Children may not be cherished equally

THE resolution of the scandal over Roma children being removed from their families can be foretold. The internal inquiry being conducted by An Garda Síochána into the case of the 7-year-old girl in Tallaght will conclude that the officers who took the children into care made a poor judgment call.

There was a systems failure. Incorrect information about the child’s birth was conveyed from a maternity hospital. The officers acted in good faith.

There will be recommendations about training. Alan Shatter will tell the Dáil that lessons must be learnt. And then it will all blow over and everybody can let uncomfortable thoughts about the affair dissipate into the dark recesses of memory.

This resolution will ensure there is no requirement for debate on the wider issues thrown up by the scandal.

For instance, what are the attitudes in this country towards children in minority communities?

In the broad public consciousness, are they regarded as children, a category of human beings who now enjoy special provision in the constitution? Or are they merely seen as members of a minority community, and thus not possessing the vulnerabilities that require protection in law?

In recent years, there have been countless examples of how little society at large gives a fig about certain children.

Yet, along comes a case where it looks like a purely Caucasian child may have been abducted into the Roma community, and suddenly, hysteria takes hold, cultural antennas stiffen with fear, the State apparatus is mobilised in a flash.

And all because of the possibility, based on the flimsiest of premises, that the child in question may be “one of us”, taken and subsumed into an alien and mysterious culture.

The lead up to last week’s events tell a lot.

Two weeks ago, Scotland Yard announced it was opening an investigation into the disappearance of Madeline McCann in 2007., The case made fresh headlines. His parents, who have suffered unimaginable pain since their loss, were out again. The story featured across Europe.

Then last week, in the central Greek town of Farsala, police arrested a Roma couple after becoming suspicious about the parentage of their blonde haired daughter.

The couple didn’t have the correct papers for the girl now known as “Maria”. DNA tests revealed that the couple were not the child’s biological parents.

They claim that they adopted Maria with the consent and knowledge of her biological parents.

The couple have been in custody since their arrest.

For a fleeting second, the possibility arose that this could be Madeline McCann. That passed quickly, but the case did touch on primal fears mined from history, legend and children’s stories, of a child being kidnapped by a transient, mysterious people.

It also tapped into the prejudices that exist towards Roma across Europe.

Everybody believed they knew what had happened. The couple had kidnapped oracquired the child through trafficking.

By last Thursday, a different picture was emerging. A Roma woman in Bulgaria is claiming to be the child’s biological mother, and her story — so far — appears to back up the arrested couple’s claims of having informally adopted Maria.

The premise on which hysteria was generated about child abductions by the Roma is now taking on a less dramatic sheen.

But by the beginning of last week, the hysteria had led gardaí to the door of the 7- year-old girl in Tallaght and the 2-year-old boy in Athlone.

Who made the initial sightings? A concerned citizen? Or somebody who may have had issues with the families in question? Or maybe somebody who, for one reason or another, harbours a dislike of Roma people in general?

It would be easy to lay blame for what unfolded at the door of the garda officers. But while they are obliged to uphold the law rather than surf public opinion, they do not exist in a media vacuum.

With hysteria in the air, they had a stark choice. Invoke section 12 of the Childcare Act, judging that the child in question was “in serious and immediate danger”, or stand back and coolly take stock.

The immediate danger was not to the child’s well-being, but presumably the possibility of flight, the fear that the child could once again be whisked into the ether, beyond the reach of the law.

So, the gardaí judged that this blonde-haired girl was in “immediate” danger, while her older and younger siblings were not.

Similarly, down in Athlone, the fair-haired two-year-old boy had to be taken into care, while his four-year-old sister was deemed perfectly safe in her parents’ hands.

After all, the children whisked out of the family home by the gardaí were possibly Caucasian. Those left behind were presumed to be ethnically Roma, so a different standard was applied.

Last November, the Constitution was amended to ensure that proper rights are afforded to “our” children.

Yet those who grow up in minority communities can be subjected to all manner of degradation without as much as an eyebrow being raised in the public square.

Over the last 18 months, there have been two instances where homes allotted to Traveller families were burnt to the ground, in order to keep the family out.

The attacks in Kilkenny and Donegal left a total of 15 children without a home.

Yet not as much as a peep was heard from the official powers at these frightening, dangerous developments.

The children of asylum seekers are living in State-sponsored degradation in the reception centres where they are housed as part of the Direct Provision Regime.

They exist rather than enjoy childhoods.

Yet no powers are invoked by the State to ensure that provision is made for basic developmental tools for these children.

Even in the disadvantaged enclaves of the State wherever red flags are raised over children’s welfare it can take months to ensure that resources are applied, while the child’s future may literally hang in the balance.

Last week, we got a different glimpse of the operation of child protection in a minority or poor setting. When it looked as if “one of us” may be at risk, the State mobilised like a shot.

The decisions made in Tallaght and Athlone last week certainly appear to have been baldy thought out, and lacking in any real empathy for either the children or their parents.

However, to focus blame on the individuals who made those decisions on the spot would be pointless.

Far more relevant would be to use the sorry affair to raise a mirror to society at large and ask some salient questions.

Are all children really as cherished by the State as we like to tell ourselves?

Or do the prejudices that can fester towards some adult populations apply equally to defenceless children?

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