The Shannon audit found no evidence that Section 12 is being used in an over-zealous manner by An Garda Síochána, and that the fall-out from the 2013 Athlone and Dublin Roma cases meant some gardaí were more anxious about using it.
Section 12 is the principal legal mechanism through which An Garda Síochána performs its child protection function, authorising a Garda to remove a child from the care of their family where they believe there is an immediate and serious risk to their health or welfare.
It is based on the judgement of the individual Garda and the report suggests that exercising Section 12 removal of children is a “rare occurrence” and that “an individual member may only invoke the Section 12 power a handful of times over his or her entire career”.
The report said there was “a significant degree of critical sophistication” in how gardaí utilised their Section 12 powers and there was “no evidence that decisions to exercise Section 12 are taken lightly, or that alternatives to removing the child were not considered”.
Data shows that Section 12 powers peaked in June 2009 (98 times), July 2010 (99) times and October 2013 (92 uses). After that last date its use fell away considerably. Nationally there were 762 section 12 incidents in 2013 but the following year the figure was 595. While the number of cases increased in the southern region from 2013 to 2014, in the Dublin region they more than halved in 2014 to 105. The report says this is “noteworthy”, pointing out that it occurred following the appointment of the Ombudsman for Children investigation into two separate incidents in October 2013 in Athlone and Tallaght when Roma children were wrongly removed from their families.
According to the report: “The interview stage of the audit found some evidence that the fallout from the ‘Tallaght’ and ‘Athlone’ cases has resulted in a degree of anxiety among some members of An Garda Síochána in the exercise of the child protection powers under Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991. This general finding of Garda reluctance to use Section 12 may create a situation where children are not removed from situations where it would be best to do so.”
The report also said there was little or no emphasis on formal training of new Garda recruits in relation to child protection, with ‘on-the-job’ training taking precedence over formal core training. The audit found no evidence that racial profiling influences the exercise of Section 12 powers but the report also said certain ethno-cultural demographic information does not appear to be routinely documented by An Garda Síochána on the PULSE system.
The audit said it was “unquestionably clear” that gardai are very concerned with ensuring the child’s experience in Garda care is not traumatising.
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