Adviser warns against changing child protection laws
Dr Geoffrey Shannon cautions against acting in haste after Roma controversy
‘Legislation should only be changed from comprehensive research identifying a gap in the relevant law,’ said Geoffrey Shannon. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill /The Irish Times
The Government’s rapporteur on child protection has cautioned against any move to change child protection laws in light of last week’s controversy over the removal of Roma children from their homes.
At the weekend, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said child protection legislation could be re-examined if such a move is recommended by an independent inquiry.
But last night Dr Geoffrey Shannon warned against acting in haste to change provisions of the Child Care Act (1991), which allow for the removal of children from home by gardaí where the health or welfare of a child is at immediate and serious risk.
“Legislation should only be changed from comprehensive research identifying a gap in the relevant law. Moreover, any unintended consequences need to be fully considered,” he said. “These provisions have been in operation for two decades and the issues currently being discussed relate to just two cases.”
His comments come as an independent inquiry by the Children’s Ombudsman is about to get under way into the State’s handling of two cases in which Roma children were removed from their families.
The two children, who had fair hair and blue eyes, were taken into care on the apparent basis they did not resemble their parents.
Tests confirmed they were the parents’ biological children. Dr Shannon said the emergency provisions of the law have proved to be a necessary power to protect the welfare of children for many years.
A common theme in the past has been a failure of the State to move in a pro-active fashion, rather than the over-use of the emergency provisions in the Child Care Act, he said.
There may be a greater need to review the operation of official guidelines on the handling of child protection concerns, known as Children First, Dr Shannon added.
“In terms of reassuring the public, we need to examine the protocols that are used to determine whether to use Section 12 of the Child Care Act [which provides for the removal of children from home on an emergency basis]. It may well be that these protocols need to be changed or strengthened,” he said.
Dr Shannon said he welcomed moves by Ms Fitzgerald to placed official guidelines on the handling of child protection concerns – Children First – on a statutory basis for the first time. This would, he said, improve co-operation between State agencies.
Dr Shannon said Section 12 provisions are used up to 700 times a year by gardaí. Most tend to be used on weekends or evenings, when social workers may not be readily available.
“These provisions are essential to ensuing the children presenting as at risk outside of normal working hours are provided with an appropriate level of protection,” he said.