Taking into care of Roma children ‘a shame for the State’

Dublin conference hears of routine discrimination against minority group and Travellers

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald opened the Pavee Point conference on Roma children’s rights in Dublin today. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald opened the Pavee Point conference on Roma children’s rights in Dublin today. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Thu, Apr 10, 2014, 13:47

The events surrounding the taking into care of two Roma children last year were a “shame for the State” and an “embarrassment for the Government”, a conference has heard.

Traveller and Roma centre Pavee Point organised the event in Dublin entitled Realising Roma Children’s Rights.

Iulius Rostas, visiting lecturer at Corvinus University, Budapest, was referring to the cases in which a seven-year-old girl in Dublin and a two-year-old boy in Athlone were removed from their families and placed in HSE care by gardaí last October amid suggestions they were not actually related to their families.

Gardaí later told the District Court they took the action following concerns over the girl’s identity and because they feared she was a “flight risk”.

A garda told the court he also spoke to a consultant at a children’s hospital who said it would be “highly unlikely” a child of Roma ethnicity would have blond hair and blue eyes.

Mr Rostas said it seemed to him it had been the case that the social services and the gardaí had engaged in “racial profiling” to oppress people.

A report of a special inquiry into the events by Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan was submitted to Minister for Justice Alan Shatter earlier this month.

The event also heard of discrimination against Roma people and children in schools and in the provision of services, including welfare payments and healthcare.

Gabi Muntean, a community development worker with Pavee Point, said Roma children were living in poverty in Ireland and facing “huge discrimination”.

Ms Muntean said she had lived in Ireland for 14 years and was now an Irish citizen.

“We are living in a foreign country but we don’t want to feel foreign in Ireland,” she said.

She was not ashamed to say she had begged when she arrived here.

“I know how hard it is to put food on the table. I know how hard it is for women to beg for their children. They have nothing. They have to beg.”

Ms Muntean said that when she had arrived in Ireland she had no English and she did not have the right to work. She had taken English lessons and now she and her child both had the right to work here. She said her son had registered to become a Garda and she hoped the force would take him.

Judges and other people spoke badly of Roma people and Travellers, she said.

“But as with the (government’s) strategy, no one came to talk with us.”

Ms Muntean said habitual residency conditions needed to be revised to allow people enter employment.

“We live in Ireland and we call Ireland our home. We are staying here and we are fighting for our rights.”

“Our children deserve to have a better life and a better childhood and we have to fight for it,” she said.

Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance said that in Ireland, one of the only countries in the world which had the rights of the unborn written into the constitution, it was “almost inconceivable” that there was no right to maternal healthcare.

She said that if by this time next year there was not some improvement in the situation, we would have failed Roma children.

Children should not be discriminated against on the basis of who their parents were, or on the basis of their nationality or ethnicity, Ms Ward said.

She said better data was needed to turn anecdotes into facts.

Pavee Point has called for the implementation of an “ethnic identifier” across all routine administrative systems and a national mapping of the Roma population.

Another speaker warned, however, that data was a “two-edged sword” that could also be used to surveil, control and stigmatise vulnerable communities.

Pavee Point estimates there are about 5,000 Roma people living in Ireland. There is no official data, however.

It said many were living in poverty due to a lack of access to work opportunities and restrictive social welfare measures.

It also noted that the most recent assessment by the European Commission of Ireland’s national integration strategy for Traveller and Roma people had been very critical.

Out of 22 criteria relating to integration, Ireland had been deemed to have met just four, leaving it in the bottom third of Europe.

The organisation said the current government strategy was a “starting point” and it remained committed to working with the Government and other groups to further develop it.

It said the Government should revise the strategy with the involvement of Roma, Travellers and civil society organisations.

Other speakers at the event included Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, chief executive of the Child and Family Agency Gordon Jeyes and Ronnie Fay, co-director of Pavee Point. Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan chaired one of the day’s sessions.