A cold house for Roma

A week ago, Greek police searching a Roma camp discovered a child who looked as though she didn’t belong there. DNA testing proved them – at least in biological terms – correct.

An Garda Síochána were not so lucky.

No sooner had the story of the Greek case hit television news down south than a tip-off came back to a TV journalist, Paul Connolly, who had obviously never heard of the availability heuristic.

While a journalist might have been expected to display a little more healthy scepticism, ultimately you can’t really argue that Connolly had a choice on whether to pass the information on to the guards. (The dismissive argument made in Fergal Crehan’s otherwise excellent piece, that the journalist might safely have “ignored it” as just another piece of internet lunacy, is fine with hindsight, but isn’t protecting children.)


The police investigated, as they were duty bound to do; the Irish Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, pointed out in his guarded statement of support for the police that “the authorities have been criticised for not intervening to protect children at risk” in the past. This is true, and it’s also true that child protection workers are perenially damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

The contentious bit is how Gardai went about the investigation, and a near-identical one – also involving a Roma family – outside Dublin. Using the emergency removal powers contained in section 12 of the childcare legislation (NI equivalent here), the children – but not their darker siblings – were removed from their families while verification of their identity took place. Both are now back at home (one family, below, was photographed in reunion by the Irish Times).


The charge of “racial profiling” has been raised: that the officers involved, making assumptions about the likelihood of abduction that would never have been made about a white, settled family, snatched the children “illegally”. The idea that Roma are themselves renowned child-snatchers was usefully compared to the Jewish blood libel in the Guardian soon after the Greek case exploded, and has been developed elsewhere.

That’s not necessarily an original thought, but then nor is a related, oft-reiterated point: that blanket hatred of Travellers and Roma is the last acceptable form of prejudice in Europe. They’re still very useful thoughts that go some way toward explaining why the police acted as unacceptably as they did.

A few points are worth making, though. The first is that the instinctive horror and revulsion felt by many of the public at the notion of police dragging a child from its family without warning is, frankly, misplaced.

These are the reactions of people unfamiliar with social workers working child protection cases. Police emergency removal powers, and the related  emergency protection orders granted by a court, are essential tools in care law, because parents do horrible things to their children. It just isn’t seen unless social workers, being imperfect, fail. As Ruadhan Mac Cormaic points out, “one of the most remarkable aspects of this week’s cases is that they are being talked about at all”. The worst possible outcome would be for the conversation to deem care law a greater evil than the racism.

The use of these admittedly drastic powers in this case has also been condemned as illegal; as one young Irish barrister – as free with an opinion as any of that breed – put it on my Facebook feed, “patently unlawful”. It wasn’t. Or, more accurately, even the experts don’t really know what the power to act on “an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of a child” means in the context of alleged abduction.

This is because child care cases in the Republic are heard in the lower courts, whose judgments don’t give rise to binding precedent on how the words of the act should be interpreted in similar cases; are delivered in secret, for good and obvious reasons; and aren’t even published in anonymized form. The closest thing is a new initiative to allow journalists (well, a journalist, Carol Coulter) to publish narrative reports of the outcomes on a website.

So although in one of those cases, interestingly, an emergency protection order was refused where the adult/child DNA relationship was ambiguous, this isn’t judge-made law. It doesn’t give guidance on what the law means beyond the words “immediate and serious” – which have been seized upon as demonstrating that such powers are not suitable as an investigative adjunct.

But I think it fair to assume that a southern court – any court – would accept the use of emergency removal in cases of definite abduction: where a child missing has been found in the hands of her abductors, for example. Police hardly have to go away and sort the paperwork before taking the child away from a potentially dangerous scenario.

By analogy, it is at least arguable that in a case where the evidence gives rise to reasonable grounds for suspicion of abduction, emergency removal might be lawful too, in the right circumstances, as a precautionary measure until the facts are established.

What we come back to, though, is that these were not the right circumstances. The police suspicions derived, at least in part, from deep-rooted prejudice, on the part of the informant and ultimately themselves – the very antithesis of “reasonable grounds”. That this prejudice is shared by a hefty chunk of Irish society – north and south – will be of cold comfort to a force with a chequered recent past as investigations loom large.

Born and live in London, brought up in Dublin, roots in East Belfast. Occasional blogging at mckinney.me and far more frequent tweets at twitter.com/mckinneytweets.