Inquiry reveals needs for cultural change towards migrants

Authorities have work to do in rebuilding trust with vulnerable communities

Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald and Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan  at the Department of Justice, Dublin, yesterday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald and Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan at the Department of Justice, Dublin, yesterday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Wed, Jul 2, 2014, 01:00

It began with an email containing the barest of details.

Shortly before 10am on October 21st last, the Garda’s missing person bureau received a message from a member of the public. The subject line read: “Suspected child abduction.”

The author had been at a festival in Co Clare where she had noticed an older Roma woman with a baby.

“He had very blond hair and the bluest eyes and his complexion was also fair . . . apart from the baby, all the others were completely dark in complexion, eyes and hair . . . the recent news about the little girl Maria [a girl, allegedly abducted by a Roma couple in Greece] made me realise that I should have reported it.”

Just over an hour later there was another disturbing allegation. A member of the public left a message on the Facebook page of a TV3 crime programme with details of a Roma family in Tallaght with a blond-haired, blue-eyed seven-year-old girl.

The details were flimsy. But these two unfounded tip-offs resulted in the Garda removing both children from their families, placing them in overnight custody of the HSE, and returning them only after DNA tests were taken which proved their parentage.

The actions left two sets of families traumatised, a community fearful of the State and wider society asking itself searching questions about its relationship with migrant communities.

Ombudsman Emily Logan’s report contains troubling findings.

While the incidents happened out of a determination to help children, this intent was also badly skewed.

Racial profiling by gardaí resulted in a readiness to believe that at least one of the children had been abducted.

In addition, the use of DNA testing to verify the relationship between the children and their parents was considered heavy-handed – or “not a proportionate measure”, in her words .

Gardaí also failed to critically evaluate information provided to them by members of the public. More extensive and discrete inquiries should have been made prior to calling to the family homes.

In addition, State authorities were responsible for information entering the public domain, which – for a time – whipped up the sense of growing hysteria over the case.

Logan’s report is implicitly critical of some media coverage, with her recommendation that the Press Council should consider how ethical reporting over minority communities can best be promoted.

The story of “little Maria”, made for frenzied headlines around the world following the arrest in Greece of a Roma couple for the alleged abduction of a fair-haired five-year-old girl.

However, the media – including in Ireland – largely lost interest in the story after it emerged this family was also Roma. A custody battle is still unfolding in the courts .

The ombudsman’s report makes a number of important recommendations: cultural competence with the Garda should be enhanced; new protocols over the use of emergency childcare powers should be developed; and better information sharing between State authorities.

But most important was her conclusion that a State apology was required in order to rebuild trust with the Roma community.

Apologies have now been made and reparation offered. The damage done was swift – but building a new culture of consultation and understanding with this vulnerable and often misunderstood community is likely to take much longer.

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