Grave errors of judgement in Roma children cases

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 01:00

How were two Roma children wrongly taken away from their families and briefly held in State care last year? Both Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald have acknowledged that grave errors of judgement were made; that have caused great hurt to the families, and much upset to the two children who were removed. For this they have apologised, both on their own and on the State’s behalf. Commendably, they have done so without either delay or equivocation. Any decision to remove children from their families is never easy. It requires a careful and balanced assessment of the facts, and of the respective interests of those most affected. As the chief executive of the Child and Family Agency, Gordon Jeyes, has pointed out, such consideration involves “balancing the rights and freedoms of individuals against the statutory duty to safeguard young people”.

Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan was asked to establish the role of the Garda in these events, and how members of the force used their powers under the Child Care Act. In her report she is critical of police performance, describing the Garda decision to take one child into State care as ethnic profiling, based on a prejudiced view of the Roma people. Ethnic profiling occurs where those in positions of authority use grounds such as race, religion or nationality to inform their decision-making, and do so without objective or adequate justification. Equally, use of DNA testing to verify the relationship between the children and their parents was seen as a disproportionate response in the circumstances. In her report Ms Logan has made recommendations to help ensure lessons are learned from this debacle, and that mistakes made are less likely to be repeated.

However, as Ms Fitzgerald has made clear: the determination shown to protect children, while well intentioned, was in both cases “skewed” – with distressing consequences for the two children and their families. The Ombudsman too accepts that the gardaí in acting as they did also believed they were acting in the best interests of the children. As no doubt did those members of the public who, acting in good faith, gave the Garda information – which turned out to be inaccurate – that prompted their intervention in both cases.

Much can, and should, be learned from the mishandling of these events. Robust protocols are essential for the Garda. In a State where one sixth of the population was born outside the country, Ireland is home to a great diversity of peoples and cultures. There is a need at every level to adjust to and accommodate that new reality: not least for the Garda force, where Acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan has promised to develop anti-discrimination training for members, but also for the public to question their attitudes to minorities – like the Roma.