It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to have their children taken away from them.
All the more so in a foreign country where they barely speak the language — and where the removal is the result of information, in one case racially motivated, given by other people.
It’s a situation that has the potential to inflict serious — even traumatic — effects on the children affected.
But it is also a nightmare — albeit of a professional nature — for those frontline gardaí who have to make the awful decision, based on limited information and in stressful circumstances.
And it is an area of Irish society that has seen a succession of tragedies and inquiries where the lack of action by gardaí was either questioned or criticised.
This is the messy and complex territory that Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan had to negotiate as she examined the full circumstances surrounding the forced removal of two children from their Roma families last October.
Those removals — of a seven-year-old girl in Tallaght, west Dublin, and a two-year-old boy in Athlone — stemmed from international hysteria surrounding the removal of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl, known as Maria, from a Roma couple in Greece.
Like Maria, the children here were blonde and blue-eyed.
Following the publicity, separate messages were relayed to gardaí from people giving names and addresses of such children here.
In the Tallaght case, the message had “unambiguously racist” overtones, said Ms Logan.
Unfortunately the racist part of the message was not passed on to the sergeant in Tallaght who conducted the investigation.
What followed was the forced removal of Child A from Athlone and Child T from Tallaght, using emergency powers under Section 12 Child Care Act 1991.
Ms Logan was very critical of gardaí in both cases for not “critically evaluating” the initial concerns they received.
In the Tallaght case, Ms Logan accepted that inaccurate information given to Sergeant A by Coombe Hospital — that they did not have a record of the birth of the Child T — did constitute a reasonable ground for concern.
She also pointed out that there had been three cases in the area where children had been removed from the jurisdiction. She accepted that it was “a very, very tough situation” for the sergeant.
But she said that when the Coombe came back later with correct information, it was “unreasonable” to have further grounds. She said there had to be “another reason” — which she said was a “readiness to believe” that the child may have been abducted stemming from a perception of the particular family that she did not resemble.
She said Child T’s “ethnic background was relevant”.
Ms Logan stopped short, in the report, of describing the Tallaght gardaí of using “ethnic profiling” in its decision. She did state it in relation to the Athlone case.
But in a Q&A session after publishing her report she said that “in both cases there wasn’t a reasonable or objective justification for the actions taken, except that the children did not look like their parents”.
She said the parents had been “completely humiliated” and “distressed” by the ordeal. She said the seven-year old was “traumatised” to the extent that she since dyed her hair.
Ms Logan did point out that gardaí involved believed they were acting in the best interests of the children.
She said Sergeant A in Tallaght was “widely regarded” by professionals outside the force as being “exceptionally committed” in the field of child protection.
The ombudsman also stressed that despite her findings she would “not discourage gardaí from invoking section 12”. But she said they must meet the threshold of an immediate and serious risk to the child.
Garda sources involved in the cases have told the Irish Examiner that officers on the ground “never have more than 70% of information when making an operational decision” and that it was “better to make a mistake than have a terrible tragic case”.
And there have been tragedies in the past. There has been the Kilkenny Incest Investigation of 1993, which strongly criticised the guards. There was the case of six-year-old Deirdre Crowley in 2001 and the Monageer tragedy in 2008.
In fact, a main recommendation of the Monageer report was: “Where a member of An Garda Síochána receives a report and has reasonable grounds for believing there is an immediate and serious risk to the health and welfare of a child, he/she should take immediate action.”
Acting Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan apologised to the families yesterday. She said she accepted the findings and that there were mistakes, but said it was “easy to reflect back” with “20-20” vision. She said decisions were often made “quickly, in highly pressurised, stressful and unusual situations, and with imperfect information”.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said the determination of the gardaí to protect children had got “skewed” in the two cases. The gardaí, she said, made a “succession of mistakes”. Essentially, she said, they made the “wrong call”.
The removal of the two Roma children from their families took place against the backdrop of worldwide publicity surrounding the discovery of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed five-year-old girl living in a Roma camp in Greece raided by police investigating suspicions of weapons trading.
With the Madeleine McCann story never far from the headlines, Little Maria, as she became known, was soon at the centre of speculation about child abduction and trafficking by Roma gangs.
Within days of the story breaking, members of the public here raised concerns about the identities and parentage of the two-year-old boy in Athlone and the seven-year-old girl in Tallaght.
It turned out Little Maria was not the child of the Roma couple she was living with but her story was a lot more complex than originally suggested as she had been given away to them as a baby by her Bulgarian mother who could not care for her.
The couple claimed they wanted to adopt her but did not know how to go about the formalities.
They were charged and convicted of child abduction while the civil courts began a protracted examination of the best arrangements for Maria’s future.
Last month the courts decided she should remain with the Greek charity for orphaned and abandoned children that has been caring for her. She is to stay living with the Smile of a Child charity until she is 18.
There is a possibility she may have contact with the Roma couple who were the only people she recognised as her parents until last October but a formal application by the couple has yet to be made to the courts.
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