Thursday 18 July 2019

Gardai used racial profiling when taking Roma child

Two year old Iancu Muntean pictured with his mum Loredana and dad Iancu outside their home in Meadowbrook Estate Athlone
Two year old Iancu Muntean pictured with his mum Loredana and dad Iancu outside their home in Meadowbrook Estate Athlone
Iancu Muntean (2) was taken from his parents in Athlone

Shane Phelan and Niall O'Connor

THE State is expected to make six-figure settlements with the families of two blonde-haired, blue-eyed Roma children who were wrongly taken into HSE care last year.

The move is widely anticipated after Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan all issued apologies over the debacle.

One of the families, that of Athlone boy, Iancu Muntean, has already issued legal proceedings, seeking substantial damages for distress and defamation.

A report by Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan found gardai had been guilty of racial profiling after taking the two-year-old into care.

Her report also identified a host of other failings in a case involving a seven-year-old girl in Tallaght, Dublin and made several recommendations about the garda handling of child welfare and ethnic minority issues.

Both children were taken into care last October following erroneous 'tip-offs' to gardai. The events unfolded against the backdrop of the 'Maria' case in Greece, where a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl Bulgarian girl was found by authorities after being allegedly abducted by a Roma family.

"It's not acceptable that these events happened," Mr Kenny told the Dail. "I do apologise to those families, particularly the children who had to put up with these events."

Ms Fitzgerald indicated the Government may seek to agree an out of court settlement with both families involved.

"Clearly in terms of one family, they are involved in a legal process at present. Clearly, I would much prefer if a fair and adequate settlement could be agreed with the families," she said.

The minister added: "The State is sorry. We regret the pain that they went through. It should not have happened."

Ms Fitzgerald said the incidents happened out of a determination to help children, but that the determination had "got skewed".

Both families were visited yesterday by Ms O'Sullivan, who apologised on behalf of the force.

"The families have very graciously accepted that apology, and I'm very grateful to them for that," she said.

Ms O'Sullivan added the force would be implementing the recommendations in the Ombudsman's report.

She said discrimination "will not be tolerated" in the gardai and that there is "ongoing work to engage with the Roma community in particular, to get a better understanding (of them)".

"It is important to remember that members of the gardai operate in very unusual circumstances, in very stressful conditions, sometimes out of hours, and the full information isn't always available, and people have to make decisions."

In her report, which was commissioned by former justice minister, Alan Shatter, Ms Logan found in the case of Iancu Muntean, or Child A, gardai should have evaluated the situation more critically before taking the two-year-old boy into care on October 22 last year.

Ms Logan also found the boy's parents had informed gardai he had oculocutaneous albinism before he was placed in foster care. This finding contradicted an 'inaccurate' internal garda report, which stated gardai only learned this the following day.

"It was unreasonable for An Garda Siochana not to weigh this information at all in the period prior to placing Child A in care," the report said.

"Whatever doubts the gardai had in relation to Child A identity should have been put to rest when they were informed by Child A's father that he was an albino."

She found the garda actions in this case met the definition of racial profiling.

However, Ms Logan did not find racial profiling at play in the case of Child T, who was taken into care in Tallaght, Dublin on October 21 last.

She found the Tallaght case was complicated after the Coombe maternity hospital was unable to find an entry in its records matching the child's birth certificate.

As a result of this, a garda sergeant did not believe the birth certificate produced by the girl's parents was genuine.

Nevertheless, she concluded the concerns expressed in the tip-off received by gardai "should have been evaluated far more critically by An Garda Siochana".

She said "more substantial enquiries could have been undertaken" before gardai made any contact with the family. Ms Logan also criticised the fact the family had to undergo DNA testing.

But Ms Logan said she did not believe the actions of the gardai in the Tallaght case were motivated by any "consciously held prejudicial beliefs regarding the Roma community".

She said the officer whose decision it was to take the child into care was widely regarded as being exceptionally committed and significantly experienced in the field of child protection. The ombudsman was critical of the fact details of the case leaked to the media and said media coverage had a significant impact on the girl and her family.

The report found that members of the public who raised concerns about the two children were heavily influenced by the media coverage of the 'Maria' case in Greece.

It recommended the development of support and advocacy services to mediate between members of the Roma community and state agencies, enhancing cultural competency within the garda force, and the development of a protocol for gardai on the exercise of powers under the Child Care Act.

Irish Independent

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