Monday 27 January 2020

Public must have faith in our new child-protection regime

Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

STOLEN by the State and torn from her family. It is a bleak description of what we now know was a reaction by gardai to an anonymous complaint, which arose simply because the little Roma girl was blond and her parents were sallow and dark-haired.

The country's child protection service has been mired in scandal for years because of the failure of authorities to intervene and effectively rescue children from abusive families.

Gardai as well as the HSE have failed children who were at risk. Now, this heart-rending episode which left a little girl traumatised and her family distraught, raises new concerns about the decision-making at the highest level of the gardai in particular.

What kind of risk assessment was carried out before the girl was taken? Was it based on some kind of vague suspicion and opinion, rather than on professional judgment after the gripping case of Maria, the blond girl found living with another Roma family in Greece.

Would this stand up to an independent test by experts on child protection? What kind of discussion took place with paediatricians?

The veil of secrecy surrounding so many cases means we don't know how many other families may be, on the face of it, targeted in this way. Cases are argued behind closed doors in courts not open to the public.

We know from various investigations carried out by the HIQA that many other children who are at potential risk and the subject of referral to the HSE are on waiting lists for proper assessment.

A lack of social workers and overstretched services have been blamed. But it also raises questions about a lack of best practice by gardai in a fraught area which, admittedly, is rarely black and white. There is still too little scrutiny of our child welfare and protection system – and too little accountability.

All of this comes as we are promised a new era with the removal of child protection and welfare from the umbrella of the HSE. It will be overseen by the Child and Family Agency to be established next year.

However, it will be the same staff who will operate the service on the ground. Gardai will also be integral to an inter-agency approach to the care of vulnerable children. It is essential the public can have faith in what is now a tarnished system.

Irish Independent

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