Missing Inaction

Eva Short

Staff Writer

Between 2000 and 2012, 6,154 unaccompanied asylum -seeking minors (from here on referred to by the clinical term “separated children”) came into the country. The average age of these children ranged from 14 – 17. Of those 6,154 minors, 526 have gone missing, 448 of which remain unaccounted for. While the numbers of missing children vary relative to the intake, an average of 7.16% of separated children went missing per year and were never found.

Numbers wise, the peak years were between 2003 and 2005, seeing the loss of 66, 65, and 53 children respectively, with only 10 – 20% of these children being subsequently found. 38 separated children disappeared in 2009, which sounds like an improvement, until you consider that this accounts for 18.7% of all separated children that came into Ireland that year.

While the figures are staggering, it is important not to think of this situation solely in terms of percentages and statistics, because behind every number there is a face, a person whose location  is now totally unknown. These figures cannot express the reality of situation, but I found people that could.

I spoke to two individuals; Tom Dunning, the principal social worker at the Separated Children Seeking Asylum team within the newly formed Child and Family Agency and June Tinsley, the Policy Officer at Barnardos who took part in the organisation of a seminar concerning separated children in April 2013. Two very different perspectives, both offering some explanation for those 448 children.

The word “missing” has grave connotations in the minds of many. It engenders the image of someone vanishing into thin air, never to be heard of again, and the idea of that fate befalling a teenager is all the more frightening.

As Tom Dunning explained to me, however, “missing” in some of these cases is a grey term. “We were being exploited by people coming in to Ireland to work illegally; pretending to be children, coming into care, and leaving before the social workers could meet them.”

“38 separated children disappeared in 2009, which sounds like an improvement, until you consider that this accounts for 18.7% of all separated children that came into Ireland that year. While the figures are staggering, it is important not to think of this situation solely in terms of percentages and statistics, because behind every number there is a face, a person whose location  is now totally unknown.”

He told me that these people would come into the country at night, generally over a weekend. By the time Monday came around when a social worker could see them, they had departed, leaving only a note explaining that they had to go to work. “We couldn’t even look at their age issues because they’d already be gone.” Of the people coming into the system that genuinely were children, Tom said they would arrive into the country “on a mandate from their families”, prearranged to leave the service with someone to arrive at their job. All of these people would disappear within the black economy, hence rendering them missing.

I asked why they were allowed to leave, and Tom reminded me of a very tricky aspect to caring for these children. “Detention of children is illegal, we don’t lock them up.” When he mentioned this, I recalled the recent Irish Times story about a children’s care unit in Monaghan that caused concern among inspectors after it was revealed that children were being locked in their rooms between 8pm and 8am. While the situations are vastly different, it made me realise that there is a thin line between over and under supervising children in care, and the fallout from both can be equally devastating.

When I spoke to June Tinsley, she provided a different answer. “There might be an element of a child being reunified with their family and just dropping off the radar.” She noted that children may move within the country and fall out of the HSE system that they were in. It wasn’t long until she mentioned a term that had been playing in the back of my mind since I first laid eyes on the missing persons reports – trafficking.

“There might also be an element of trafficking, or exploitation within the system…they drop out of the system, are exploited for sexual purposes and come back into the system. A pimp then may come take them again, that kind of pattern has been known to happen.”

Tom was quick to say that he and his team recognised that trafficking is “a serious crime”, and he explained that they did deal with victims of trafficking. He characterised the role that he and the members of the Separated Children’s team play as that of a “prudent parent”, always trying to approach the child as they imagined their parent or customary caregiver would. He stressed though that the trafficking and exploitation of children was “suspected”, as they couldn’t confirm nor deny given that these children have gone AWOL . Trafficking and exploitation is probably one of the most contentious issues surrounding separated children. A 2005 internal HSE report, retrieved via FOI by Village magazine, highlighted their acknowledgement of the possibility of trafficking within the asylum care system. Despite this, in 2010 a HSE spokesperson stated to the Irish Times that “It has been unsubstantiated that any of the children that have gone missing from HSE care have been trafficked.”

At this point, the Children’s Right’s Alliance (CRA) stepped in and gave a response. On 1st February 2010, CRA Chief Executive Jillian van Turnhout compiled a report, prefacing it by explaining that there had indeed been cases where children missing from care “had been ‘found’ in situations where they had been exploited by traffickers.”

The report listed over 25 case studies where children had been trafficked, exploited, or forced into marriage. Among these cases, girls from countries such as Liberia and Nigeria were either picked up directly from their HSE accommodation or were enticed out of it by sex traffickers. Another girl, who had been arrested in a brothel in Kilkenny after having ran away from state care, was placed back into care, and then went missing again right before she was due to stand trial. What becomes glaringly obvious when looking at these cases is that children didn’t seem to find leaving these state care facilities particularly difficult, and there’s a reason for this.

In 2000, the HSE received an unprecedented deluge of asylum seeking minors; 520 in the space of one year compared to the mere ten children that came into the country the year prior. In response, they quickly formed a team of social workers to deal with the issue, a team that was formalised in 2002. Children were placed into unregistered hostels which were run by privately owned security companies as an emergency provision. This emergency provision remained in place for the next seven years.

The accommodation was basic, with June Tinsley saying “They got their meals and that was about it.” They weren’t even always given meals – according to a 2013 report compiled by UCD’s Dr Muireann Ní Raghallaigh, the hostels initially started out with self-catering units. Supervision was minimal, and it is no coincidence that the bulk of children that went missing disappeared during the seven years that these hostels were in place.  Tom Dunning called the former system “inadequate”, and Ní Raghallaigh’s report points out that the hostel accommodation was in breach of a number of childcare guidelines. It was what has been called a “two-tier” system, one in which separated children were given a lower quality standard of care by the HSE than their Irish counterparts, not even being afforded therapeutic services even though many of these kids were fleeing hostile situations in their countries of origin. To make matters worse, these sub-standard care units were, as Ní Raghallaigh puts it, “for profit”.

I use the past tense in reference to this situation because in 2009, when the Equity of Care Principle was enacted, the system underwent a dramatic overhaul. The hostels were phased out over the course of eighteen months, a move that clinicians and NGOs had long been campaigning for. The relationship between the Separated Children’s social work team and the Garda National Immigration Bureau (G.N.I.B) was strengthened, leading to a collaborative effort between the two bodies in the assessment of separated children.

The Separated Children’s team became a short term assessment and reunification unit, and children that couldn’t be reunified were placed into foster families. Separated children are now each assigned a social worker, who offers them therapeutic support.  Essentially, this destroyed the two-tier model, meaning that these children are now being given the exact same kind of care as any other child in the system.

The number of children going missing has decreased. This can partly be explained by the sharp decline in the number of separated children coming into the country after 2008, but percentage wise, the amount of children going missing has decreased, as of 2012, to 2.8%.

It’s a great development – in fact, the ‘Irish model’ is now looked upon as very progressive and efficient, remarkable given the system’s chequered history. So why did it take so long for the changes to come about?

June Tinsley didn’t know. Tom Dunning stated that, as a clinician, he couldn’t comment, and that it was a question for the institution and not for the people on the ground. After having gone through three different switchboards to speak to Tom in the first place, the idea of trying to get answers from a government department almost made my stomach churn. Luckily, Dr. Ní Raghallaigh’s report clarified the situation.

The hostel accommodation model was flawed. Clinicians, NGOs, and even other governments had constantly been commenting on this, but the HSE were slow to act on it. The process of change was happening, albeit slowly. In 2009, something happened – the release of The Ryan Report. In the lead up to its release, internal reports indicate that the HSE fast-tracked the process, presumably in the hopes of saving face.

For more than a decade, separated children fell through the cracks of a system that fostered inaction. There were gaps in the HSE, gaps that were exploited, and while these gaps were bridged, it was not done in time to help these now missing people. Given that most of them have been missing for the guts of ten years, it doesn’t seem as if the system will be ever able to find them.

It’s embittering – 448 children that were placed in care are unaccounted for, and frankly it’d be satisfying to be able to blame someone. There would be a sense of justice to it – perhaps this is why social workers come under a lot of fire. However, the real culprit can’t be pointed at, for bureaucracy doesn’t have a face, even though it is behind some of the most egregious failings of government.