If gardaí had access to records then the scandal may have been prevented, says Cormac O’Keeffe.
A feature of modern journalism — fuelled by social media — is a tendency to focus on headlines, soundbites, and someone to blame.
Hampered by work demands, journalists seeking the full picture struggle to find the time — let alone attract the interest of readers or listeners.
A recent example was the Cooke report, published just before 9pm on June 10. It was cleverly spun by the Government to set out its agenda — a line duly followed by most media.
Apart from a small number of exceptions, there was little detailed reportage or analysis of the actual report.
The spin was absent from the Roma report. But published mid-afternoon on Tuesday, the timing, followed by briefings, left little room for journalists to examine the 134-page report in detail.
Broadcasters and newspapers — and Twitterland — summed up the findings as ethnic or racial profiling by gardaí. End of, pretty much.
This is not the fault of Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan, whose report — completed with impressive speed — was both detailed and well-structured.
Undoubtedly, the Roma families were deeply wronged, finding themselves in a modern day version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
Out of the blue, the authorities came. They entered their homes asking questions about their children, questioning their parentage, demanding documents, and, later, taking DNA samples.
In the case of Child A, the parents and 2-year-old boy were kept in a Garda station for three hours.
In both cases, the nuclear button was pressed and the children were removed.
If this was not enough, the media descended on their homes, scrambling for information about two incredible stories.
Ms Logan said the parents were “completely humiliated” by the experience and were “very distressed” that their parentage was questioned so publicly. They spoke of the “shame” at the “unwarranted notoriety” on their community.
The report said that even when Child A was returned and the family was in Ballinasloe, another member of the public rang gardaí on seeing the child.
In the Tallaght case, the 7-year-old girl (Child T) was more traumatised. Ms Logan said she had her hair dyed dark as a result.
Ms Logan strongly criticised the use of DNA to prove parentage — describing it as a “disproportionate interference” with the private lives of the family
She was damning of media-fuelled stereotypes of the Roma community. The stance she took to uphold the decency and humanity of the Roma families is a striking, and commendable, feature of her report.
The finding of ethnic profiling by the gardaí is a very serious charge. It is a label, in many people’s minds, that, if not akin to racism, is along the slippery slope to it.
Essentially, Ms Logan makes the conclusion of ethnic profiling given the absence of evidence justifying the exercise of emergency powers (under Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991).
She said the members — of sergeant and garda rank — involved in the decisions simply did not have enough reasons to take the children away. Because of this, she concluded that the “additional element” for the removals was ethnicity.
Ethnic profiling, she explained, was where there was no legitimate justification for actions of police. “In both cases there wasn’t a reasonable or objective justification for the actions taken, except that the children did not look like [their Roma parents],” she said.
There is no direct evidence in the report of the gardaí practising ethnic profiling as such (admittedly difficult to find) — rather it was the only explanation Ms Logan could conclude for their actions.
In both cases — particularly in relation to Child T — there were reasons, of differing degrees, which Ms Logan accepted gave gardaí some cause for doubt or concern — but nothing that warranted removal.
She did accept — again more so with Child T — that preliminary inquiries were conducted before the gardaí acted — but said the level of inquiries was not sufficient.
Ms Logan also accepted the gardaí themselves “honestly believed” they were acting in the best interests of the children concerned.
Indeed, she pointed out that the Garda in Athlone had a good relationship with the family beforehand — and, interestingly, even after the saga. She said this “highlighted the commitment” of the Garda to community engagement.
She said Sergeant A in Tallaght was “widely regarded” by professionals and was “exceptionally committed” to child protection.
Ms Logan accepted how difficult and demanding it is for gardaí to make the right decision in such cases.
Furthermore, she pointed out that had gardaí had access to records held by social workers and public health nurses, the whole tragic affair may have been avoided. In the case of Child A, both health workers had information on the child which would have ended the investigation, but gardaí could not make contact with social workers at night. Lack of an after-hours service has been repeatedly raised in inquiries relating to child welfare.
These cases, including a 1993 Kilkenny investigation; events surrounding the shooting dead of 6-year-old Deirdre Crowley by her father in 2001; and the 2009 Monageer inquiry report, either raised questions or severely criticised the lack of Garda actions to save children.
One recommendation of the Monageer report was: “Where a member of An Garda Síochána receives a report and has reasonable grounds for believing there is an immediate and serious risk to the health and welfare of a child, he/she should take immediate action.”
An officer involved in one of the Roma cases told the Irish Examiner that gardaí “never have more than 70% of information when making an operational decision” and that it was “better to make a mistake than have a terrible tragic case”.
Catherine Ghent, a solicitor and leading child law practitioner, told the Sean O’Rourke Show on RTÉ radio on Friday that it would now take “a very brave” garda to exercise Section 12.
She said given the legal settlements being suggested in relation to the civil suits from the Roma families, gardaí in emergency care situations now are going to ask themselves, “is there a lawsuit at the end of this?”
Ms Logan said she would “certainly not discourage” gardaí from invoking Section 12, but said they had to meet the “threshold” of what constitutes immediate and serious risk.
Interim Garda commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan last week accepted the report’s findings, but added that it was “easy to reflect back” with “20-20” vision. She said decisions were often made “quickly, in highly pressurised, stressful, and unusual situations, and with imperfect information”.
Of course, this does not mean Ms Logan shouldn’t point out wrongs, to have the courage and conviction to state ethnic profiling was involved, and to vindicate the rights of innocent families.
Her report was more than pointing the finger at gardaí; it was more than the simple blame game. She has called for clear, updated legal guidelines for gardaí, as well as training and out-of-hours access to health records and social workers.
The worst outcome out of all of this is some kind of paralysed, neutered Garda force — unable or unwilling to exercise powers aimed at protecting children. That, at the end of the day, is the imperative.
THE TWO CHILDREN TAKEN INTO CARE
On October 22, gardaí in Athlone received an email from the Garda Missing Person Bureau entitled “Suspected Child Abduction”.
The email was based on a message from a woman who said that — following the Maria case in Greece — she realised she needed to report her meeting with a Roma couple with a blond, blue-eyed boy.
Sergeant G in Athlone checked records for previous child protection concerns on Child A and found none.
She appointed Garda J, who knew the family, to conduct inquiries.
Garda J quickly expressed surprise that despite knowing the family, he had no knowledge of the existence of Child A. He called to Child A’s home and asked his parents for birth certificates for their children.
Three discrepancies were noted between the birth certificate for Child A and an older sister. The father’s name did not appear on the older sister’s certificate, her mother’s name was different from that of Child A, and the mother’s signature differed from that on Child A’s certificate.
Ms Logan established that the father was not at the birth of the older sister, the grandmother’s name was entered in error by the hospital, and the mother’s signature differed because she could not write at the time but was able to print her name by the time Child A was born.
Portiuncula Hospital was able to confirm that night that Child A’s mother had given birth to a baby boy on the date on the birth certificate but could provide no other information.
Attempts were made to contact social workers after office hours, but to no avail.
Gardaí invoked Section 12 based on the missing person’s report, Garda J’s knowledge of the family, including the fact he had never seen Child A before and previous bench warrants for siblings, discrepancies in the birth cert and risk of flight.
At that stage, the dad indicated to Garda J the child had albinism.
Events changed the next morning when the social work team confirmed they knew Child A and had no doubts about his identity.
The public health nurse said they knew the boy since birth and had full medical details, including his albinism. The boy was returned home.
Ms Logan concluded that the Missing Person Bureau’s email “conferred a sense of seriousness on the communication” but said the concerns should have been “evaluated more critically”.
She said the decision to go to Child’s A home before such an evaluation was “unjustified”. She said the existence of previous bench warrants was not relevant. She said it was “not clear” why the discrepancies in the birth certs created such doubt.
She said it was “unreasonable” not to have factored in the information about albinism from the dad.
Ms Logan concluded there had to be “an additional element” to explain the decision, which she said was a “readiness to believe” the child may have been abducted and that this was “tied inextricably to the fact that Child A’s family is Roma”.
She said the actions “conformed to the definition of ethnic profiling”.
The report found the removal of Child T from her home in Tallaght on October 21 last was “more complex” than that of Child A.
The report said the chain of events was sparked after a journalist sent an email to the Garda Press Office with a message left by a person on his Facebook page.
The message read: “Today was on the news the blond child found in Roma Camp in Greece. There is also a little girl in Roma house in Tallaght and she is blond and blue eyes. Her name is [Child T] and the address is [Child T’s address]. I am [country in Eastern Europe] myself and it’s a big problem there missing kids. The Romas robing [sic] them to get child benefit in Europe.”
The message was passed on to Sergeant A in Tallaght, who runs the Child Protection Unit, although the last sentence was excluded.
Sergeant A found there were two child protection records on file regarding older sisters in the family, but none relating to Child T. He contacted the principal of the girl’s school who said that as far as she knew Child T was the child of the parents.
The sergeant conducted other inquiries with local gardaí and social welfare officers. After an hour and a half of enquiries he, and two gardaí, called to the house.
He noticed the girl, who had blonde hair and blue eyes, who he said was “strikingly different” in appearance. He asked for identity documents and the birth cert for Child T. The mother produced documentation for other siblings but not the girl. She said Child T was born in the Coombe Hospital.
When Sergeant A contacted the hospital they said they had no record of the birth of a child matching Child T.
He then rang a consultant in Tallaght Hospital who told him it would be “very unusual but not impossible” for parents with dark hair and dark eyes having a child with blonde hair and blue eyes.
After contacting social services, Sergeant A believed there were grounds to take the child into custody. This was based on the girl’s appearance, what the Coombe Hospital said, the failure to produce a birth cert, the consultant’s view, that Child T went by another name, that family members had come to garda attention before, and risk of flight.
When Sergeant A told the parents, they produced the birth cert, but he did not believe it was genuine. The Coombe later contacted Sergeant A and said they did have a record of Child T’s birth, but he went ahead.
The report said the initial concerns should have been “evaluated more critically” by gardaí. It found that it was reasonable for the sergeant to have doubt over the authenticity of the birth cert based on the “highly unfortunate” error at Coombe Hospital.
But the report said that once the Coombe confirmed the birth details it was “unreasonable to have concerns”.
The report said there was “a readiness to believe” by gardaí that Child T may have been abducted because she was a blonde, blue-eyed girl living with a Roma family. Ms Logan said Child T’s “ethnic background was relevant” in decision making.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved