Imagine, for a moment, you're 16-years-old. You’re not a child, but you're not yet an adult either. And your home life... it's complicated.
Perhaps there's a history of drug abuse, or alcoholism. Your father might have spent some time in prison. Now he is back living in the family home, and the cycle of domestic violence is continuing.
What can you do?
You don't feel like a child but, in the eyes of the State, that's exactly what you are, and you can do very little.
This story, or some form of it at least, is the reality for many teenagers in Cork city nowadays.
Rocked by a tumultuous home life, or by other factors outside of their control, such teens often turn to drugs or alcohol or violence themselves – perpetuating a vicious cycle.
While there are many ways this story can go, one of the most common scenarios is as follows: The situation at home gets out of control. The Gardai are called. Whether the situation was initiated by the teen or by someone else, the Gardai may well deem the scene unsuitable for a minor and will remove them.
There are a number of possible scenarios which can follow – each one as complicated as the next.
Often, the minor will end up in some form of State care for a period of time. If a crime has been committed by the minor, they might be sent to the Oberstown youth detention facility in Dublin. Or, the minor may be sent home – only to be told by their parents that they are no longer welcome there.
This is where the Riverview facility comes in. Run by Good Shepherd Cork, Riverview is essentially a shelter for teenage girls, aged between 15 and 19, who are out of home.
“We have four under-18 beds and two over-18 beds. We would take 15-year-olds for a maximum of three nights, but mostly we deal with 16- to 19-year-olds,” explained Orla Donovan, a social care leader with Riverview.
“The over-18s are pre-planned, so they go through an admissions panel and we would accept them under certain criteria. The under-18s come in due to emergencies. There can be planned admissions for under 18s also, but mostly they are emergency admissions.” The Riverview facility can accommodate up to six residents. While most are only there on a short-term basis, it can turn into a longer stay.
“On admission, a care plan meeting with a social worker is organised as soon as possible. We invite parents to be actively involved from the outset. We look at their educational needs, their housing needs, a lot of independent living skills... we work on things like budgeting with the girls and they do their own shopping with staff.” “They have their own room with a key and they are responsible for their own belongings. We help them to attend day programmes at schools, jobs, training, whatever they have, but it is their own responsibility to attend. So we'll call them in the morning, but we can't make them go - though if they don’t attend, Riverview staff will liaise with their day programme on their behalf. But if they are over 18 then their placement depends on them meeting certain criteria in order to stay.” Riverview is the only emergency accommodation for girls under the age of 18 in the County. Orla, and fellow staff member Liz McNamara, a social care worker at Riverview, said the teenagers they see often appear to be old beyond their years.
“A lot of them are very streetwise but while they can appear outwardly very confident, it doesn't go further than surface level, so they often need to build up their confidence while here,” said Liz.
“I do think the whole situation makes them old beyond their years,” agreed Orla.
“But while they may act and think like they're 20, in the eyes of the State they're children. And we find it very difficult because they don't fit into a bracket. Because they're not under 16 they're not children, and because they're not over 18 they're not adults. So for things like psychiatric services or a lot of educational things, they don't fit into the brackets that are the norm.” “If we do end up in the Mercy University Hospital with them out of hours, for example, we are waiting to see a child psychiatrist, but they can't go into a children’s ward. So there are things like that where you're caught between a rock and a hard place a lot of the time.” To date, both Orla and Liz have had to deal with a number of girls who have struggled with suicidal ideation and self harm.
“We've had a lot of girls here over the years who have been suicidal, but they don't have the tools or the coping skills to deal with what life is throwing at them,” explained Orla. The services aren’t readily available to guide them through, and sometimes it’s too little too late”.
On the other hand we have young people who have graduated college who have families of their own, who have overcome addictions, who have travelled, and some who have re entered the care system as care staff. It's heartening to see that, and it's a place we would hope the other more vulnerable girls would also get to.” Vulnerability, in fact, is a word that keeps coming up in Riverview. Orla explained that when young girls are experiencing such chaotic lives, that others will often seek to take advantage.
“We've seen prostitution, and drug muling. That is the reality. It sounds like fiction, but it's not. If you told people the stories, they wouldn't believe you.” And Riverview staff have seen girls from every demographic, every social sphere with all manner of issues pass through their service. Between Liz and Orla alone they have 40 years of experience working with vulnerable young people. In fact, this consistency of care and service is what makes Riverview unique in it’s approach.
“We have seen sisters, cousins, nieces of former service users return to the service; girls whose first contact with the service may have been as a young child with their mother in Edel House. And they are greeted by the same core staff when they arrive at Riverview, which is important when there is very little that is concrete in their world”.
At the end of the day, the goal is to get the teenagers back into the family home, if it is at all a stable place to be.
“If we can work with the parents or extended family to try and get them back home, that's our aim,” said Liz.
“We say the average stay is between three and six months. We want them to progress. We want them to do well. And if the girl can't return to her family for whatever reason, our aim then would be to equip her with the skills for self-sufficiency and independent living.”
The biggest challenge facing those aged 15 to 19 at the moment, according to those working at the Riverview facility, is mental health.
We would see a lot of mental health issues. And, in my opinion, the facilities that a lot of young people need are just not there,” explained care leader Orla Donovan.
“We are not suitable for some of the young people who come here but because there's nowhere else to send them we're used as a last resort and it's not fair on them. A lot of girls would have educational needs, behavioural issues, mental health issues, and drug and alcohol issues.... And a lot of the time if you were to make a collective assessment, if you were to look at the group of young people that we have and what the introduction of this new person would do, then you would be saying no. But there is nowhere else to send them. So they are sent here, even if it's not suitable for them.” Once teenagers are at Riverview for longer than three months, Orla finds that they begin to lose hope.
“They come in here and they're told this is only temporary, this is only for now, we'll find you some place... and it's not that their social workers don't try, they do try, but every residential centre in the country is nearly being closed down, and there are very few emergency foster care services,” she said.
“Even if there were more foster places, a lot of young people don't want to go to a family. They don't want to live in a house with strangers. They don't want to be somebody else's child.” Riverview staff aim to provide a service that works with young people and links with their family, their relatives and the local community as well as with other services.
The teenagers who cannot go from Riverview back to their family home are assisted in becoming self-sufficient and independent. Some young people go on to live in supported accommodation.
They are taught skills like cooking, shopping for themselves, budgeting their money – things that other young people may take for granted but that these teens may not necessarily have ever been shown how to do, or needed to do.
One of the most unique aspects of Good Shepherd Cork is the relationship all the different services have with each other.
Many residents of Riverview, for example, will also be encouraged to attend the Bruac centre, run by Good Shepherd Cork on the north side of the city, which offers a range of educational and developmental courses for teenage girls and women.
They are also supported, while in Riverview, by Good Shepherd Cork's Support and Advocacy team who will link in with them, build a relationship with them, and will be their point of contact in the future should they find themselves in further housing difficulty.
If they do, their case worker can try and source them accommodation in Good Shepherd Cork's emergency shelter, Edel House, or in one of its dedicated supported housing units.
Staff of Riverview also collaborate with other agencies; for example, running a social/youth club one evening a week in partnership with Tusla’s Liberty Street House. This is a space for past and present residents of Riverview to get together and take part in various social and leisure activities and to maintain connections and friendships formed during their stay. It also provides a safe place in a sometimes chaotic young life.
While the services provided are undoubtedly essential, Orla Donovan, social care leader at Riverview, argued that the State itself should do more to help.
“The biggest thing for us would be to work through the huge gaps in the system and try and find the best supports and services that are available for the teenagers here,” she said.
Staff at Riverview work to support young people emotionally alongside assisting in practical information and linking up with other Good Shepherd services, and those of other agencies, in relation to housing, social welfare, training and links with the community.
And by all accounts, working in Riverview can be an emotional experience.
Some girls brought in to Riverview can be really distressed on arrival.
“A lot of the time our referrals will come from social workers or Gardai which may be out of hours. The Gardai will have been called to some sort of situation and then will bring the child here - a place of safety. That being said, it's an open unit and they can walk back out but the option of staying is there,” said Orla.
At 16 years of age it is very difficult for a young person to be out of home and cared for by strangers. But with the right supports, early social work intervention and interim crisis care, Riverview can become the first step on the road to seeing a young person fulfilling her potential.
Riverview is run by Good Shepherd Cork which is an independent, registered charity that works with women and children who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness in and around Cork. It provides a continuum of care from emergency accommodation to long term supported housing, support and advocacy, and education and development.
Donations and fundraising are essential to their ability to provide these services to vulnerable women and children. If you would like to support this work, you can donate online at www.goodshepherdcork.ie/make-a-donation.