Two blond children who were taken by Irish police from their Romani parents were returned to their families Wednesday after DNA tests determined the children were rightfully theirs, in an episode that has raised accusations of racism.
The Irish police were responding to public tipoffs fueled by media coverage of an alleged child-abduction case in Greece involving a blond-haired girl and a family of Roma, who are often referred to as Gypsies, although the term is widely considered derogatory.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter told lawmakers he was "pleased and relieved" that the children had been returned to their homes. He ordered the police commander, Commissioner Martin Callinan, to produce a report explaining why officers felt it necessary to take the children — a 2-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl — from their families.
"We must all be particularly conscious of the regrettable distress that arose for the two families and their children," Shatter said.
He defended the need for police and child welfare officers to remove children from potentially dangerous homes, but cautioned that Irish authorities must ensure "that no group or minority community is singled out for unwarranted suspicion in relation to child protection issues."
In both cases, police suspected that the children might be victims of abductions because they were blond-haired and blue-eyed, unlike the rest of their immediate relatives.
An estimated 5,000 Roma have settled over the past decade in Ireland, where a few have been linked to organized street-begging rackets involving children.
On Monday, police went to one Roma family's home in southwest Dublin and sought the girl’s passport and birth certificate. The family produced them, but police opted to issue an emergency child protection order and place the child in state care. Police said the Romanian passport was not useful because it had a baby photo, not the girl's current appearance, while the birth certificate did not match Dublin hospital records.
On Tuesday, police in the midlands town of Athlone went to another Roma family's home and asked both parents to provide mouth-swab samples from their son and themselves. The boy then was taken away by social workers overnight and returned the next day after the child's parentage was confirmed.
Irish child protection law prohibits the publication of the names of either family because their cases involve the placement of children into state protective custody.
The Athlone family's father told reporters he had assured police that other relatives also had blond hair and blue eyes. He said his wife couldn't sleep all night and the boy's older sister cried much of the night.
The Dublin family's lawyer, Waheed Mudah, issued a statement outside the Family Court accusing the police of acting without justifiable cause.
Mudah said his clients were "very conscious of the fact that this case has been linked" with the Greek child-abduction case, "which has nothing to do with them."
He said his clients hoped parents across Ireland would "consider how they would feel if one of their children was taken away in similar circumstances for similar reasons. They hope no other family has to go through the experience they have suffered."
Pavee Point, a Dublin-based support group for Roma people, said the police were guilty of racial profiling and child abduction.
The group's co-director, Martin Collins, said he feared that more children "of Roma parents who are not dark-skinned and have brown eyes could be taken away, one after the other, for DNA test after DNA test. It's outrageous. It's despicable."
Ireland's national police, the Garda Siochana, confirmed that both children were returned to their families Wednesday. In a statement the force defended its actions as consistent with child-protection laws, and said the public should be assured "that we take extremely serious(ly) all reports received from members of the public concerning child welfare issues."
The Associated Press