Racial profiling played a major part in the Garda handling of two cases in which Roma children were wrongly removed from their parents last October because of unfounded fears that they had been abducted.
In the case of Child A, a two-year-old boy from Athlone, the fact that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed child did not look typically Roma was key to raising doubts about his parentage and wrongly inflated the importance and urgency of other questions gardaí had about his identity.
Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan concluded: “The readiness to believe Child A may have been abducted exceeded the evidence available to An Garda Síochána. This was tied inextricably to the fact that Child A’s family is Roma.” In the case of Child T, a seven-year-old girl from Tallaght, Ms Logan concluded there were sufficient doubts about the child’s identity to give gardaí reasonable grounds for removing her from her parents, but the fact that she was held in care after those doubts were cleared up pointed to racial profiling.
Both cases were prompted by members of the public raising concerns about the children in light of the “Little Maria” story in Greece where a blonde-haired, blue-eyed five-year-old girl was removed from a Roma camp from a couple who were not her parents.
In both Irish cases Ms Logan found gardaí failed to properly evaluate concerns expressed by members of the public — which arose entirely from the publicity around Little Maria — before acting on them.
Another feature common to both cases was the failure of state agencies to share, or to have procedures for sharing, crucial information. In the case of Child A, a public health nurse contacted after he was taken into care was able to immediately confirm his identity and that albinism explained his appearance, but there is no procedure in place for gardaí to access public health data.
In the case of Child T, hospital staff made an error in failing initially to find records of the girl, but again gardaí have no way of independently accessing such information.
Ms Logan also found that the risk of the families involved fleeing the jurisdiction was a factor in prompting the removal of the children, but she said: “Whatever flight risk may have existed was largely created by the arrival of the gardaí” at their respective homes.
She said both cases pointed to a need to overhaul the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act which gives gardaí the power to remove children from their homes without a warrant or child care order where an immediate and serious risk exists.
The guidance made available to gardaí for use of section 12 “should include significantly more detail”, she said. The lack of such detailed guidance was “unacceptable”.
She also called for an annual audit of the use of section 12 — invoked on average 750 times a year — saying details should be recorded and published of the reasons cited for using the powers, the ethnic background of the children, and the time they were kept from their families.
Ms Logan said the cases highlighted a need for the force to better support gardaí working in child protection, noting that they were given the demeaning nickname, “cardigan guards”. She also said there was a need for the gardaí, state agencies and the media to better develop their understanding of the Roma community and she urged the Press Council to promote ethical reporting regarding ethnic minorities.
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