News Lise Hand

Wednesday 27 August 2014

A child dyes her hair so she can look like her family. How sad

Published 02/07/2014 | 02:30

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Emily Logan, Ombudsman for Children
Emily Logan

The little girl insisted on dyeing her blonde hair dark. Not to look prettier, but to blend in. For at the tender age of seven, she had learned that big people in uniforms can come and take you away from your mummy and daddy, just because you look different to them.

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Child T didn't look like a Roma child should, according to those grown ups. She had fair hair and blue eyes instead of the black hair and brown eyes of many of her race. And the international headlines were full of stories of 'Maria', a blonde child who had been removed from a Roma camp in Greece amid suspicions she had been abducted.

And so, last October, the little girl spent two long nights – an eternity when you're so young – under the roof of strangers, until DNA tests proved that she hadn't been kidnapped or stolen at all. The terrified child was placed with foster parents who tried to reassure her, but she was inconsolable.

Her distress was revealed in the report by Children's Ombudsman Emily Logan in several poignant paragraphs: "The foster mother tried to coax Child T to put on a pair of pyjamas but she refused to take off her clothes or shoes. She lay on top of the bed, refusing to get in under the covers. The foster parents explained that Child T was upset and that she continued to cry until approximately 10pm, when the foster parents reported that she became so tired that she fell asleep."

Child A only spent one night away from home when the gardai came for him, too, last October, because he was also a pale little boy among a dark-skinned family.

He was only two years old, and had been diagnosed with a form of albinism in Portiuncula Hospital, Co Galway, where had been born.

In the aftermath of the two cases, the conventional wisdom went that perhaps Child A would be luckier – he was so young when he was forcibly taken from his home in Athlone, that he was less likely to be as traumatised as seven-year-old Child T in Tallaght.

But it seems not. At the launch of the report yesterday, Paul Connellan, the solicitor for the Athlone family, revealed that when a uniformed member of the force recently turned up on the doorstep, the little boy ran straight into the safe arms of his grandmother. Two years old, and he already fears the sight of authority.

The language used in the Ombudsman's report is moderate, but still tells a damning tale. At the launch, Ms Logan explained the effect of the garda interventions on the two Roma families who were left "feeling completely humiliated" and that "they had brought shame upon their communities".

She described the families as "very private individuals".

But any sense of privacy was shattered when the officialdom came for their children. And officialdom got it catastrophically wrong.

"In relation to ethnic profiling, it's a much more internationally-accepted term, but it's no reasonable justification for the action that was taken and in both cases, I'd say there wasn't a reasonable or objective justification for the action taken, except that the children did not look like their parents," said Ms Logan.

Earlier, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, inset, had met with the two families, and she wasted no time afterwards in making a public apology on behalf of the Government.

She went on to point out that a wider lesson for society in the wake of "this disturbing episode is that stereotyping of any community and the perpetuation of unfounded prejudicial myths about any sector of society must be tackled."

Well, perhaps Ms Fitzgerald can begin with the big men and women of the Garda Siochana among whom, according to the report, "there is a perception that members working in the area of child protection are referred to as 'cardigan guards', illustrating a lesser importance attached to their work".

Policing isn't just about breaking down doors of criminals, a la the macho men from 'The Sweeney'.

"When authority called to their doors, both these families were frightened because they were from the Roma community. They were afraid to do anything, other than acquiesce," said the Ombudsman.

That must be enough to make some big men feel very small indeed.

Irish Independent

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