In his late teens, before he hit adulthood and years falling in and out of homelessness, Tony O’Brien stayed at Lefroy House in the city centre a dozen or so times.
That was more than a decade ago. But he can still remember how, when morning came at that night-time-only hostel for children and teenagers, you had to leave, whatever the weather. “Lashing rain, and you were out,” he says.
O’Brien had ways to keep a smile on his face, he says. As the day rolled on, he would call friends he knew he could count on for a chat, which lifted his mood. But “a lot of others found it tough, especially if they didn’t really have anybody to turn to”, he says.
The Nightlight service at Lefroy House has evolved since it was set up by the Salvation Army in 1999 to give emergency beds for “out-of-home” or homeless children. But children and teenagers still have to leave each morning.
Over the years, inspection reports, some employees, and young people have raised concerns over the gaps in supervision – and what some children do as they wander the city during the day, if they choose to skip day services, such as youth clubs or education.
“It should be open 24 hours. It should be a home […] even if it was three-month beds it would be better. It’s not rocket science,” says Francis Timmons, an independent councillor for South Dublin County Council, who worked at Lefroy House in its early years.
Advocates at EPIC, an independent organisation that works with children in care, said it would be better if it were open 24 hours. But staff do a good job, they said.
“It’s fantastic from my experience of it,” said Fidelma Guinan, an advocacy officer who visits children at Lefroy House once a month. “It’s a brilliant staff team.”
Lefroy House was set up to offer last-minute beds for children for a short stay. But that can mean days, or several weeks.
One child spent 109 nights sleeping in the night-time only accommodation at Lefroy House in 2017, according to Tusla figures. In 2016, 28 percent of admissions were for one night only, and 43 percent of stays were for less than a week.
Tusla inspectors noted in 2014 that a small number were staying a long time “as long as twelve weeks in two instances in the previous twelve months”.
Children and teenagers might check into Lefroy House for different reasons: some may be in the care of their parents, but need a break before they return or before they go on to a residential home. (In 2016, 57 percent of young people returned home after their stay.)
Others might be between foster-care placements, which have broken down. (In 2016, 30 percent went on to a residential care placement, according to Tusla figures.)
Martin Donegan, a spokesperson for Salvation Army, said the length of a child’s stay depends on several factors.
“Family supports may need be put in place, family mediation may need to be organised and attended. Links with different family support services within their local areas may need to be organised before a young person can return home,” said Donegan, by email.
Those who are in care – and so might be moved on to a residential centre or support lodgings – tend to move on faster than those who might have family breakdown, says Réidín Dunne, advocacy manager with EPIC.
Perhaps “something has happened, that there’s an argument, there’s a row, he can’t go home or whatever. If he can’t go home, because he’s not a risk he won’t be taken into care, so then there’s a place for him to go to,” says Dunne.
Ideally, there would be no need for Lefroy House to exist, she says. “But you’re never going to have that situation because there is no one-size fits all when you’re talking about people.”
Guinan says that it’s impossible to speak in broad strokes about the young people who present at Lefroy. “Every case is so individual, their circumstances are so individual.”
Figures from Tusla show the spread of ages of those who use the service.
In the first 11 months of 2014, there were two 12-year-olds, three 13-year-olds, and nine 14-year-olds, according to an inspection report. Five of the children were 15-year-olds, 17 were 16-year-olds, and 19 were 17-year-olds, it notes.
“Although the numbers aged fourteen and under are relatively small, it raises the question as to whether it is advisable to accommodate that age group in this setting,” it says.
The youngest person to stay in Lefroy in 2017 was 12 years old, said a Tusla spokesperson. In 2016, no 12- or 13-year-olds used Lefroy House and 71 percent of children that year were 16 or 17 years old, they said.
It would be unusual for a 12-year-old to access Nightlight for long, says Donegan, the spokesperson for the Salvation Army. “Normally, they would be prioritised for fostering.”
Staff would advocate for a “wraparound service” to be set up straight away, and they would be prioritised for a “move-on plan”, he said.
The 2014 inspection also threw up issues around the “the lack of a day service sufficient to assist those most at risk during the day”, the report says.
While the team at Lefroy House said there had been a “reduced day service provision” from partners at the Crisis Intervention Service Partnership (CISP), the managers at the partnership said that day supports were adequate, the report says.
A young person told inspectors that staff at Lefroy House talk and listen to them, but that they “may prefer to be quiet as the service is a refuge from the stresses of the streets”, the report says.
They might have been out all day with no contact with an appropriate adult, or family member.
Life at Lefroy
In late 2011, children who used the Nightlight service in Lefroy House “were very critical of the standard of accommodation”, according to a survey by the Ombudsman for Children.
At the time when O’Brien stayed there in the mid-2000s, it was an “absolute dump”, he says. The “overall cleanliness” was poor, and bed sheets didn’t seem to get changed much, he said. Some staff were lovely, others he didn’t get on with.
The centre has been redecorated and refurbished since 2011, says Donegan of Salvation Army. The bedrooms have been redone, and the leisure room has two televisions, video games, and pool and table tennis tables.
“All furniture is replaced when needed and is modern. Any damaged items are usually replaced within the next working day,” he said.
In the early days, many of the children using Lefroy House had mental-health problems, or addiction issues, or both, says Timmons, who worked there.
Some were damaged, suffering from neglect, or had challenging behaviour that stemmed from troubled histories. “There were kids from right across the whole of Dublin and background didn’t discriminate,” he said.
Many were distrustful of social workers, so would drop in for a shower and head out again. “I would think, you know, at least they are alive,” he says.
“Most were mannerly, especially considering what they’re been through,” he says. They often wanted to lend a hand. Or to help clear the table after dinner.
In the early days, the Nightlight service opened in the late evening, which was too late for a 12-year-old to be out alone, or a 16- or 17-year-old for that matter, says Timmons. Especially, during dark and long and cold winter evenings.
These days, the service opens a few hours earlier. Since April 2012, the project has opened at 5pm until 9:30am on weekdays, and it opens at 1:30pm on weekends and bank holidays, a spokesperson for Salvation Army said.
Out on the Street
Between the time Lefroy House closes in the morning and when it reopens in the afternoon or evening, its young residents have to go elsewhere.
“A lot of the kids would just ramble the streets during the day,” said Timmons.
O’Brien says that some of those who stayed there drank or did drugs before Lefroy House. But others got involved after hanging around with little to do during the day.
For those on the borderline, close to addiction or alcoholism, it was the wrong place for them, he said. It was hard to avoid drink or drugs.
“You just have to hang around O’Connell Street,” he says. “You just walk down the street and they ask, do you want something? […] I would say most people would still have addiction issues today. I would be surprised if they didn’t.”
In the 2011 Ombudsman for Children survey of children who used the Nightlight service at Lefroy House, focused “considerable criticism” on how they “have to leave at nine in the morning Monday to Friday and cannot return until eight in the evening”.
“Several children were emphatic that this practice increases children’s exposure to risk and the likelihood of their becoming involved in harmful behaviours,” the report notes.
Many said that “they and their peers spent time drinking or taking drugs and several spoke about how they or their peers started becoming involved in criminal activity”, the report says.
Back in the early days, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were reasons that children wouldn’t link in with day services. Some of that was a ripple effect, down to lack of resources, says Timmons.
Sometimes, if there weren’t enough beds at night, staff would prioritise younger children, says Timmons. Older kids, those in their later teens who often end up with the thin end of the wedge in the care system as they find themselves with fewer supports, didn’t like that. Which led at times to bullying.
It could worsen arguments already there, around, say, drug use. At the time, the main day service for children was the Loft, a drop-in centre run by Focus Ireland. “A lot of kids would not go to the day service because of bullying,” said Timmons.
O’Brien says that when he stayed there he had his own routine: he would swing by the Capuchin Day Centre across the Liffey for breakfast, and double-back for a cup of tea at the Focus Ireland café. Later, he would head to the Spokes Programme, also run by Focus Ireland, to study for FETAC courses.
Today, bullying isn’t an issue that stops children going to day services, says Donegan, the spokesperson for Salvation Army. “We have a strict no-bullying policy that is followed with all young people within Nightlight and is monitored closely.”
Says Dunne of EPIC: “We would always think that Lefroy are the best staff team going, so issues related to that they are aware of and manage it.”
These days, young people can go to several day services, says Donegan. The Crisis Intervention Project runs a Youth Advocate Programme, and there are links with support workers at places such as Empowerment Plus and Extern.
“Although, some young people refuse to engage with services and link in with family and friends throughout the day,” he said.
Some children from Lefroy House also still engage in risky behaviour during the day. “Unfortunately this still occurs with some young people accessing our services, although when first presenting to Nightlight they have already been engaging in these types of behaviours beforehand,” said Donegan.
“It is our aim to work with the young people and where possible to encourage them to re-engage with the education system and achieve life skills,” he said.
Making It 24-Hours
In October 2016, the manager at Lefroy House told inspectors that the Salvation Army planned to make it into a 24-hour service. So “the young people will not have to leave the centre for specified periods”.
There are supports and day services in the area that young people are encouraged to attend, and young people have two key workers each, the report notes.
But staff said it can be tough to finish planned sessions “given that the young people may be outside of the centre for extended periods of time”. Making the service 24-hours would solve that, the report said.
Resources were always tight when he worked there, says Timmons, who was involved in setting up the service. The Health Service Executive gave start-up funding for three months and despite the uncertainty, staff stuck around. “The staff were brilliant,” he says.
There were three beds for girls in one room and three beds for boys in another. If they needed a different gender split, staff would drag beds between rooms, he says.
When there were more children than beds, he would put down mattresses – courting reprimand because it was against the rules. “It happened quite regularly,” he says. (These days, there are seven single rooms.)
“It was better than the street,” he says, but far from perfect. “It was meeting a need, but a need no one else was meeting.”
In September last year, a Tusla spokesperson said that it had “submitted a business case to the Government for 2018 for funding” to make Lefroy House into a 24-hour facility. (Tusla spent €733,000 on Lefroy House in 2016, and the same amount in 2017.)
But it’s unclear if that is true. Last week, Tusla turned down a request for a copy of the “business plan submitted to request that Lefroy House be made 24 hours per day”, on the grounds that the record didn’t exist.
The accommodation works well on a “short-term basis”, as a place where professionals can work out whether a child should be taken into care, or can go back home – or, if necessary, can find them a new placement, says Donegan of the Salvation Army.
“Our hope and our vision is for Nightlight to become a 24-hour service if it was required,” he said. “We believe a day drop-in service would benefit these children who can then make links with relevant professionals, drug services, mental-health supports, recreational.”
O’Brien said he doesn’t know about the Nightlight service these days, or how it has changed. But he said it would be good for the centre to open up 24 hours, if facilities are better.
It should also offer classes on site – and a focus on those who are nearing 18 years old, who, as they are aged out of supports in the care system, can end up alone and homeless, he says.
Dunne of EPIC also says it would be better as a 24-hour centre. But “I don’t think it’s a case of, ‘We don’t care about these kids, we land them there on the boardwalk,’ that’s not it at all. It’s that we’re talking about really complicated situations.”
As Timmons sees it, the issue runs deeper than funding. It is about how the government outsources services to charities, he says.
He has nothing against charities but some services should be seen as rights rather than hand-outs, he says. “Really, the state needs to take ownership and responsibility.”