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Timeline: Here's what happened to the Roma Child A in Athlone

After being taken in foster care, the child was heard screaming for his parents at 4am.

Athlone Garda Station
Athlone Garda Station

ON THE EVENING of 22 October last year, gardaí took a blonde, blue-eyed, two-year-old Roma child from his parents in Co Westmeath into foster care following fears that he had in fact been abducted.

Referred to as Child A in a report today by the Children’s Ombudsman, subsequent investigations found that there was no reason to believe the parents had kidnapped the child, and he was returned.

The report (PDF, 18MB) has blasted the gardaí’s investigation as being heavily influenced by media reports that a child had been discovered at a Roma camp in Greece that had been abducted.

Ombudsman Emily Logan described it as the “definition of racial profiling”.

There was no reason to believe the child was being mistreated, information was available to prove the relationship between the child and his parents, and gardaí had also been informed that the child had albinism.

“Whatever doubts the Gardaí had in relation to Child A’s identity up to the point should have been decisively put to rest when they were informed by Child A’s father that he was an albino,” the report read.

Garda decision-making was not sufficiently sensitive to the possibility that stereotypes could play a role in its decision-making with respect to Child A.

However, it notes that gardaí believed they were acting in the best interests of the child.

In a separate incident, Child T in Tallaght who was also taken into foster care, the report found that gardaí had sufficient reason to doubt information provided on a birth certificate

Here’s what happened to Child A in Athlone:

July 2013

At a festival in Clare, a member of the public who first contacted gardaí with concerns relating to Child A met the family while having her own daughter’s hair braided.

“He had very blonde hair and the bluest eyes and his complexion was also fair,” she later wrote, “Apart from the baby, all the others were completely dark in complexion, eyes and hair.”

18 October 2013

Greek police raiding a Roma camp in a crackdown on illegal activity discovered a blonde, blue-eyed little girl. Subsequent DNA tests on a couple who claimed to be her parents proved that the girl, known as Maria, was not their child.

Greece Mystery Girl Maria Source: AP Photo/The Smile of the Child

22 October 2013

9.53am: The member of the public contacted the gardaí’s Missing Persons Bureau to highlight their concerns in an email titled “Suspected Child Abduction”. She said Maria’s case had prompted her to report it.

Gardaí decided to treat it as a high-risk situation, requiring immediate action.

Relying on scant detail, gardaí used records of licenses granted at the festival in Clare to locate the family in question. Upon discovering they lived in Westmeath, the case was transferred to Athlone Garda Station.

3.24pm: Gardaí at Athlone were sent an email from the bureau instructing them to “make enquiries as to whether a small blonde haired baby boy is a member of their family”.

5pm: The garda who received the message, Sergeant G, was tied up with other duties until this time, and so was unable to review it. She searched for more information on the family, found no previous child protection concerns, and after discussing the matter with a superior decided to conduct the enquiries as instructed.

Garda J, who had a good relationship with the family, was appointed to the task, but raised concerns that the member of the public might have been influenced by the Maria case.

However, he told the Inquiry that his “knowledge of the family was such that he would expect to know all the children in the house, but that he had never seen Child A before”.

5.30pm: Garda J received the correspondence, and proceeded to begin the investigation, but was unable to travel to the house due to a lack of transport at the station.

7pm: Garda J, accompanied by another officer, arrived at the house.

Upon entering, they discovered Child A was present. The parent’s confirmed it was their son, and gardaí asked for the birth certificates of all their children.

After some hesitation by the family due to the unusual request, the birth certificates were located within twenty minutes. The ombudsman has said it was unfair to draw a “negative inference” from their hesitation.

Both gardaí felt there were discrepancies on the certificates.

“In relation to the recording of the father’s name on Child A’s birth certificate but not that of his sister, Child A’s mother explained that she and her partner,” the report reads, “Child A’s  father, were not together at the time of her birth; his name was therefore not  recorded on the birth certificate.”

Subsequent investigations by the Inquiry found this was the name of the child’s maternal grandmother, and believe the mistake, along with other discrepancies, was made due to her level of literacy at the time of the birth.

At the time, gardaí were not satisfied with the explanation provided. Having consulted with a senior officer, they were informed to request that Child A, his father and mother, come voluntary to Athlone Garda Station. They agreed.

7.30pm: The family were placed in an interview room at the garda station.

PastedImage-43736 Athlone Garda Station Source: Google Maps

8pm: After not immediately being able to provide the information when first contacted 15 minutes previous, the hospital where Child A was born confirmed that his mother had given birth at the hospital on boy’s reported date of birth. This did not dispel the gardaí’s fears.

It was also decided that an interrupter was not needed, but today’s report has said that the parents should have been offered one.

8.25pm: The family were asked to provide details of any social workers who had dealt with Child A, but they were unable to. The parents also indicated they were unaware of the Maria case.

9pm: Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 was enacted, given a perceived flight risk. The ombudsman’s report says, however, that this risk was created by the gardaí arriving at the family’s home.

Sergeant G was informed of this, and attempted to contact a local HSE Social Work Team. She was unsuccessful. Garda J also attempted to contact a member of staff at Barnardos who had been assisting the family for more than two years, but was also unsuccessful.

After discussing medical needs of Child A, this was when gardaí learned that the boy had oculocutaneous albinism.

9.44pm: Buccal swabs were taken from parents to establish their genetic relationship with Child A, described today as “not a proportionate measure”. They were to be sent for processing at 9am the following morning.

shutterstock_107589428 A buccal swap being administered. Source: buccal swap via Shutterstock

11.05pm: The child was placed in the care of “very experienced” foster parents, who comforted the child.

23 October 2013

4am: The foster parents heard the child crying out for his mother. Aside from this, he slept through the night.

8am: The parents arrived at the local health centre in contact a public health nurse who had dealt with the family. They are reported to being “pale and in a state of distress and shock”.

“The [nurse] reported to the Inquiry that in her view, Child A’s parents did not understand fully what had happened the previous night, beyond the fact that their child had been taken by Gardaí,” the report reads.

9am: Sergeant G spoke with a HSE social work team leader, a duty social worker, and the public health nurse. None had any doubts over the child’s identity.

The HSE had records dating back to the child’s birth as a number of referrals had been made.

These were “in relation to the material conditions in which Child A’s family lived as a result of their poverty and ineligibility to access certain social welfare supports”.

The family visited the centre the day after the child’s birth as they were unable to provide the new born with baby formula.

Barnardos had records relating to assistance provided for Child A’s medical treatment.

All of this was not available to gardaí the night previous.

9.30am: Gardaí held a meeting on the case, where Sergeant G told her colleagues of the information she had just received. It was decided that they were no longer in doubt about the child’s identity.

10.16am: This was communicated to the HSE social work team leader.

10.50am: Having conducted their own inquiries with the Public Health Nurse, Child A’s General Practitioner and Barnardos, the HSE told gardaí the child would be handed back to his parents.

11.30am: The child was brought to the health centre, and would not leave the arms of his foster parents until his own parents arrived.

“On their arrival, Child A’s mood and demeanour transformed significantly for the better,” the report reads. The father thanked the foster parents for looking after the child.

Later that day: The family travelled to Ballinasloe. They were spotted by a member of the public, who alerted gardaí to “a young boy with fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair in the company of members ofthe Roma community”.

A photograph was forwarded to Athlone Garda Station, where Garda J confirmed it was Child A.

Now Read: The full findings and recommendations of the report >

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About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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