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Saturday 21 October 2017

Dearbhail McDonald: Relief after mystery of 'trafficked teen' is finally solved

THE story of the "mystery girl" found in a very distressed state at the GPO almost four weeks ago bears all the hallmarks of a Nordic TV crime drama.

Picture the scene: a girl of indeterminate age, potentially a child-trafficking victim, is found alone and in distress.

She is taken into state care after being found by the gardai, apparently abandoned.

But nobody knows who she is, where she is from, or what happened her.

Thankfully it has now been established that the mystery girl, who gardai thought was aged between 14 and 16, is in fact a 19 or 20-year-old, or possibly older, and not the victim of child trafficking.

CONCERNS

An Australian, she had been in Ireland for several months before she was found "abandoned" outside the GPO on Dublin's O'Connell St.

Initially it seemed that she could not assist the authorities to help confirm or establish her identity, leading to concerns about how she came to be in Ireland.

She left clues to her fate with pictures she had drawn that suggested she could have been the victim of a crime.

For a time she was placed under police protection in a hospital where she was being treated – a court previously heard she attempted to leave on several occasions.

Meanwhile, the HSE and her court-appointed legal guardian disagreed over whether she should be placed in a secure or non-secure facility.

The plight of the GPO girl was catapulted into the public domain due to the unprecedented decision by the Garda Commissioner to seek permission from the courts to publish her photo.

The Commissioner asked the High Court to relax the rules of the Child Care Act 1991 after gardai "hit a brick wall" and had reached a deadlock in their efforts to identify her.

This was despite an extensive garda inquiry – over 2,000 man hours and 115 separate lines of inquiry.

It is baffling that the nationality of the girl, who can understand English, was not established for almost four weeks after she was found. One of the oddities is that having secured a court order to release the girl's photo, the images released were obscure.

But the court order was pivotal.

Now it has emerged that she was over the age of majority after all, rendering the court order, like much of the early part of the Garda inquiry, potentially futile.

VULNERABLE

Within hours of the images being released, the girl was identified and gardai are now working closely with their counterparts in Australia.

The GPO girl case is mysterious, but it also raises important issues of public law as it relates to vulnerable children and young adults.

Some 513 separated children, many of them unaccompanied minors – some of whom may have been trafficked to this country – went missing from State care between 2001 and 2010, the height of the Celtic Tiger years.

More than 400 are still unaccounted for. There have been a number of high profile horrors involving children in recent years.

They include that of the monstruous Joseph Fritzl, who held his daughter Elizabeth captive for decades, and the case of Ariel Castro who committed suicide last September after kidnapping three women.

The puzzling GPO girl saga and the unprecedented court action by gardai raised fears that Ireland was experiencing its own child exploitation horror.

Refusing to have the application to publish the photo held in camera (private), High Court judge Mr Justice George Bermingham said that childcare matters are in the public interest. The judge also said there seemed to be a public interest in how the authorities respond to cases such as this.

Thankfully she is not the victim of child trafficking and her identification is a relief for all.

Irish Independent

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