The Government has apologised to two Roma families who both had a child put into care over unfounded fears the youngsters had been abducted.
A girl aged seven and a two-year-old boy, both fair haired, with blue eyes and pale skin, were taken from their parents over two days last October as the Maria case in Greece of suspected child kidnap got international headlines.
A special inquiry into the scandals in Ireland found Garda officers acted on unsubstantiated claims that the youngsters were victims of abduction without first conducting discreet and extensive inquiries.
In the case of the boy, Iancu Muntean Jr, who was taken from his parents Iancu and Loredana in Athlone, Co Westmeath, the inquiry accused garda officers involved in the case of ethnic profiling.
Also, before he was put into care his father told officers the child suffers from oculocutaneous albinism, which affects skin pigmentation and hair.
The inquiry said physical differences between parents and their children are not a reasonable basis for suspicion of kidnap.
In the case of the young girl, who has not been named, she has since dyed her hair a different colour, even though she does not like it, in the hope that she will not be taken from her parents again.
Emily Logan, the Children’s Ombudsman, was given special powers to investigate how the Gardaí investigated unsubstantiated claims against the Roma families.
She said she was very concerned to hear the lengths the young girl had tried to protect herself and that the families were “owed an apology”.
Ms Logan’s damning report said gardaí in Tallaght acted on the back of an “explicitly prejudiced and racist” email from a member of the public to a journalist raising the first concerns about a child abduction.
The person from Eastern Europe wrote a Facebook post claimed Roma families “rob” children to claim welfare.
The girl was only allowed to return to her parents following two days with a foster care after DNA tests proved who she was.
Ms Logan said such tests were disproportionate.
In the boy’s case, Ms Logan found that any fears he may have been abducted exceeded the evidence available to gardaí and she said the claims were inextricably linked to the fact that the family is Roma.
A solicitor for the family in Athlone said they are suing the state for unlawful imprisonment, abuse of process and a breach of the family’s constitutional and human rights.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald met with the families privately on the back of the damning findings to apologise.
“We are sorry. We regret the pain they went through. It should not have happened. It just should not,” she said.
“It happened out of a determination to protect children, but that determination got skewed.
“The best of intentions played out in a distressing manner affecting two children and two families.” Despite the damning criticisms of officers, the inquiry found they were trying to act in the best interests of the children but their approach was misguided in light of the international headlines about a young blonde girl called Maria being found in a Roma camp in Greece and suspected of being abducted.
In both cases the burden of proof rested with the Roma families by providing official identification documents – a birth certificate or up to date passport.
While discrepancies over the boy’s papers came about due to English literacy problems and no out of hours contact for social workers or a public health nurse, the girl’s case was more complex.
The Coombe Hospital in Dublin where she was born initially claimed not to have a record of her birth only to correct that within a matter of hours by which time gardaí were convinced a special care order was the correct way to go.
But officers involved in the case – at one stage a total of nine where in the family home, some uniformed – have been criticised for becoming suspicious over the family’s delay in providing a birth certificate and passport with the girl’s details.
A school principal was able to confirm the girl was officially recorded by one name but went by another – not uncommon in Roma families, or unheard of in some Irish families.
While government agencies also had records of the girl’s official name but nothing to substantiate who the family claimed she was.
Ultimately only a DNA test was sufficient – a stance Ms Logan said was disproportionate and an invasion of privacy.
Ms Logan also warned that she suspects a member or members of the Garda who leaked the sensitive information to journalists about their suspicions involving the Roma family in Tallaght committed a breach of the child’s privacy and may be guilty of an offence.
The report found neither child showed any signs of maltreatment, it said.
In the boy’s case the inquiry was sparked by a woman who filed a report to missing persons three months after seeing the youngster at a fair in Co Clare.
She recalled how the child’s mother at the time remarked “ehh his grandfather” when she questioned his appearance.
The inquiry found that as well as Mr Muntean telling the gardaí his son was an albino there were also family photos in the Athlone home which showed the child’s grandfather had blond hair, blue eyes and pale skin.
Amnesty International Ireland’s director Colm O’Gorman said steps have to be taken to make sure the profiling is not repeated.
“It is time for the Government and the Gardaí to now determine if there is indeed a problem of racial profiling to address,” he said.
Denise Charlton, chief executive of the Immigrant Council, said the report should be a blueprint to pull down barriers between some communities and gardai.
“Looking to the future we are asking that the measures to end profiling are prioritised to ensure that confidence is restored in the force,” she said.
Gordon Jeyes, chief executive of Tusla – Child and Family Agency, said a review has been launched into the actions to be taken when a child is taken into care on the back of Garda action.
“A protocol for agency staff is being prepared to ensure a consistent response when a child is placed in the care of the agency,” Mr Jeyes said.
“This will stress the importance of conducting an independent assessment and emphasise the need for timely and comprehensive network checks to be undertaken in such cases.”