News Comment

Saturday 23 August 2014

Soapbox: Racism isn't always so black and white

The investigators need to be let do their job, even if that means mistakes are made, says

Eilis O’Hanlon

Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30

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Illustration by Tom Halliday

The cool people have spoken. They’ve skimmed the report into the removal of two Roma children from their families in Athlone and Tallaght last autumn, rolled their eyes at the lack of enlightenment shown by some of their fellow countrymen, and concluded smugly: It’s all about the racism, innit?

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Knuckle-draggers in blue uniforms, inflamed by nasty right-wing myths about gypsies stealing babies for money, muscled their way into the homes of people for no other reason than that they looked a bit foreign and took away their blonde, blue-eyed children for no other reason than that they didn’t look foreign enough. That’s the story the maudlin, middle-class emoters wanted to hear, and that’s the one they’ve decided to tell themselves. There’s nothing more satisfying than the smell of outrage in the morning. Who needs nuance anyway?

It’s not as if there’s any excuse for not reading the whole thing. At under 200 pages, Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan’s report is refreshingly brisk as official documents go. It’s also written in a clear, lucid prose style, which mercifully avoids the usual jargon. If they had bothered to read it, the “Disgusted of Dublin 4” crew would discover a far more subtle document, one which avoids easy ‘racist police vs victimised ethnic minority’ cliches in favour of a clear appraisal of how exactly such mistakes happen, which turns out, surprise surprise, to be more about cock-up than conspiracy. It usually is.

Far from finding an Garda Siochana to be full of more bigoted rednecks than Smokey And The Bandit, it actually finds a force in which there is no evidence of racial profiling at an organisational level; one in which decisions have to be taken quickly, under pressure, on imperfect information.

There’s not a single word in the report, not one, to suggest that gardai in the cases of Child A (in Athlone) and Child T (in Tallaght) were driven by anything other than concern for the children involved.

In the case of Child T, it goes further, praising the chief officer in the case as one “widely regarded by professionals outside An Garda Siochana with whom he works as being exceptionally committed and significantly experienced in the field of child protection”. No

comic-strip bogeyman, he.

The report is equally assiduous in detailing the “reasonable” grounds for concern which gardai had in both situations, and in admitting, in Child T’s case, that there had been previous child protection concerns involving the family which influenced their decisions.

As the report concludes firmly, all these anomalies could and should have been allayed by more discreet questioning before moving in to remove children; and yes, racial profiling played a part, because ignorance of the culture of any community obviously makes it easier for mistakes to happen.

But mistakes do happen, and making sure they aren’t repeated is precisely why we have such reports in the first place. The Ombudsman for Children did her job diligently, in less than a year, and her recommendations should form the basis of future thinking on the issue. That’s how we put things right, fixing as we go.

The report isn’t perfect. If there’s one criticism of Logan’s findings, it would be the assertion that previous child protection issues identified in the case of Child T’s family should not have been given so much relevance in deciding what to do with her, because they were “unrelated” to the matter at hand. That seems impractical, to say the least.

Tusla, the new child-protection and welfare agency, has produced a Child Protection and Welfare Practice Handbook, which states explicitly that the first step any concerned professional should take is to “check whether your service/organisation has any previous records on the family/related child/parent”, adding: “It is important to connect incidents and events, not to treat them separately.”

That’s certainly the principle on which the Garda Central Vetting Unit is operated. Anyone who works with children, on a full, part-time or voluntary basis, even if it’s only standing by a football pitch for half-an-hour whilst the kids knock a ball around, now routinely has to get Garda clearance first to prove there are no convictions or concerns against their name in relation to other children. It seems bizarre to say that parents must jump through this hoop whilst simultaneously saying that previous child protection issues should not be taken into account when deciding whether other children in the same family are at risk.

But expecting a single report to answer every question is as absurd as demanding the gardai never make mistakes. The central finding of the report remains incontestable: in both these cases, gardai should have done more to ensure that evidence was watertight before making decisions with far-reaching consequences for children.

This mess came about because there was a rush to judgment, albeit for compassionate reasons. It may well be that officers will be damned if they do act, and damned if they don’t, because there are numerous scenarios one can envisage where a failure to act would be every bit as lamentable; but, as a rule of thumb, amassing the facts before acting is never a bad idea.

It’s ironic, though, that the cool people are condemning the gardai for rushing to judgment when they themselves have turned it into a modern art form. They certainly rushed to judgment with respect to alleged racism in the force. Who’s engaging in collective profiling now? They didn’t exactly hang about either, when unsubstantiated reports emerged about dead babies being “dumped” in septic tanks at mother and baby homes in Tuam, instead demanding that the UN move in to declare the area a war crimes scene, all the while accusing anyone who asked for more facts first of being part of a conspiracy of silence. That sort of self-righteous hysteria is considered acceptable — admirable, even.

If anything, the removal of these children from their families ought to be a warning against granting the State too many powers which can easily be misused by those who imagine, as the guards clearly did in this instance, that they’re on the side of the angels. Yet when campaigners against the 2012 Children’s Rights Referendum warned that proposed constitutional changes would make it easier for the State to take children away from parents, they were accused of scaremongering, and voters were reassured that this would only happen in “exceptional circumstances”. The Roma cases were a concrete example of what the State might choose to interpret as “exceptional circumstances”.

Time and again we’ve seen such moral panics arise, when state agencies, in their wisdom, move to invoke “exceptional circumstances” as justification to remove children from their parents. It wasn’t “racist” gardai who started the hysteria about alleged Satanic child abuse some years ago, but nice liberal social workers who’d been persuaded that the widespread ritualistic murder of children was a real phenomenon.

Hundreds were taken from their homes at the time and not returned for years. There’s a hint of the same air of hysteria now as many commentators, rightly appalled by the revelations about Jimmy Savile, convince themselves that predatory paedophiles in high places are the norm rather than a grotesque exception.

Meanwhile, gardai are urged to crack down on child trafficking while being condemned for — as they genuinely thought at the time — doing precisely that.

The cool people appear

to think the State,

despite all evidence to the

contrary, would never

make mistakes if only its agents went to a few

racial-awareness workshops. There are even calls  for the Traveller “community” to be consulted before such decisions are made in the future, a spectacularly bad idea if ever there was one. No other community is “consulted” before gardai make operational decisions. Nor should they be.

Investigators need the independence to make their own decisions. That includes the independence to make mistakes without having their integrity dragged through the dirt by people whose most important decision in a normal working day is whether to have a skinny latte or a cappuccino.

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