The scandal of missing children

  • 28 January 2005
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The health services and the Garda are indifferent to missing non-national children. Emma Browne, Hilary Curley and Colin Murphy report

Forty eight children went missing from the Eastern HSE region (formerly the East Coast Area Health Board (ECAHB)) last year, and of these 40 are still missing. The Director of Childcare in the Eastern Region, Marian Quinn, told us on 13 January she was unable to tell say how many of the children were still missing. She referred us to the Garda for this information. We were later informed by the Eastern region that 40 were still missing. They are the body with statutory responsibility for the care and welfare of these children.

In 2004, 174 unaccompanied minor asylum seekers came into the care of the ECAHB. Marian Quinn says that normally about half are reunited with family members in Ireland. The remaining half stay in Dublin and a majority of them are placed in hostels. If the child is under 12 the health board tries to place the children in foster care. But the arrangement is such that a 13 year old child is frequently placed in a hostel that does not have full time health board staff. In Dublin there are 10 such hostels.

Each child is allocated to the care of a social worker and a project worker. The children meet their project worker at least once a week, according to the board. But for the remainder of the week, aside from this encounter with the project worker, the children are in the care of the private hostel staff. The board says that they have "provided basic child protection training to the staff of each of the contracted hostels". The details of this training were not available to us prior to going to press.

These private hostels do not come within the remit of the Social Services Inspectorate, which has responsibility for overseeing the conditions of institutions in which Irish children are accommodated. Neither do these private hostels have to comply with the standards prescribed for the residences of Irish children. The Social Services Inspectorate Report, 2003 recommended that these hostels, "should comply with inspection requirements and should be inspected and registered as are all other children's residential centres". However that has not happened.

Only 17 unaccompanied non-national children came into Southern Health Board (SHB), now the Southern region of the HSE, in 2004. However, two of these children went missing, and are still missing. In the Southern region, unaccompanied non-national children are placed in emergency hostel accommodation and then later placed in supported accommodation, with families in the community. Birgette Mintern, a principal social worker in charge of separated children seeking asylum in the Southern region said that the children do "very well in these situations" and they "integrate well" into the local community.

The two children that went missing were a Bangladeshi boy and a Moldovan boy. Neither are on the Garda missing children website. They both went missing from emergency accommodation. The Bangladeshi went missing after three weeks in care and the Moldovan was in care for a matter of days. Birgette Mintern said that when children do go missing this occurs usually within a short space of time of them coming into the care of the health board. In the Southern region the children normally spend six to eight weeks in emergency accommodation. Then they are placed in more permanent settled accommodation until they are relocated to families.

Birgette Mintern said that the cases of the two missing children are now in the hands of the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB). She said she would have "no problem" with these children being listed on the missing persons website, if the Garda felt it was necessary.

In the last five years 3,000 unaccompanied children seeking asylum have come to the attention of the authorities in Ireland. A majority of these go into the care of the Eastern region, a small number are in the care of the Southern region. Pauline Conroy, who has worked on research on separated children seeking asylum in Ireland says that it was an "unexpected situation", nobody anticipated the volume of such children arriving in Ireland. Grace Kelly of the ISPCC said she wasn't surprised that the system is inadequate and that these children go missing in our care. She said that "our childcare system can't cope already with Irish children". Marian Quinn from the Eastern region said there are always issues about more resources and they "are currently in negotiation with the Department of Health for additional resources".

There has been some improvement in the accommodation for unaccompanied children in private hostels. Up until 2001 they were being placed in hostels which also catered for adult asylum seekers. In addition, these hostels they stayed in were self-catering. Now children are fully catered for in these hostels, which do not cater for adults as well. However Pauline Conroy says that "child protection principles require a higher level of daily supervision and care than currently prevails".

Another issue is the incomplete or missing records on children in health board care units. A report in 2003 by Pauline Conroy, Trafficking in Unaccompanied Minors in Ireland, states: "the absence of records in accommodation where children are housed is a core flaw in the protection of unaccompanied children. As a consequence children who 'disappear' from such accommodation... cannot be systematically and promptly traced."

Cabrini Gibbons of the Irish Refugee Council feels that there appears to be "no concern" and a "lack of investigation" of cases concerning the children who have already gone missing. Evidence Village obtained from hostel sources reveals an inadequate investigation by the Garda when children in the hostels go missing. And also a lack of follow up on the part of the health board to check with the Garda about the outcome of the investigations.

Sources who had worked with children that went missing from these hostels, told Village that the Garda on occasion had not come to question children or staff after children were reported missing. If they did come it was often days or weeks later, and in one case was four months after the reported disappearance. It seems that there is no regular communication between the Garda, the health services and hostels once the cases have been referred to the Garda. Cabrini Gibbons said that "much stronger inter-agency support and communications" is needed when these children go missing, between immigration official/authorities, social workers and the health board. Marian Quinn from the Eastern region said that she feels inter agency support is "working well". However, when Village asked Marian Quinn about the cases of the outcome of the 48 children missing under the ECAHB care on the 13 January, she could not give us any figures.

Even when an investigation is launched, in the cases of these missing children, no publicity is generated concerning their absences. There is a professed concern about the privacy rights of these children, which seems at odds with the massive publicity generated in the case of Irish children who go missing. The Garda said it was difficult to release information to the public regarding children in care.

There is also the problem that these missing children have no family advocates to promote their cases and the health boards, who have effective parental responsibility for them, do very little. The Garda press office said that it is the responsibility of the local superintendent to ask the Garda press office to publicise the case.

Over the last two weeks, Village has sought further information on the 11 non national children listed on the Garda website of missing children. However, the Garda were unable to give us further information on these children. They said they are still in the process of compiling the information, as the information needed to be gathered from the individual local superintendents in charge of the cases. Village tried to contact the relevant local superintendents, but we were referred back to the Garda press office.

Out of the 11 non-national missing children, five went missing from accommodation in west Dublin, and four went missing from a city centre hostel.

From the west Dublin accommodation a 16-year-old South African girl, Sive Yanta, and three Moldovan boys, Serghei Tudorache and Vasile Cichistu (both aged 15), and 13-year-old Ion Ernu, all went missing last October; and a Russian girl, Erna Isayeva (15) went missing last August.

We contacted the Russian embassy to ask if they had been notified by the Garda about the missing girl, Erna Isayeva. They had not heard about her and expressed concern at not having been informed. They asked Village to fax them her details. We also contacted the Eastern European Information Centre in Dublin, and they had no knowledge of her case and had not been contacted by the Garda. The Russian newspaper in Dublin, Gazetta also had no knowledge of her, or had any contact from the Garda.

We also contacted the South African embassy about Sive Yanta. They had never been contacted by the Garda about her case. The Chairperson of the South African Club in Ireland, Dee Hulse, also said she was unaware of her disappearance and was never contacted by the Garda. The South African Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, in Pretoria, South Africa said they had never heard about her case.

(There is no Moldovan embassy or consulate in Ireland.)

From the city centre hostel, a 17-year-old Somali boy, Adbi Ali, a 17-year-old Estonian boy,Valentin Vorobyov, a 17-year-old Georgian girl, Salome Samadashvili and an 18-year-old Georgian, Ion Spinu all went missing in 2004.

Village contacted the Estonian embassy in Ireland to enquire if they knew of Valentin Vorobyov. They had not been informed that he was missing. They said that it was not protocol that they be informed of missing persons. However, following investigation by the embassy, we were informed that Interpol had not been informed about this boy's case either. Within 24 hours the embassy discovered that his passport had expired in March of 2004, and in May he had made a new application for a passport, with an address given in the United Kingdom. (Although the date of birth given for the new passport is different from the previous one, but the other details are the same.)

(There is no Somalia or Georgian consulate in Ireland.)

There were no "missing person" posters placed or leaflets distributed in the city centre area where these children went missing.

All of these children have gone missing since January 2004.

16-year-old Lisa Nwole, a Nigerian, went missing from her home in Celbridge in October 2002. She is described as a "Black African" on the missing persons website, not Nigerian. Katie Ridge, a Fine Gael councillor who lives in the same estate in Celbridge, St Raphael's Manor, said she was not aware of any leaflet drop or local information session with the Garda subsequent to Lisa's disappearance. The editor of the Nigerian Dublin newspaper, Street Journal said he had not been informed by the Garda about the girl's disappearance and offered to place an article in his newspaper requesting information from the public about her. The editor of Metro Eireann, who is Nigerian, similarly had never been asked for information or help by the Garda. The Nigerian Embassy had not been informed of her disappearance either, but was interested and asked us to pass on any information if we got any. The spokesperson said that in the normal course of events, they would be informed, but usually by the social workers and never by the Garda.

Superintendent Tom Neville in Naas said "there has been a full investigation carried out" and that it was ongoing, but declined to give details of that investigation. Other Garda sources said that Lisa Nwole's mobile phone records had been checked but had drawn a blank.

The remaining missing non-national is a 17-year-old Eritrean girl, Tigsti Zeray, who went missing from an address on the North Circular Road, Dublin in 2004.

It is likely that nine of these 11 children who are on the missing persons list went missing from the Eastern region hostels. When asked about the problems with supervision in these hostels, Marian Quinn said that the only way to guarantee the safety of these children was to lock them up; "this is not an option desired by the health board", she said.

A major concern about these missing children is their vulnerability once they do go missing. Pauline Conroy said that "when they go missing we could assume that they are probably drifting into an underworld". They are "very vulnerable and exposed to the risk of being exploited for sex or labour". Cabrini Gibbons said "there is a concern in Ireland about trafficking and that some people might be using these missing children for trafficking. And (there is) some evidence that Ireland has been used as a first destination in the trafficking cycle." She added that we have a "lack of awareness and knowledge about trafficking in Ireland".