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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Government to apologise to families after report criticises gardai for handling of suspected Roma child abduction cases

Shane Phelan and John Downing

Published 01/07/2014 | 16:00

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Emily Logan, Ombudsman for Children
Emily Logan

The Government has apologised fully to the two Roma families whose children were wrongly taken from Gardaí who suspected they were kidnapped.

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny today said the Government will accept the report done by Children's Ombudsman, Emily Logan.

Mr Kenny told the Dail that this included a recommendation to apologise to the two families involved.

"It's not acceptable that these events happened," Mr Kenny said.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald this afternoon apologised to the families of the children. "We are sorry. We regret the pain they went through. It should not have happened. It just should not. It happened out of a determination to protect children, but that determination got skewed," she said.

The ombudsman's report on the two cases, which occurred last October at the height of the international furore over the alleged abduction of a blonde haired, blue eyed girl called Maria by a Roma family in Greece, was published this afternoon.

Emily Logan accused the gardai of racial profiling in the case of a child taken from his parents in Athlone, Co Westmeath, and identified a host of other failings in a case involving a child in Tallaght, Dublin.

She recommended that an official apology be made to the families of both children and urged gardai to improve its enforcement of the Childcare Act.

Her report on the two cases, which occurred last October at the height of the international furore over the alleged abduction of a blonde haired, blue eyed girl called Maria by a Roma family in Greece, was published this afternoon.

Ms Logan found that in the case of a child taken from its parents in Athlone, gardai should have evaluated the situation more critically before taking the two-year-old boy into care.

She found the gardai should not have drawn a negative inference from the initial hesitancy of the boy’s parents to produce his birth certificate.

Ms Logan also found the boy’s parents had informed gardai he had oculocutaneous albinism before he was placed in foster care, contradicting an “inaccurate” internal garda report which stated gardai only learned this the following day.

“It was unreasonable for An Garda Siochana not to weigh this information at all in the period prior to placing [the child] in care,” the report said.

“Whatever doubts the gardai had in relation to [the child’s] identity should have been put to rest when they were informed by [his] father that he was an albino.”

“The readiness to believe [the child] may have been abducted exceeded the evidence available to An Garda Siochana.

“To the extent [the child’s] ethnicity was so influential in determining the decision to remove him from the care of his parents, with no objective or reasonable justification, the actions of An Garda Siochana in this case conformed to the definition of ethnic profiling.”

Ms Logan also found that the boy’s parents were kept in a garda station for three hours without any representation or support. This was “not necessary or justified”, the report found.

She also concluded DNA testing was not an appropriate measure to employ when there was significant other information available to gardai.

The events had a serious impact on the boy and his family. A public health nurse described his parents as being pale and in a state of distress and shock, while the boy called out for his mother in the middle of the night after being taken into foster care.

In the case of the seven-year-old girl taken into care by gardai in Tallaght, Ms Logan found gardai should have evaluated concerns “far more critically”.

She said they had not been presented with any information that would suggest or support a conclusion the girl had been abducted.

“All that had been conveyed to An Garda Siochana was a suggestion, based on an erroneous view of the case of ‘Maria’ in Greece and an explicitly prejudiced view of the Roma community, that [the child] was abducted because she was blonde and had blue eyes,” the report said.

“The concerns set out should have been evaluated far more critically by An Garda Siochana and this should in turn have tempered the suspicions held by the gardai… to a significant degree.”

She found the Tallaght case was complicated after the Coombe maternity hospital was unable to find an entry in its records matching the child’s birth certificate.

As a result of this, a garda sergeant did not believe the birth certificate produced by the girl’s parents was genuine.

“This error on the part of the Coombe was highly unfortunate. Having received this inaccurate information, it was reasonable for [the sergeant] to have a doubt regarding the authenticity of the birth certificate,” the report said.

However, Ms Logan concluded “more substantial enquiries could have been undertaken” before gardai made any contact with the family.

The decision to take the Tallaght girl into care was driven primarily by a combination of inaccurate information from the hospital, past experience by gardai involved in the case of children being taken out of the jurisdiction, and a readiness to believe she may have been abducted because of her hair and eye colour.

Ms Logan also criticised the fact the family had to undergo DNA testing, describing it was “a disproportionate interference” in their private life.

But Ms Logan said she did not believe the actions of the gardai in the Tallaght case were motivated by any “consciously held prejudicial beliefs regarding the Roma community”.

She said the officer whose decision it was to take the child into care was widely regarded as being exceptionally committed and significantly experienced in the field of child protection.

The ombudsman was critical of the fact details of the case leaked to the media and said media coverage had a significant impact on the girl and her family.

The girl had changed her hair colour as a result, saying she did this to avoid being taken from her family again.

The report found that members of the public who raised concerns about the two children were heavily influenced by the media coverage of the ‘Maria’ case in Greece.

Speaking after the publication of the report, acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan said:

"It's important, not just to apologise on behalf of the police service, but to express the concerns of each of our members over what happened.

"Because we in An Garda Síochána are all about protecting vulnerable children. We really are."

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