The first of July saw the Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan welcome the Minister for Children’s publication of the findings of her special inquiry into the removal of two Roma children from their family environment by Gardaí.
For Crime.ie, Ger Leddin looks back at some of the details of these cases.
In order to understand the public perception and sentiment around the time these events were happening in Ireland we must look at international events occurring at the same time.
Last October the international media were reporting the case of a mystery fair-haired child who had been taken away by police form a Roma couple with whom she had been living with in Southern Greece.
The police had been conducting a raid looking for weapons and drugs when they became suspicious of fair-haired green-eyed girl who looked different from the couple who claimed to be her parents.
The police took Maria in to care and subsequent DNA testing revealed that the child was not related to the couple. One of the topics spoken of in connection with Maria’s case was. How could this “blonde angel” Maria be the natural child of her dark-skinned parents?
The Maria story also fueled media reports relating to Roma families being involved in illegal adoption and child abduction throughout Europe in an attempt to gain enhanced social insurance and child welfare payments.
The two Irish Roma children — one in Athlone and another in Tallaght — were removed from their homes by Gardaí acting under Section 12 Child Care Act 1991, this provision allows for children at risk, to be removed from their homes in emergency situations.
An Garda Siochana’s policy on the use of these powers is set out in their own policy document entitled The Garda Siochana Policy on the Investigation of Sexual Crime, Crimes against Children and Child Welfare (2013). This policy document contains two central tenets, which are; Firstly that it is generally in the best interests of a child to be brought up in their family and that the welfare of the child is the first and paramount consideration.
The case of child “A” who lived in Athlone was first brought to Garda attention when at 9.53am on Monday 21 October 2013, the Missing Persons Bureau at Garda Headquarters received an email regarding Child A from a member of the public. The subject line of the email read “Suspected Child Abduction”. This subject line is important to note as it appeared on subsequent emails, which issued from the Missing Persons Bureau and possibly added an unfounded weight to the allegations.
It emerges in the Ombudsman’s report that the initial email to the Missing Persons Bureau was sent by a lady who remembered coming across a family of Roma traders while at a festival in Clare during July 2013. During this casual meeting the Lady noted that the Roma boy was different in looks and complexion than the rest of his family. She said in her email “I commented on his colouring and the young woman then said “ehh his grandfather” meaning he got his genes from his grandfather. Apart from the baby, all the others were completely dark in complexion, eyes and hair. She also commented “The recent news about the little girl Maria who was found in Greece made me realise that I should have reported it.”
This email to the Missing Persons Bureau did not include the name of the child but set in motion a chain of events, which led to the removal of the young child from his parents. Gardaí in County Clare examined the details provided by the Roma family to Clare County Council in order to obtain a license to trade at the festival and on the following day — Tuesday the 22nd of October — contacted Athlone Gardaí with a request for Gardaí from that station to call to the family’s home and “to make enquiries as whether a small boy is a member of that family.” This request resulted in a visit by members of Athlone Gardaí to the family home later that day.
A Garda sergeant established that no records of Garda concern relating to child protection concerns existed in relation to that particular family. A particular Garda (referred to in the report as Garda J) who was familiar with the family and who had a good relationship with them, was tasked with carrying out initial inquires.
When two members of the Gardaí called to the house the child in question was present, as were his mother and father. The Garda noticed that Child A was blonde, pale and had blue eyes, and that he did not appear to resemble his parents. He then asked Child A’s mother who the child’s parents were; Child A’s mother said that the child was her son and that her partner was the child’s father.
The attending Garda was concerned with some aspects of the child’s birth certificate, which the parents had produced, and after consulting with colleagues requested that the parents voluntarily accompany him to the station, which they agreed to do.
At 7.30pm that evening the parents and the child were being interviewed at Athlone Garda station. Enquiries were made with Portiuncula Hospital, which confirmed that the child’s mother had given birth to a baby boy on the same date as appeared on the birth certificate however the hospital could give no further details relating to the child’s appearance.
The Ombudsman’s report states that: “There was consensus among them [Gardaí] that the information provided by the hospital was not sufficient to assuage their doubts. A number of other avenues were explored to gather further information, including the possibility of contacting the midwife who assisted with Child A’s birth and other Health Service Executive staff members.”
At 9pm that night Garda J determined that his concerns relating to the child’s identity had not been addressed and as it was agreed among other members present that no further information would be obtained that night Section 12 would be invoked in order to protect the child. The ombudsman’s report also refers to concerns the Gardaí had regarding the risk of flight if the child were to be returned home as being a contributory factor in the decision to invoke Section 12.
Also on Monday the 21st of October, a TV journalist sent an email to the Press Office of An Garda Siochana containing a message that had been left by a member of the public on his Facebook account. The message read as follows:
“Today was on the news the blond child found in Roma Camp in Greece. There is also little girl living in Roma house in Tallaght and she is blond and blue eyes. [sic] Her name is [Child T] and the address is [Child 1's address]. I am from [country in Eastern Europe] myself and it’s a big problem there missing kids. The Romas robing [sic] them to get child benefit in Europe.”
The Garda Press Office forwarded the journalist’s email to Tallaght District at 11:13 that morning and a Sergeant (A) undertook preliminary enquires to establish were there any child protection concerns relating to that particular child or family. The Sergeants enquires revealed that “There were no child protection records relating to Child T. There were two child protection records relating to her older sisters dating back a number of years. Those cases had been closed and had no connection with child abduction.” Some internal enquiries revealed that a Garda (B) at the station was aware of a child of Child T’s name at the house in question but did not have any further details in relation to her.
The Principal Teacher at the local school was contacted and informed Gardaí that Child T did attend her school and was a member of the Roma community, but that “Child T was the name she preferred to go by; she was in fact registered under a different first name (“U”). The Principal said Child T had been in the school for over three years – since Junior Infants – and that as far as she knew or could vouch for, Child T was the child of her parents. The school had no child protection or welfare concerns with respect to Child T, nor was there any difficulties with school attendance.”
The Department of Social Protection were contacted by investigating Gardaí and confirmed that they had details in relation to a number of children in that household but that there was no child by the name of Child T; they did, however, have a record of a child named (U).
During the early afternoon Sergeant (A) along with two other plainclothes Gardaí arrived at the child’s family home. Sergeant A informed the family that they were calling to make enquiries regarding the children’s identities as a follow up to previous child protection concerns. Sergeant A’s report on this case indicated that he noted the presence of a young girl, about seven years of age, who had blonde hair and blue eyes and whom he said was strikingly different in appearance from the rest of her family.
As the afternoon progressed more and more of child T’s extended family arrived at the house and three community Gardaí also attended. A further three members of An Garda Siochana also came to the house later, though Sergeant (A) had not requested them to do so. This included an Inspector, a Detective Sergeant and another Sergeant. There were nine Gardaí there by the end, some of which were in uniform.
Sergeant (A) later told the ombudsman’s enquiry that he felt there were grounds to invoke Section 12 on the basis that:
- Child T did not resemble the rest of her family; the Coombe Hospital had informed him that there was no record for her
- No birth certificate or passport had been produced in respect of Child T; the consultant in Tallaght Hospital with whom Sergeant A spoke indicated that it would be highly unusual for a child with blonde hair and blue eyes to have two parents with dark hair and dark eyes;
- Child T went by another name, “U”, which was the official name recorded in her school and on the Department of Social Protection’s records;
- Members of Child T’s family had come to the attention of An Garda Siochana in the past for both children protection and criminal matters;
- Sergeant A felt that in the event that Child T was not in fact the child of the people in whose care she was at that time, Child T might be removed from the jurisdiction. Sergeant A indicated that his concern regarding the flight risk arose because:
- Sergeant A had been informed that Child T’s older sister had outstanding warrants in relation to low-level criminality and was currently residing in Romania with her grandmother;
- Sergeant A was of the view that Child T’s father travelled to the UK and Continental Europe on a regular basis;
- Sergeant A was aware of other cases in which children had come to the attention of the HSE and An Garda Siochana for child protection reasons and had subsequently been removed from the jurisdiction.
Both Child A and Child T were after the invoking of Section 12 delivered into the custody of the health Service executive where they were cared for by foster parents until their identity could be established and they were returned to the care of their parents the following day.
Every one understands the need for the Gardaí to act quickly and decisively when it comes to investigating crime, particularly crimes which endanger children. Occasionally the Gardaí are expected to act with the Wisdom of Solomon and at times balance short term concerns with longer-term damage.
The Ombudsman points out in her report that in both cases — Athlone and Tallaght —, members of An Garda Síochana had not received any specific training to assure their cultural competence with respect to the Roma community. In reality, this meant that stereotypes and generalisations about the Roma community were left unchallenged by Gardaí.
The Ombudsman also states that:
“In light of the seriousness of the power in question and the necessarily subjective nature of a Garda’s perception of immediate and serious risk to a child, the guidance made available to members of An Garda Síochana – any of whom could be called on to invoke section 12 of the 1991 Act in the course of their duties – should include significantly more detail. The lack of such detailed guidance on the implementation of section 12 is unacceptable.”
Issues with out of hours social protection access and unfounded and deeply prejudiced myths regarding members of the Roma community abducting children need to be addressed. It remains to be seen will the recommendations made by the Ombudsman be heeded or join the stacks of similar reports gathering dust in Kildare Street.