Monday 29 December 2014

Watchdogs to review Roma removals

Published 24/10/2013 | 11:16

Justice Minister Alan Shatter
Justice Minister Alan Shatter

Ireland's police and children's watchdogs will review the cases of two Roma families having children removed from their homes amid claims they could not prove their identity.

Two reports have been ordered on the controversial action by gardai and health officials after a seven- year-old girl was taken from her south Dublin home for 48 hours and a two year-old boy from his home in Athlone in the Midlands overnight.

Both children were subsequently proven to be members of the families with the girl returned home after DNA tests.

And amid deep concern over how and why the children were taken from the families Children's Ombudsan Emily Logan said she intends to investigate the cases.

The police watchdog, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission, said it has not received any complaints but has demanded copies of a report by the Commissioner Martin Callinan.

"We have requested this in order to inform ourselves fully of the circumstances of events so that we can take an appropriate position," a spokesman for the Garda Ombudsman said.

The Children's Ombudsman will be furnished with two reports - from Mr Callinan and the Health Service Executive (HSE) - in two weeks time.

Ms Logan has sought clarification from Justice Minister Alan Shatter before starting her investigation.

Both youngsters have blonde hair and blue eyes while their parents have darker complexions and hair, which is not out of the ordinary in the Roma community.

Amnesty International threw its weight behind calls from one of the families for an independent inquiry.

Colm O'Gorman, spokesman for the organisation in Ireland, said responses to reported child protection concerns needed to be proportionate and non-discriminatory.

"If it is found that the authorities' actions were discriminatory, steps must taken to ensure this is not repeated. There must be a public apology to the Roma families for the wrongdoing.

"The eyes of the world are now on Ireland, and the Government must show institutional discrimination will not be tolerated."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, in Brussels for an EU summit, said: "Clearly there are consequences to the action but it's only right and proper that we get a detailed report of what happened here and the balance that was struck between the safety, health and welfare of the children and the law as it stands."

Pavee Point, a support group for Irish travellers and the Roma community, has also called for an inquiry.

It said it fears there is hysteria after the case of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl named Maria who was found with a Roma family in Greece.

The organisation accused gardai and health chiefs of racial profiling.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter said it was important that the incidents were reviewed independently, but insisted he believes the authorities acted in good faith.

"I've no doubt that in these two cases the gardai acted in good faith," Mr Shatter said.

"Fortunately it turned out that the concerns that arose in these cases were unfounded and I'm very keen to ensure that any lessons that need to be learned are learned.

"As I said, any procedural changes that have to be implemented that they are implemented and that we have a comprehensive approach to this in the context of the connectivity between An Garda Siochana and the HSE."

A lawyer for the seven-year-old's parents said they believed the authorities had no proper basis for taking her into state care for two nights.

A member of the public raised concerns about her appearance by contacting a reporter on Facebook and he in turn reported it.

DNA results last night proved she belonged to her parents, who had maintained she was theirs since she was taken by authorities on Monday afternoon.

Separately, a Roma family in Athlone were reunited with their two-year-old son, who had been removed and spent Tuesday night in care. However, it is understood no care order was placed on the child.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has asked Gordon Jeyes, of the HSE, to report to her and both reviews will be sent to the Children's Ombudsman, who "may well wish to engage with the families".

Mr Shatter insisted that no minority community had been targeted in the episode.

"I am anxious to ensure that there is no question of any group or minority community being singled out for unwarranted attention or indeed, suspicion in relation to child protection issues," he said. "I don't believe that was an intention here."

Ireland's deputy prime minister, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, said questions need to be answered as to why the decisions were taken and by whom to remove the two children from their families.

"I would like to know what was the immediate and serious threat to their health or safety, which was considered to justify their removal from their family," he said.

Later, Ms Fitzgerald said it is critical that suspicions or concerns are acted upon appropriately.

"I'm extremely concerned for the family, for the children, who are involved in this situation," she said.

The Ombudsman's reports on child welfare issues are usually made public with no information that could lead to identification.

Ms Fitzgerald said she did not want to see the Roma cases put child protection measures back 10 years, as the Government's special rapporteur on the subject, Geoffrey Shannon, warned.

"We have had a history of silence in this country for a long time about child protection. We do not want to go back to that," she said.

"But equally the public out there have to be reassured that there is a balance and that people are acting appropriately at all times in terms of intervention. This would be a bad outcome if this returned us to that period of silence."

The minister said Section 12 of the Children's Act should only be used where there are serious concerns about a child and an imminent threat.

Press Association

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