I am pleased and relieved that the children who were the subject of media reports this week have been reunited with their families, and that the concerns that arose on the part of the authorities in these two cases proved to be unfounded.
Quite clearly no fault of any nature attaches to the two families concerned for the events that took place and I have asked that the social services provide any support or assistance that they or their children require to cope with these very difficult events.
In each of these cases, the gardai responded in good faith to concerns reported to them. I am conscious that what occurred took place against a backdrop of events which took place outside this State.
In seeking to ensure that the welfare of children is fully and properly safeguarded and that every child in this State is afforded, where necessary, the protection of the State, it is important that no group or minority community is singled out for unwarranted attention, or, indeed, suspicion in relation to child-protection issues.
The emergency powers available to gardai under the Child Care Act 1991 are a critical part of our child-protection architecture, and ensure that the safety of a child can be assured while necessary inquiries are being made. The Garda Siochana is the only body who can, under Section 12 of the 1991 Act, remove a child from an immediate and serious risk to their safety on an emergency basis.
Cases where gardai may face such a decision include allegations of physical and sexual abuse, child abduction and child trafficking. These are extremely serious issues and gardai must be empowered to use their judgment, often in difficult circumstances with sometimes imperfect information, to make a decision as to whether to leave a child in place, or remove the child from any risk of danger. They can be open to criticism for either doing something or doing nothing.
While such procedures can be understandably distressing for parents, the reality is that not invoking the procedures can involve taking a risk with the safety of a child if you don't act on the basis of the information that is available at the time. Gardai keep their practices under continuous review in the light of their experiences in this complex area.
It is important that the issues of concern this week are addressed thoroughly. I have asked for a full report from the Garda Commissioner to be presented to me within two weeks on the background circumstances that led to each of these children being taken into care and the procedures that were followed.
My cabinet colleague Frances Fitzgerald, Children and Youth Affairs Minister, has sought a similar report from the HSE in relation to its role.
I am concerned that significant public knowledge developed about the circumstances of this case and the families involved, and I want to know the reasons for this. In order to respect and protect children and families at a deeply sensitive time, childcare court cases are heard in private. Although the new provisions in the Courts Act 2013 will provide enhanced transparency for the reporting of childcare cases, details reported will still protect the identity of the children and families concerned.
It is intended that the reports of the Garda Commissioner and the HSE will be furnished by Frances and myself to the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, who has been requested to conduct an independent review of the events which occurred and advise on any issue of concern and to make any relevant recommendations to ensure our child-protection services operate appropriately.
She will be able to raise any question of relevance including: how these cases came to the attention of gardai; the procedures of gardai; details of the involvement or engagement of the HSE; the manner in which the cases became public and any other matters of concern to her.
The fact that we can respond to the concerns of this week in this way is evidence that there is robust oversight of state interventions in this country. Incidents of concern can be quickly and independently investigated by competent and appropriate bodies. It is important now that an appropriate period of time is allocated to allow this process to take place and that people do not pre-judge its outcome.
We must not undermine faith in child- protection services. People should, of course, report to the authorities any reasonable concerns which they have about the safety of children and I was pleased to hear Geoffrey Shannon, the government's Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, re-iterate the importance of people continuing to make reports to gardai about child-protection concerns.
As a country, we have come a long way in identifying threats faced by children, often in their own homes. Part of that journey is to acknowledge the deeply difficult decisions faced by social workers, gardai and judges in making decisions that balance the rights of families and children.
That is why the Children's Referendum in 2012 introduced the requirement for intervention in families to be proportionate to any risk faced by children. Responding appropriately to unfounded allegations is part of that balance and I look forward to the report of the ombudsman on this issue in due course.
Alan Shatter is Minister for Justice