Facebook post and hysteria led to Roma children's removal

State and society face searching questions over our relationship with migrants

Roma parents Loreda and Iancu with their two children Regina and Iancu junior (2), who was taken into care earlier this week.

Roma parents Loreda and Iancu with their two children Regina and Iancu junior (2), who was taken into care earlier this week.

 

It started with an anonymous message to TV3’s Paul Connolly Investigates web page last Monday containing a disturbing allegation: a Roma family appeared to have a blonde-haired, blue-eyed seven-year-old girl who couldn’t possibly be theirs.

Within hours, there was another allegation. This time a member of the public in the midlands alerted gardaí to a two-year-old boy with fair hair living with a Roma family.

The children were removed from their homes in west Dublin and the midlands by gardaí, apparently on the basis of claims they didn’t resemble the couples who claimed to be their biological parents.

Within hours, social media and the airwaves crackled with a growing sense of child-kidnapping hysteria and questions swirled about whether swarthy baby-stealers were operating in Ireland.

Both families protested vehemently – but in vain.

“I said take blood, take what you want, but don’t take my kid from me because I never want nobody to take my kids,” said the father of the boy in the midlands.

Over in west Dublin, the family frantically searched the house, producing a birth certificate and passport for their daughter. Neither were accepted as conclusive proof. When gardaí couldn’t find relevant records at the hospital, the child was taken into care.

“They felt treated like savages,” says Gabby Muntean, a support worker. “They said the child is 100 per cent theirs and offered blood tests and DNA tests.”

The suspicions were unfounded in both cases. By Wednesday, both children had been returned to their parents. Two families were left traumatised.

And a country was left to ask itself soul-searching questions about whether racial-profiling and social hysteria resulted in State authorities trampling over the rights of vulnerable families.

The Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan was yesterday given special powers to investigate the actions of both the Garda and the Health Service Executive.

Citizens’ rights
“We will make sure that the law is upheld, that citizens’ rights are protected and that good standards of public administration are applied,” she said yesterday.

“I intend to conduct an independent, impartial investigation from first principles. I will not be rubber-stamping the reports of other agencies.’’

A host of questions will need to be answered to ensure public confidence in the child protection system is restored.

They will centre on the evidence that was available to the Garda and the HSE when the children were taken into care? Was there a credible and immediate threat to the health and welfare of these children? And were these families treated differently to Irish families?

However, an even bigger question – and one that may not feature as prominently in the inquiry – centres on Ireland’s uneasy relationship with its migrant communities.

How much do we really know about them? What kind of assumptions do we make about their behaviour? And how complicit are we – both as a State and society – over the conditions in which many of these groups live?

“Not all Roma communities have dark skin: there are Roma who have light skin and green eyes,” said Dezideriu Gergely, head of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre.

“The Irish cases show how easily authorities can act on assumptions or perceptions. This type of action is racial profiling, targeting a group following a concept of guilty until proven otherwise. Since the Greek case, the assumption that their children don’t belong to their families is causing a lot of anxiety.”

According to chief executive of the Immigrant Council Denise Charlton, the Government needs to act quickly and provide robust assurances that minorities will not be unfairly targeted.

She noted that Ireland had been warned in a Council of Europe report in February about the need to prevent racial profiling. “The events of the past week have done little to reassure migrants that this has taken place,” she said.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has tried to ease concerns over the handling of the case and said he had no doubt gardaí acted “in good faith” in both cases, but added he had “concerns in relation to each of these matters”.

Colm O’Gorman, spokesman for Amnesty International (Ireland), said responses to reported child protection concerns needed to be proportionate and non-discriminatory. “The eyes of the world are now on Ireland, and the Government must show institutional discrimination will not be tolerated.”

Difficult work
Few argue against the notion that frontline child protection work is immensely difficult work.

Knowing how to intervene is complex and difficult. It requires a careful assessment of whether a child’s welfare is better protected by taking them out of their family and into the care system.

Many social workers this week felt alarmed over what happened and feel it is too early to jump to conclusions. They say that only when the full facts are known can they really draw firm conclusions over what happened.

It was a sentiment touched on by Karen McHugh, who heads up Doras Luimní, an independent, non-governmental organisation which promotes the human rights of migrants

“We are very conscious that there is excellent work done by those working in frontline services on a daily basis,” she said.

“As statutory services, paid for through public taxes and mandated to protect and serve all of us, the onus is on institutions like the Garda and the HSE to create and maintain the public trust.