'GPO girl' Samatha flies away from media glare

The case of 25-year-old Samantha Azzopardi demands compassion rather than condemnation, writes Noel Baker

SO she’s gone. Samantha Azzopardi may well have touched down on Australian soil by the time you read this, bringing an end to one of the more peculiar cases of lost or hidden identity this country has seen.

It emerged in recent days that Samantha, 25, from Campbelltown in New South Wales, has had more than 40 aliases in the past and also has a conviction for fraud.

When she was first found in this country, she was outside the GPO on O’Connell St in what was described as a “disturbed state”. As recently as Wednesday of this week, I spoke with a mental health professional who suggested that Samantha may have suffered a traumatic event before she came to this country. It seems everyone got the wrong end of the stick.

As Australian media reported yesterday, the press in this country turned against Ms Azzopardi, with terms such as ‘con artist’ and ‘hoaxer’ being applied, alongside the figure of up to €250,000 which gardaí spent in investigating the circumstances of her case.

According to Orla Barry of Mental Health Ireland, the young woman was vulnerable when she was thought of as a teenage girl, and she’s still vulnerable now. The backlash is more to do with our altered perception of her as details of her real identity emerged.

“My view is that the gardaí and the State, in general, acted completely appropriately in how they dealt with this young woman,” said Ms Barry. “The level of reaction she got is because we thought she was underage, so there was [initially] a huge level of concern.

“If they [the gardaí and other authorities] had known she was an adult at the time [of her discovery], it may never have hit the papers.

“The backlash is because she was not a child — there has been a very strong emotional response because of that.”

Ms Barry is absolutely right. Gardaí are not commenting on the case, but one source said the revelation, within hours of the unprecedented release of her photograph, that Samantha was actually an Australian citizen with a history of creating false personas was “a slap in the face”.

Within An Garda Síochána, it is felt the 2,000 police hours expended on the case at one of the country’s busiest stations could have been used more beneficially elsewhere, in addition to the complexity of bringing the case before the court, the huge amount of engagement with the HSE and the deliberation over whether or not to issue a photograph in the first place.

Even taking each case on its merits, if a similar scenario unfolded in front of the GPO in a month’s time, gardaí might be forgiven for wondering, ever so slightly, about the possibility of being bitten twice over.

But then again, these cases do not happen that often. Australian media has been reporting the complex background to Ms Azzopardi’s life in some detail — the more than 40 aliases, the conviction for fraud, the periods of absence from home and family.

Federal Police in Australia were well aware of her history and, via Interpol, were able to provide gardaí with information to solve the puzzle of her identity within five hours of the issuing of her picture this week. She then required a Garda escort on her flight back, to guard against further incidents on her journey home.

As psychiatrist Siobhan Barry pointed out, there are two exemptions to admissions under the Mental Health Act 2001 — for people with addictions, and for personality disorders.

While stressing that she knows nothing of the particulars of the Azzopardi case, Dr Barry said a personality disorder can be, for both the individual and their family, one of the most distressing conditions in the mental health spectrum.

She cites an article by SANE, the Australia organisation on Borderline Personality Disorder, that might ring a few bells: People with BPD are not ‘bad’. The anger and rejection that people with BPD display mean they are sometimes labelled as ‘bad’, ‘manipulative’ or ‘attention-seeking’.

“While things they do may at times lead to confusion, distress or inconvenience for other people, it should be remembered that this behaviour results from feelings of fear, loneliness, desperation, or hopelessness associated with BPD,” states the article.

Another senior psychiatric practitioner, with no involvement in the Azzopardi case, is Patricia Casey of the Mater Hospital. “In psychiatry, we deal with a lot of people the general public would regard as hoaxers but who have mental health problems,” said Prof Casey, adding that in her line of work, “the compassionate view” must be taken.

Some involved in the Azzopardi case might argue that compassion should be shown to the woman at the centre of this extraordinary scenario.

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