IT started with a woman watching television in Tallaght.
The story of Maria, a blue-eyed, blonde-haired child who was dramatically taken from a Roma couple in Greece on suspicion that the child wasn't theirs, was running on every news channel. On Monday morning, it was still headline news, and the child's face beaming out from the television screen apparently put the woman in mind of a Roma family she knew.
"Hi Paul Today was on the news that blonde child found in a Roma camp in Greece. There is also a little girl living in the Roma house in Tallaght and she is blonde and blue eyes. Her name is **** and her address is ****. I am from **** myself and it's a big problem the missing kids."
Paul Connolly's production team spotted the post that morning and emailed the star of the show.
"It was very, very specific, which made me worry. It had the name of the child, a very clear description of the child, the address of the child," Connolly later explained. "As is protocol obviously here in TV3, I forwarded it to the Garda Press Office and from there it really kicked off. The child protection services in Tallaght garda station were onto me almost immediately."
On Monday afternoon in a housing estate in Tallaght, a family went about its business. The television was on. Children played. At 4.30pm, they opened the door to two female gardai and a male sergeant. They were attached to the child protection unit in Tallaght garda station.
They asked to speak with the parents. The family was accommodating and brought them into their home. Amidst the children, they saw the blonde, blue-eyed girl who they had come to make inquiries about.
They explained why they were there, and were sceptical of the parent's insistence that the child was theirs.
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One of the gardai rang a consultant at Tallaght Hospital to ask about the likelihood of a Roma family giving birth to a blonde, blue-eyed child. According to sources, the consultant told the garda it was unlikely.
Her parents gave gardai the child's date of birth, at the Coombe Hospital in Dublin in April 2006. The Coombe could not find a record of the child's birth. Apparently there was confusion because the child went by her middle name.
The parents were asked to produce a birth certificate, but according to sources, they could not find one. Eventually they found the child's passport, but the photograph was of the child as a baby. By now it was after 6pm.
The family had been grilled for two hours on their daughter's identity. Gardai were still not happy. The sergeant's view was that the child should be removed from the family home while they investigated her identity. A more senior officer at Tallaght garda station, an inspector, was summoned to the house. At 6.30pm, the sergeant charged with the investigation invoked Section 12 of the Child Care Act, which allows gardai to remove a child where there is an immediate risk to the child that cannot wait for the courts to open.
The sergeant took the seven-year-old girl and carried her from the house to the waiting garda car outside, his three colleagues keeping the rest of the family at bay. There were no social workers present or interpreters to convey what happened.
The cold facts, outlined in the preliminary reports that have since been ordered by the Garda Commissioner, portray nothing of the family's devastation that their child was taken from them. But Gabby Muntean, a support worker with the Roma Support Group, later said they felt treated like "savages": "They said the child is 100 per cent theirs and offered blood tests and DNA tests."
The child spent her first night in the care of the Health Service Executive – probably not too far away, because, as her family later discovered, she went to school the next day as normal.
As the health authorities prepared to apply for an emergency care order in the District Court that Tuesday morning, the Coombe contacted Tallaght garda station with a clarification. They had found a record confirming the child's birth on the date her parents gave them, April 2006.
At 10.30am, the District Court judge heard an application for an emergency care order which, as with all such cases, was heard in camera. The child remained in the care of the State for a second night, while DNA tests were conducted to confirm the relationship between the girl and her parents.
By then, the story was out. A journalist with the Sunday World had broken his "exclusive" on the newspaper's website that morning. By lunchtime, social media networks buzzed with speculation and reporters and photographers thronged outside the family home in Tallaght.
As support groups warned that afternoon against "hysteria" and "witch hunts" against the Roma community, someone in Athlone telephoned a local garda station, tipping them off to a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy living with a Roma family in the town.
Iancu Muntean, 22, arrived home from work on Tuesday evening to a garda interrogation about his child's ethnicity. He spent two hours at the garda station in Athlone, telling the detectives how his youngest son was born in Portincuila hospital in 2011. He offered a DNA sample to prove his parentage but was told his son would have to be taken into care for one night while they awaited the results. He later explained: "I was shocked, but it is the guards. I said to the guards, 'You have power, I don't have power.' What can I do? I don't make trouble."
As his child was being driven away, he told the officers: "Please don't make him cry, please don't make him upset . . . Please bring my son home, I'll just give you whatever you want, just take me, not my son."
That night, neither he nor his wife could sleep. He spoke of his relief on Wednesday morning to get a telephone call to say the results had confirmed the child's paternity and that he could pick up his son from the local health centre at midday. He took the child to McDonald's.
Meanwhile, the Roma family in Tallaght – who, unlike the Munteans, cannot be named for legal reasons – would wait several worrying hours before their child came home.
Outside their terraced home in Tallaght, the international and national press had beaten a path to their door. The child's family had been advised not to speak to the media, but they treated the news pack with courtesy and generosity. One of the child's sisters brought out a tray of mugs of tea, and offered around slices of Swiss roll. They were "very sad" at what happened, she said. They had not seen her since she had been taken from them, and had been unable to speak to her. But they were confident she would be coming home.
After a third hearing in the District Court on Wednesday evening, the seven-year-old child returned to her family, bundled up in the arms of her father, who carried her past the waiting media across the threshold of her home. "We are so happy to have her home, we just never want this to happen to another Roma family," he said.
The trauma to both families and the two children has been profound. The family in Tallaght have said that the little girl didn't eat for three days and woke up screaming for her mama on her first night back in her own bed.
The dramatic and highly publicised seizure of two Roma children in one week, and their equally dramatic return to their families, has provoked debate that straddles racism and child protection.
Pavee Point, the organisation representing the Traveller and Roma communities, has described the taking of children into care in such circumstances as "two State abductions" which it believes are linked to racism and discrimination against the Roma community.
Public confidence in child protection measures has also been damaged, prompting questions about the level of evidence required to warrant such an extreme State intervention as the removal of a child from its family.
And more complex factors may yet emerge in what has been portrayed as the overzealous response of a police force acting on foot of ill-founded suspicions raised with a television show.
The Children's Ombudsman, Emily Logan, has been given special powers to investigate the actions of the gardai and the Health Service Executive. This weekend, the authorities involved in both operations are preparing detailed reports on their actions, and the suspicions underpinning them, for the Garda Commissioner, the minister and the Ombudsman.
She has promised that she will not "rubber stamp" the reports given to her by either agency, but intends to conduct her own "independent, impartial investigation".
Dr Geoffrey Shannon, the Government-appointed Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, has called for balance. He co-authored a recent review of children who have died in State care.
"If one thing stands out it is the failure of the State to act," he said.
"What has happened here is a hype around this case, linked to international developments, which has prevented us taking a more rational view. I know that this power (Section 12) is a necessary power in relation to the protection of children. The real danger is that gardai may now be reluctant to use it in the aftermath of this situation."
But the families in Tallaght and in Athlone have made it clear that they believe that their race had everything to do with the trauma they and their children endured last week. In Athlone, Mr Muntean said he believed he was discriminated against.
And in a statement issued through their solicitor, Waheed Mudah, after getting their daughter back, the family in Dublin uttered similar sentiments: "They do not accept that there was any sufficient basis to take their daughter away from them, causing her and them the upset which has been caused. They find it very difficult to believe that this would ever have happened simply because one child of a family looked different from her brothers and sisters.
"They are very conscious of the fact that this case has been linked with events in other countries which have nothing to do with them and that there has been a vast amount of publicity about their situation."
They also invited the nation to do some serious soul-searching, asking how other parents would feel if one of their children was taken away in similar circumstances for similar reasons.
"They hope no other family has to go through the experience they have just suffered."
Yesterday, the seven year old girl in the eye of the storm stood at the front door, beside her mother and her siblings. Asked how she was, her mother gestured towards her little girl. Was she glad to be home? "Yes," the child said, nodding vigorously. Her distinctive eyes – the source of so much misunderstanding – shone a piercing greeny-blue.