Lessons from cases of Roma children taken into care should form part of policing reforms

Opinion: ‘The actions of An Garda Síochána in these cases conformed to the “ethnic profiling” definition of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance’

‘I am happy that the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald (above)  and the acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan took the time to join me in meeting the families of both children to apologise for the upset caused to them by removing their children from their care.’ Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

‘I am happy that the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald (above) and the acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan took the time to join me in meeting the families of both children to apologise for the upset caused to them by removing their children from their care.’ Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Wed, Jul 2, 2014, 00:01

Former minister for justice Alan Shatter appointed me last December to carry out a special inquiry into the exercise by one or more members of An Garda Síochána of powers under section 12 of the Child Care Act in respect of a child in Athlone (Child A) and a child in Tallaght (Child T), Co Dublin, who were removed from the care of their families in October last year.

The two blonde children were removed from the care of their Roma parents under section 12 of the Act and placed in the custody of the Health Service Executive. Section 12 allows a garda to remove a child from a family without a prior court order where there is an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of the child.

After interviewing 42 people and weighing up the information, I concluded that the readiness to believe that Child A, a two-year-old boy, might have been abducted exceeded the evidence available and was tied inextricably to the fact that his family was Roma. Whatever doubts gardaí had in relation to the boy should have been decisively put to rest when his father informed them the toddler had albinism.

The situation of Child T, a seven-year-old girl, was more complex. The decision to take the little girl into care was driven primarily by a combination of: inaccurate information from the Coombe hospital; the past experience of An Garda Síochána in which children about whom child protection concerns had been raised were removed from the jurisdiction; and a readiness to believe that Child T may have been abducted because she was a blonde, blue-eyed child living with a Roma family.

When they invoked section 12, it was reasonable for An Garda Síochána to have concerns about the child’s welfare. However, these concerns should have been alleviated following confirmation by the Coombe hospital of Child T’s birth information.

I am firmly of the view that physical dissimilarities between parents and their children do not constitute a reasonable basis for suspecting that such children have been abducted.

I concluded that the actions of An Garda Síochána in these cases conformed to “ethnic profiling” as defined by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). The ECRI defines ethnic profiling as: “The use by the police, with no objective and reasonable justification, of grounds such as race, colour, language, religion, nationality or national or ethnic origin, in control, surveillance or investigation activities.”

Stereotypes

I recognise the gardaí in question honestly believed they were acting in the best interests of the children. However, gardaí are not always conscious of the degree to which they are applying generalisations and stereotypes. They are not alone. The tip-offs from the public that triggered these investigations and the actions of An Garda Síochána were based on an erroneous view of the case of “Maria” in Greece, a case then making international headlines, and an explicitly prejudiced view of the Roma community.

In particular, the readiness to believe that “Maria” had been abducted was fed by a widespread belief that the Roma are “child-abductors”. It is reasonable to conclude this contextual element made the abduction hypothesis more plausible to An Garda Síochána.

And that goes to the heart of the problem. The officers were not sufficiently sensitive to the possibility that stereotypes could play a role in their decision-making and this triggered a chain of events that caused enormous distress to the children and families.

Sensitive

That chain of events included DNA testing to establish the identities of the children. While these tests did result in the children being returned to their families in a short period of time, nevertheless I am firmly of the view that DNA testing is not a proportionate measure to employ when there is a significant amount of alternative information that could attest to the relationship between a child and his or her parents. Information gleaned from DNA tests is of a highly sensitive and private nature; gathering that data is enormously intrusive, no matter how physically non-invasive the test itself may appear.

I am happy that Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan took the time to join me in meeting the families of both children to apologise for the upset caused to them.

The apology should be just the beginning of the process of building trust with the Roma community.

I very much hope the political and media focus now centres on the recommendations I make in my report: about building trust with minority communities and ensuring State agencies’ interactions with the Roma and minority communities are characterised by respect and effective communications.

Outstanding questions

There are outstanding questions to be asked about the cultural competence within An Garda Síochána, the lack of training and support to ensure this cultural competence, the exercise of significant policing powers for which there has been no public accountability, the lack of support, recognition and training for gardaí working in child protection.

We must not lose sight either of the fact that some in the Roma community are living in situations of significant material deprivation. The family of the two-year-old boy was already living in poverty and had come to the attention of charities such as the St Vincent de Paul and Barnardos.

I believe it is fundamentally important that gardaí continue to hold emergency powers to protect children and that any concerns raised about the use of section 12 in these cases should not mean that members of An Garda Síochána become reluctant to use section 12 in cases where it is appropriate to do so.

We cannot ignore the context in which this report is published. My hope is that these lessons will now also form part of any policing reforms in the future in Ireland.

Emily Logan is the Ombudsman for Children

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