News Comment

Tuesday 16 September 2014

It is tragic Roma children had to suffer for us to learn painful lessons from this case

Published 02/07/2014 | 02:30

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Frances Fitzgerald
Frances Fitzgerald

YESTERDAY afternoon, Justice and Equality Minister Frances Fitzgerald published my report into the cases of two blond Roma children removed from the care of their parents by the Gardai in October of last year.

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At the heart of these cases was the use of a serious power by the Gardai; this is the power to take a child to safety in situations where there is an immediate and serious risk to the health and welfare of the child.

There is no doubt that this is an essential part of Ireland's child protection legislation. It is also undeniable that it places an onerous burden on gardai, requiring them to make difficult decisions in circumstances where they often have incomplete information.

The key is to ensure that this power is exercised in a proportionate way. This means that when gardai take action, it must be truly merited by the information available and in situations where there is no other way to ensure the child can be kept safe.

Ultimately, I found that in the two cases I investigated, the concerns gardai had regarding the children were not supported by the information available to them.

We must remember that two young children were taken away from their parents and placed temporarily in foster care; the two- year-old was away from home overnight, the seven-year-old child for a period of 48 hours.

This is obviously a very serious event for a small child. My inquiry found that the actions of the gardai in these cases had a serious impact on both children's families. It was distressing for parents and children to be separated. It was hurtful that their parentage was called into question. And, most significantly, the families felt that this would not be happening to them if they weren't Roma.

Following a detailed examination of the facts of both cases, I formed the view that the suspicions gardai had regarding the identity of the children exceeded the evidence before them, and that an additional element was required to explain their continuing doubts regarding the children's parents. I found that this readiness to believe that the children might have been abducted was inextricably bound up with the fact that the children's families are from the Roma community.

Although the primary focus of my recommendations was on how the State can make amends with the families in question, I also believe that it is important that gardai have the support they need to make the tough calls around keeping children safe.

During the course of my inquiry, I met with members of An Garda Siochana that are committed, talented and have significant experience in the area of child protection. We are fortunate to have such individuals working within the ranks of the gardai.

However, I believe that much more needs to be done to support these professionals. Gardai must be provided with more detailed guidance on how to assess the immediacy and seriousness of risks to a child's safety; this should include the unusual situations in which children's identities are in doubt. In addition, An Garda Siochana needs to invest more in developing the cultural competence of its members.

We should also remember that gardai do not work in a vacuum; social workers and health professionals can provide invaluable information to gardai when concerns are raised regarding the safety and welfare of children.

I found that this is an area where cooperation needs to be enhanced, as there are barriers to gardai being able to access critical information in a timely manner.

This is particularly important where doubts are raised regarding young children's identities.

Gardai don't generally have information that could assuage such doubts, whereas other services that engage with families on an ongoing basis – such as public health nurses – generally do.

The outcome I would like to see from this inquiry is, first and foremost, that the families at the heart of these cases are vindicated and that the wrong done to them is acknowledged.

It is also crucial that substantial efforts are made to rebuild the trust of the Roma community and improve that community's interaction with State agencies.

Finally, I would like to see members of An Garda Siochana being provided with the guidance and support they need to carry out their necessary but difficult task.

Emily Logan is the Ombudsman for Children

Irish Independent

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