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Roma Families and Public Panics

October 29, 2013

A little time has passed since the disgrace that was the treatment of two Roma families but I couldn’t let the most public Child Protection scandal of recent times go totally without comment. I don’t intend this post to be an exhaustive review of the case and its ins and outs, I am simply going to focus on issues that I feel haven’t been raised in the coverage already or that I feel should be highlighted.

I think that some credit is due to the Athlone Social Work Team for not getting sucked into the panic. In terms of time this case was after the Greece story, and after the Tallaght child had been taken. The Gardai used their powers under Section 12 of the Child Care Act  to take the child into care. When Section 12 is used the child must be given to the HSE and they must at the earliest chance either go to court or return the child. The next day the social workers met the family and returned the child. Clearly the social workers felt there was no concerns and that the child should never have been taken. This raises questions about the decision making of the Gardai, but I like to think the HSE did the right thing in this case, but then as an insider I would say that wouldn’t I.

In the case of Tallaght, we have three players in the mess  – the gardai, the social workers and the judge. I feel a lot has been said about the racist assumptions of the initial callers to the Gardai and the Gardai themselves, I don’t think I need to add anything to that. I hope that Minister Shatter makes the reports he has requested public so that we can all see what the Gardai where think and how they justified the Section 12, although it may end up hidden by in camera rulings (which could be a whole post in itself) .

Then there is the social workers and their response. What I want to know is why they bought into the hysteria of the Gardai. As shown by the Athlone case other social workers focused on the risk to the child and clearly saw none so returned the child. What was different in Tallaght? This suggests a few issue to me, however until any case review is made public (should that be an if…?) this is only speculation. Firstly it begs questions about the standardization of assessment that the HSE is chasing, its clearly missing in this case and would make me question is it even possible (or indeed totally desirable). Secondly how much pressure did the social work department come under from Gardai? If this action resulted from a degree of pressure or bullying from Gardai to act it is worrying as it suggests that social workers can be blown one way or another by outside forces and undermines the idea that it is a rational activity with its own coherence and its own standards. It also shows how little respect Gardai have for social workers opinions and assessments and decisions – something I have felt first hand. The challenges of interagency working has filled numerous text books and journal articles, so I will leave any discussion of that to another post.

The least examined part of this mess has been the Judge. Social workers don’t in fact take children in to care. They apply to the court and the court decides, the court issues the order, the court is the ultimate power in these cases. The judge would have heard evidence from the Gardai about why they took the Section 12, the judge would have heard evidence from the social workers about their assessment of risk to the child and how they grounded there concerns on solid evidence. Much comment has been on how flimsy the allegations were, how groundless the section 12 was, how little evidence of risk or harm the social workers had, but at the end of the day the judge in question felt it was enough to grant an emergency care order (Section 13 of the Child Care Act). To date I haven’t heard the judges role being discussed at all. Was his or her thinking influenced by the hysteria the case had built up? Was his or her thinking influenced by institutional racism? We can never know really, because these judges rarely give written judgements, and even if they did they are bound by the in camera rule.
As I said, judges are the final arbiters in care orders, without them social workers are powerless (and many of us feel powerless in front of a judge). There are several issues with judges and child protection highlighted by this case. As I say above the in camera rule prevents scrutiny. The in camera rule is there for good reasons, and a knee jerk reaction would be silly, I am not suggesting anything here beyond the need for a wide ranging discussion and debate about reforming the in camera rule. Equally there is the issue of oversight of judges, we see this in criminal cases a lot – such as it the lenient sentences of some criminal judges. Again, I don’t have any suggestions here as I feel that any change here needs to be balanced against the independence of the courts, which needs in other areas to be expanded and defended. The other issue is the consistency of judges. As a counterpoint to the judgement in this case I offer you this judgement reported by the Child Care Law Reporting Project (http://www.childlawproject.ie/).  The case involved an African family with five children, DNA evidence gathered for family reunification showed that one of the five was not the fathers daughter as was being claimed and on these ground the HSE sought an emergency care order. The judge in that case stated that alongside the DNA concerns there was no evidence before the court that there is a serious risk to the health and welfare and refused the order. Details of the case here – http://www.childlawproject.ie/publications/emergency-care-order-refused-for-african-child/

Another issues that links with this case and needs wider discussion is how we deal with trafficking. The case of the child who approached Gardai outside the GPO and the recent report on the number of slaves in Ireland, along with the wild assumptions and hysteria in these cases don’t really fill me with confidence.

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