Roma cases pose troubling questions over our confidence in care system
Only an independent inquiry will be able to provide public with the full answers
Solicitor Waheed Mudah reads the statement from the Family Law Court on Wednesday evening after a case involving a Roma family from west Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The State’s policy over the handling of alleged mistreatment of children is based on some simple and clear principles:
n The welfare of children is of paramount importance.
n Children have a right to be heard.
n The admission of a child into care should be the final option when all other means of protection have been exhausted.
These form the bedrock of our child protection services and help ensure we protect the rights of both children and parents. And this all of that seemed to go out the window.
two investigations are under way to establish how two fair-haired children ended up being taken from their Roma families on the basis that they did not look like their biological parents.
Even in the absence of the full facts, we know this much: the State’s handling of both cases raises disturbing questions about racial-profiling and potential overreach by authorities.
Section 12 of the Childcare Act sets out the basis on which gardaí may enter a home – without a warrant and by force if necessary – and remove a child to safety. The law sets a very high threshold, making it clear the State regards taking a child into care as an extraordinary power.
It may only be done where a member of the force has “reasonable grounds” for believing there is an “immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of a child”. This risk must be so serious that authorities cannot wait for a court to make an emergency care order.
Just this week, courtesy of the Child Care Law Reporting Project – which allows limited reporting of care cases – we were given some insight into the harrowing circumstances of when Section 12 is rightly used.
Boy left in buggy
In one case, it involved a garda taking a child into care after finding the boy left in a buggy on a laneway as his mother smoked heroin. “The infant looked grubby, he had tears in his eyes, he looked a bit distraught, he had a rash under his chin, he was scratching on the back of his neck, there was no smell of sunscreen, he looked red from the sun on his cheeks and legs,” the garda told the court.
Any inquiries into the State’s handing of the Roma cases, then, will need to answer some urgent and searching questions:
n Was there a credible, immediate threat to the health and welfare of these children?
n Were these families treated differently to Irish families?
n Could the children’s identity have been established in a way that did not involve their removal from the family home?
n If there were any health and welfare concerns about the children aside from their identity, why were their siblings not also take into care?
Ministers yesterday insisted that these questions would be answered by internal inquiries by both the Garda and the Health Service Executive.
These reports, in turn, will be handed to the Ombudsman for Children for review. But the spectre of two State bodies investigating themselves will not go far enough to ensure public confidence in the system. Only independent inquiries by the Garda Ombudsman Commission or the Ombudsman for Children will be sufficient to fully explore these issues and restore credibility as to how these arms of our child protection services operate.
In the meantime, there are steps the Government can take.
It can put into force a law which would meaningfully relax the in-camera rule that largely closes off the family and childcare courts to public scrutiny.
It can issue detailed guidelines on how State authorities should respond in cases of vulnerable minority groups.
And it must ensure that the basic principles our child protection system – that all families are treated equally and that care is a matter of last resort – prevail above all else.