imprisonment are potentially deadly for children and young people.” But going beyond the individualised understanding, we quickly see that youth violence is complex and the simple response of incarceration will not suffice. All the reasons for prison not being effective in any of its aims apply here. But, if we consider the structural failings occupying many of the stories, we quickly conclude that there is perversity for imprisoning children for our failures as a State.