Roma probe contrasts with treatment of at-risk children
The Irish State moves quickly to intervene when suspicions are raised about children's hair colour but is much slower to act when concerns are raised for their welfare.
Gardai moved with lightning speed to remove two blond children from the care of their Roma parents, in separate parts of the country, in recent days.
As far as we know, there were no concerns about the children's health or welfare. No indication that the children were at risk, were being mistreated or were trafficked.
According to RTE, the children were separated from their families because their "features, blond hair and blue eyes, contrasted with the other children in the family".
Evidently, unlike every other ethnic group in the world, Roma people don't carry the recessive gene that results in blond hair.
Or, at least, that appears to be the strange science that has empowered gardai to snatch children from their families solely on the basis that they are blond.
Luckily for my dark-haired parents, gardai never appeared at their door when I was growing up because my sister has red hair and I am blond.
Of course, they're not Roma and are not subject to poisonous stereotypes, which deride them as thieves, beggars and child-kidnappers.
It is unthinkable that gardai would appear at an Irish family's home and take a child into care because their hair colour was at issue. Or, at least, it was before this week.
Under the Childcare Act, in order to remove children from their family home, gardai have to have reasonable grounds for believing there is "an immediate and serious risk to the child".
The fact that one of the children, a two-year-old boy, was returned to his parents less than 24 hours after being taken into care, raises serious questions about whether this onerous test was met.
Meanwhile, it has yet to be explained why the other child, a seven-year-old girl, was not left in the care of her family while a DNA test was carried out.
These questions will have to be answered. And it will have to be established that the state's extraordinary intervention was motivated by more than a hysterical media reaction to reports of a pretty blond girl being found in a Roma camp in Greece – reports which, coincidentally, immediately preceded the Irish cases.
Parental rights in this country are afforded the highest constitutional protections and any encroachment by the State on these rights must be proportionate and must be in the best interest of children.
The speed with which these children were removed from their homes belies the usual snail-like pace of child-welfare investigations. Last week, the Children's Ombudsman revealed that the HSE failed to intervene over several years after a child made multiple allegations of rape.
Meanwhile, a recent report revealed that more than 4,100 children who were assessed by the HSE as needing intervention had to wait more than three months for a social work team to be assigned to them. Incredibly, in one area, children were left waiting for more than a year before a social worker was allocated to their case.
Children, thousands of them, are left to fend for themselves, at risk of continued abuse and ill-treatment, because childcare services are so woefully underfunded.
All complaints of child abuse and neglect should, of course, be investigated speedily. But the intervention of the State must at all times be proportionate to the risk to the child.
Instead of taking children from their families because they have the wrong hair colour, perhaps social workers could instead be assigned to work with children who have already been identified as needing urgent support.
Or, is that too much to ask?