Friday 21 October 2016

So how would you feel if your family was taken from you?

Colette Brown

Published 02/07/2014 | 02:30

Emily Logan, the Ombudsman for Children
Emily Logan, the Ombudsman for Children

How would you feel if gardai arrived at your door, questioned the parentage of your children – partially based on hair colour – and took them into care?

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How would your children cope if they were taken into care and driven off in a garda car to an unknown location for an indeterminate time?

Thanks to the report from Children's Ombudsman Emily Logan into the removal of two Roma children from their parents last year, we now know the full extent of the trauma and distress suffered by those families.

We know that the parents were described as being pale, distressed and in shock after their children were taken.

We know that the two-year-old boy, who was removed from his parents care for 24 hours, called out for his mother in the middle of the night and continued crying for her the following morning.

We know that the seven-year-old girl, who was separated from her family for 48 hours, was withdrawn, anxious and ate "virtually nothing" while she stayed with her foster family.

We know that when she was reunited with her parents, her mood changed instantly and she began dancing with delight, a contrast that prompted her foster mother to remark how deeply traumatised she must have been by the experience.

We also know that at the root of these families suffering was deeply ingrained prejudice about the Roma community and, in the case of the little boy, racial profiling by the gardai. A member of the public who sent an email outlining her concerns about the girl was armed with nothing more than the knowledge that her hair colour was different to that of her parents.

The email also stated the view that Roma people routinely abduct children in order to obtain social welfare benefits.

That salient piece of naked bigotry was omitted from internal garda reports, and from information provided to the courts, explaining what prompted their concerns for the girl.

The report also reveals that on the day the boy was reunited with his parents, a separate complaint from a member of the public was made about the same family.

That baseless report, to a garda station, prompted yet another investigation to determine if the boy was the same one who had been removed from his parents the previous day in Athlone.

Media hysteria regarding a case in Greece, in which a pretty blonde girl, Maria, was found living in a Roma camp, was the spark that set these latent prejudices alight.

But it doesn't explain why, given the extent of the worldwide media coverage of that case, Ireland was the only country in which Roma children were subsequently snatched from their parents.

What does it say about levels of racism among the public, and institutional racism among State authorities, that Ireland stands alone in ignominy as being the only country where children were taken from their parents after reports of the Greek case first surfaced?

Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter assured the Dáil in April that "the Garda Síochána does not as an institution engage in discriminatory profiling ... in respect of race, colour, language, religion, nationality, national or ethnic origin, ethnicity or membership of the traveller community".

That comment was sparked by revelations that details of Traveller children, below the age of criminal responsibility, were being added to the Pulse system, a file that will follow them around for their entire lives.

But this report is evidence that, in at least once case, gardai armed with nothing more than the imaginings of a member of the public did engage in racial profiling with devastating consequences.

The big question now is, what is going to be done about it? A State apology, from both the Taoiseach and the Justice Minister, is not enough.

Their words need to be bolstered by actions, and an urgent audit of the exercise by the Gardai of their powers, under the Child Care Act, to remove children needs to be commenced.

We need to know how many children have been removed from their homes, why and if their removal was a proportionate response to an assessment of "immediate and serious risk" to those children.

In order to have confidence in the Gardai, we need to confirm that these cases are isolated aberrations and have not, and will not, happen again.

Colette Brown

Irish Independent

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