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.

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  • There is of course an undercurrent of racism …as there is with any story involving Roma or our own native Romany people.
    But sometimes people are just a little too quick to jump on the bandwagon and people driving the wagon often have a broader agenda.

    We have just experienced two decades of learning that Children have not been treated nearly as well as they should have been. And there’s no good complaining that State did not intervene when it should have….AND saying it should not have intervened when it did.

    Is it unique to Dublin? Or Athlone? Hardly. I recall incidents from Middlesbrough and the Orkneys.
    Have the families in Dublin and Athlone a means of getting redress? They do…and if they deserve redress they will get it.

    But 35 years ago, I recall a conversation with a social worker from a Belfast (state) children’s home who reguarly took “traveller” children for a walk…and they would ask her “could they go steal in'” (I wont do the accent).
    Now of course I could point to settled children who have been raised badly….but using children for stealing and begging…is a form of abuse. And we cannot let it pass on the grounds of “diversity” or culture.
    Of course we are used to backwoods politicians from say Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil….and northern unionists making outrageous anti traveller, anti Roma comments….and liberals rightly react against that. And yet the most effective contribution on the issue that I ever heard was a LABOUR TD… (I dont want to name him in case I am wrong) who said there was a considerable onus on the traveller community to look to themselves and their lifestyle and culture (especially when women and children are concerned).
    How the State/s handle rights is of course a good liberal issue.
    The advance towards Diversity is a good liberal issue.
    How women and children are treated by “cultures” should also be a liberal issue.

    Forty years ago, it was impossible to walk some streets in Belfast and Dublin without coming across traveller beggars.
    That problem was briefly solved until the arrival of Roma.
    I think its fair to say that the use of children in begging is not as bad as it was about five years ago.
    But also true to say that there is a proxy form of begging in the form of Big Issue selling and “flower selling” outside restaurants.
    And too many of our sophisticated and settled young people….including student women ….are involved in drunken racist abuse.

    The proper stance of liberals is NOT to berate social services North and South for doing their job….or PSNI or Garda….or journalists who report it.
    If social workers and police overstepped the mark, then they are accountable.
    And compensation will be arranged (thru solicitors of course).
    Liberals cant do that WITHOUT tackling “cultural” issues.
    We can be diverse, integrated and CIVILISED.
    Too many blind eyes are turned to….Culture.

  • I should make clear I have no specific information on any Roma family and was speaking in General…and hopefully not stereotypical terms.

  • Rory Carr

    Thank you. Fitzjameshorse. This allows me the opportunity to pass on, what I consider to be, a delightful story which I seem to recall finding in the works of darling, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Here it is:

    At Calvary, as Christ was being prepared for crucifixion, some gypsies, seeing a crowd gather, drew near to see if there might be any opportunity for profit.

    Their elder spotted the bag of nails that a centurion was readying and that looked a likely prize. So first, two of the men started a fight, creating a commotion while their finest young woman twirled in an exotic dance to the beat of her cymbals. As the centurion moved to restore order a little gypsy boy dashed in and had away with the bag of nails and the others of the tribe dispersed.

    When the centurion returned to the task of nailing Jesus to the cross he found the nails gone and was obliged to send to the town for replacements. This delay then allowed Jesus the time to come to full acceptance of his fate and be reconciled with God the Father. Consequently God looked down from heaven, smiling upon the gypsies. and decreed,

    “From this day forth it shall not be a sin for gypsies to steal.”

    Well, I like it anyway.

  • Delphin

    A former RUC sergeant once told me of his opinions of various ‘groups’

    IRA – disciplined, political and knew what they were fighting for

    UVF, UDA etc – common criminals and gangsters

    Gipsies – frighteningly violent.

    He went on to tell of how it took him and 5 other RUC men(in the days when police men were big) to arrest one gipsy for suspected assault.
    Of course this is only one man’s opinion and possibly unrepresentative of the travelling community as a whole

  • carlota martinez

    Interesting and timely post.

    In truth child protection services are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

    In the Tallaght incident it seems that the authorities acted precipitously. The family at the centre of the case were well established in the area, the children were attending local schools and there was prior social work involvement, although, it should be stressed, not in a child protection capacity. The family were known to the relevant services. In these circumstances it is hard to see how the criteria for an Emergency Care Oder had been made out.

    Were the actions of the child protection services influenced by racial stereotyping? Unquestionably.

    Were the actions of the child protection services irredeemable? No.

    I think it better that these services act promptly and in good faith, although in the fullness of time they may be proved wrong, rather than not acting at all.

    The Tallaght family will undoubtedly sue and they will succeed and, one hopes, lessons will have been learnt.

    I despise the cheer leading of John Watters and his ilk. No one would would be quicker to criticise child protection services for not acting than he. In the real world, John, nothing is cut and dried.

  • Comrade Stalin

    A point I noted elsewhere is that it is quite shocking that the Irish state can’t recognize or validate its own documents.

  • boondock

    The authorities did the right thing in both Greece and Ireland. Some of the arguments against their actions such as what about the dark haired children are ridiculous, profiling happens get over it. The people in Ireland will be compensated although what exactly for I dont know. I feel sorry for Maria as it turns out her actual biological mother, a gypsy from Bulgaria just left her in Greece because she couldnt afford to bring her back home and just left her with some Greek gypsies (denies selling her, obviously) but now she wants her back – suddenly it seems better if she stays with the Greek couple after all.
    News also breaking in Greece but strangely not in the UK that Interpol are investigating a sighting/video of a blond guy about 25 at a gypsy site in Cyprus. Everyone may be jumping the gun that it may be missing Ben as it is a complete long shot but surely its worth investigating and gives the family hope but if you listened to all the pc do-gooders from the last few days such profiling is disgusting and the case shouldnt be pursued

  • boondock