The State is to compensate the parents of a two-year-old Roma boy wrongfully taken from them because of unfounded fears that he may have been abducted.
In a break with the usual Government response to civil suits, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said she wanted to resolve the Athlone couple’s claim for damages amicably by way of a settlement. Their solicitor welcomed her remarks, saying this was also the family’s preference.
A second Roma couple, the parents of a seven-year-old girl removed from her home in Tallaght for the same reasons, are also expected to lodge a claim.
Ms Fitzgerald’s remarks followed apologies to the families from herself, the Taoiseach, and the acting Garda commissioner.
“The State is sorry. We regret the pain that they went through,” said Ms Fitzgerald. “It should not have happened. It happened out of a determination to protect children but that determination got skewed.”
The incidents took place last October amid international hysteria over the discovery in Greece of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child with a couple who were not her parents in a Roma camp.
A damning report by Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan published yesterday found gardaí had overreacted to concerns raised about the fair-haired, pale-skinned Irish children by members of the public unduly influenced by the case in Greece.
She said racial profiling by the gardaí prejudiced their assessment of the risks to the children and she called for the force and all State agencies to improve their understanding of and relations with ethnic minorities.
“There wasn’t a reasonable or objective justification for the actions taken, except that the children did not look like their parents,” she said. In the case of the boy, gardaí ignored evidence that the child was albino.
Solicitor for the Athlone family, Paul Connellan, said their little boy still suffered after-effects. “Today at our meeting with the minister, one of the Garda officers arrived in uniform and he ran over to his grandmother immediately,” he said.
Waheed Mudah, solicitor for the Tallaght family, said the ordeal had been “extremely detrimental to their health and well-being”.
Ms Logan noted that the young girl now kept her hair dyed dark to disguise her fair locks.
She called for the overhaul of the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act which allows gardaí remove children from their parents without court orders in high-risk cases. She said there was an “unacceptable” lack of guidance and oversight in the use of the powers, which are invoked on average 750 times a year.
Acting Garda commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan, who also met the families, accepted the report’s findings and recommendations and admitted mistakes were made.
However, she added: “In order to protect children, such decisions often have to be made quickly, in highly pressurised, stressful, and unusual situations and with imperfect information.
“That’s what happened in these cases: gardaí set out to protect children and the unintended consequences were distressing.”
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