Business of Select Committee

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ahern, and his officials to the meeting. A revised grouping list and substitute list of amendments has been circulated. We will refer to both lists of amendments in the course of the meeting. A list of correspondence and submissions has also been circulated. As we are in public session, I request Members to ensure all mobile phones are switched off.

When we concluded the last day, we agreed to check the record of the meeting for a comment made by Deputy Shatter when he said that the State had taken its revenge out on the child. Does the Deputy wish to withdraw that remark?

Before Deputy Shatter responds, it might defuse the situation if I gave the committee some details. I got a note on the up-to-date position on this case. Without going too much detail, I would advise that everything has worked out okay in recent days. The child's father contacted the HSE in August. He was resident in London and indicated that the mother was prepared to take the child back to Nigeria. As I said previously, a significant level of work had been carried out by members of the Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB, the HSE and the guardian ad litem service. Without going into too much detail, I advise that the child was reunited with the mother on Thursday night. They spent the night together in a hotel room in the Sheraton where the social workers from Ireland were staying. They visited his new school which is a very good one. He is now living with his mother in her apartment where they were left together and, from all indications, everyone is happy.

Without being confrontational about this, I would say it is clear that a huge amount of work was carried out by representatives of the State to try to reunite and assist the situation. This case raises the issue to which we referred previously. It illustrates the need to be very careful in how we term the legislation to ensure, on the one hand, fairness operates in these types of cases and, on the other, the immigration authorities are entitled to deport people when the circumstances pertaining warrant a deportation.

To respond to the Minister, first, I want to say that I am very pleased to learn that the child has been reunited with his mother. The information the Minister has given to the committee is of some importance because it illustrates quite clearly that this State had an obligation to bring about that situation and that it was important that the welfare of the child was protected. In the context of the events that occurred, I stick by the view that if this matter had been dealt with better, the child should never have been separated from his mother in the first place. The work State social workers were required to undertake was as a consequence of a failure by the State to ensure that in circumstances where it was legally proper that a mother be deported who was responsible for a young child, if the mother was detained temporarily, the mother and child be not unnecessarily separated and that the temporary accommodation required prior to implementation of a deportation order was child appropriate and that we did not bring about a situation where young children who were in no way at fault for the behaviour of a parent found themselves detached from a parent in circumstances they could not fathom or understand, with the possible medium and long-term damage that might do his or her psychological welfare.

I am very pleased the child has been reunited. There should be a provision in law, whereby if a child is brought before the Children Court and a mother is scheduled to be deported and a District Court judge, exercising the judicial function properly conferred on him or her, makes an interim determination that it is not in the interests of the child's welfare that the child be there and then deported, the State must have greater insight and understanding and delay the deportation of the mother. That does not mean a deportation order would not in the future be implemented, but if it was, it should be implemented in a manner in which a family would not be sundered and a child who did not understand the situation would not be placed in one or a series of foster care arrangements to the detriment of his or her welfare in the short term and possibly damage his or her welfare in the medium and long term.

What the Minister has told us today is good news. The State got it wrong; there was a lack of co-ordination between either the Minister's Department and the Garda Síochána or between the HSE, the Minister's Department and the Garda Síochána in the manner in which the case was dealt with. From a taxpayer's perspective, the manner in which it was dealt with has cost a substantial sum of money in legal fees in courts and social work interventions that might not have been required if the matter had been handled differently.

It should be noted that Deputy Shatter has not withdrawn the remark he made, that the State took revenge on the child. I do not accept that the State got the way in which it dealt with the case wrong. The fact is, as I said at the previous meeting, the lady in question arrived in the State on 19 August 2005 and gave birth to the child two days later. Two days after that she applied for asylum and then disappeared. Four and a half years later she was arrested with the child attempting to board a flight to London. She was conveyed to the women's prison, but, as the prison did not have facilities for her son and in accordance with well established procedures, she was given the option of voluntarily putting her son into the care of the HSE. She refused to voluntarily place the son in the care of the HSE, leaving the Garda with no option but to execute the powers provided under section 12. We have had some discussions about what occurs once the Child Care Acts are brought into play.

As Deputy Shatter said, an interim order was made regarding the child and an application was made by the HSE to have it lifted to allow the child to accompany its mother. This application was refused by the District Court and the child remained in the care of the HSE. As a result, the lady in question was repatriated to Nigeria without her son. Huge efforts were made to try to encourage her to take her child back to Nigeria. Much of what was said about the circumstances in Nigeria was not correct. The lady in question refused on more than one occasion to be repatriated with her child. It was only because of the intervention of her husband, the father of the child, who is living in London, that things began to fall into place. She is living in an apartment in Lagos. It was alleged that there were very poor circumstances in Nigeria, but that is not the case. She is working as an accountant secretary with a firm which sells cars and had a salary of $330 per month. Therefore, much of the initial story told in this case was not correct.

Thankfully, however, there has been a good ending. It illustrates again - I am not saying it was the case in this case - what we were discussing with regard to Deputy Rabbitte's proposed amendment. If it was included in the law - I am not saying Deputy Rabbitte has such an intention - it could potentially facilitate a situation where children could be used as a commodity to get around the immigration laws of a state. For that reason, we could not accept the amendment. Deputy Shatter raised the case and I was reluctant to give the details. I was not aware of the up-to-date position, but I have been made aware that there have been these occurrences in recent days. Thankfully, it has worked out well for everybody involved and at the same time ensures the immigration laws of the State have been complied with fully.

I am disappointed Deputy Shatter is not withdrawing his remark that the State took revenge on the child. The facts patently do not bear this out in any way. The opposite is the case.

I wish to respond.

The Deputy should be brief.

The Minister was not brief and I am entitled to respond. It is most regrettable that he not only continues to defend the indefensible but has attempted to misrepresent what occurred and use it as a political weapon. It is only a weapon in his own head because anyone who looks at what occurred in this case will be justifiably critical. What concerns me in particular is that the Minister appears to be under the illusion that nothing went wrong, that all of this was dealt with appropriately and that we should do the same again. The manner in which it was dealt with classically illustrates the reason that an amendment of the nature proposed by Deputy Rabbitte which he has withdrawn - we are probably breaching the committee's procedures in referring to it at this stage - should be included in the legislation. We should return to the issue on Report Stage.

I wish to be very clear about the nature of my complaint which the Minister has ably illustrated. He has said that when the woman in question was properly detained because she was acting in defiance of a deportation order, she was given two choices - to hand over her child voluntarily and the State would place him temporarily in care, even though there was nothing to say she was a bad mother or that the child was not attached to her, or alternatively the Garda would take the child and obtain a care order. Any reasonable mother, regardless of how badly she had behaved with regard to our deportation laws, who had properly brought up her child, whose child was attached to her and who was a single mother would wish, if she was being detained by the State in a centre or prison and about to be deported, that she would retain custody of her child. This woman's crime, in the Minister's eyes, was that she did not voluntarily hand over her child to strangers, so that the child would be in the care of strangers and taken away from her in circumstances in which the child could not possibly understand and which had to do serious emotional damage to that child. The Minister is defending that. My criticism is that the Minister and the State are obliged to have regard to the independent decisions of our Judiciary. If they fail to do so they are acting in contempt of our Judiciary. Following an application made to the courts on behalf of the State, a District Court judge made a ruling that he could not, at that time, sanction the deportation of the child. That was known to the State. The Minister's office, the HSE and the Garda Síochána are all arms of the State. The District Court judge did not rule out the possibility of the child being deported with the mother at a later stage. The District Court judge refused to agree to the immediate deportation of the child, which meant the child remained in care. Nevertheless, the State proceeded to deport the mother. If the State had focused on the child's welfare at that point it would have provided, if needs be, a secure facility in which mother and child would be detained while the problem was addressed. The child would not have been separated from its mother.

According to my understanding, and I am open to correction, the child travelled through at least two if not three fosterage places during the period, before it was recently returned to Nigeria. My criticism is that we need joined-up thinking and we need State agencies to interact with each other. We also need something the Minister himself seeks occasionally to rely upon, which is respect for the courts. In this instance there was no joined-up thinking.

At the last meeting of this committee I said that we need joined-up thinking and to ensure that when dealing with children we do not exact revenge on them for the bad behaviour of parents. This is the case regardless of whether the mother had a valid reason to be in Ireland. The Minister suggests that she did not have a valid reason to be in Ireland and I have no reason to know differently. It may well have been appropriate that ultimately she be deported, but effectively what has occurred in this situation is that the State has taken its revenge on the child. The child's attachment to the mother was broken and it was placed in care. At the last meeting, I went on to complain - as I have mentioned this morning - that substantial expense has been incurred by the State on that issue. I am delighted that expense has resulted in mother and child being reunited. A different, more considered approach, involving respect for the District Court's order and proper communication between the Department of Justice and Law Reform, the HSE and the Garda Síochána, would have prevented this situation from arising in the first place.

We know that people are deliberating breaking our emigration deportation laws. On occasion they are families with children and on occasion they are single parents with children. To uphold the law's integrity it may well be necessary to detain them temporarily before deportation. If they are being detained, we must understand that young children have no understanding of these events. They should not be prised away from their parents' arms in circumstances they do not understand. There should be proper facilities to accommodate mothers and children, or parents and children, in the period immediately preceding deportation, so if families are required to leave the State they can do so together.

I do not accept for one minute that there was not joined-up thinking in respect of this case. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. This lady refused to place her child in the care of the HSE voluntarily. Because of that refusal, the provisions of the Child Care Act had to kick in, and they did. Deputy Shatter is correct in saying that an interim care order was granted. Subsequently, the application to have that order lifted was declined by the District Court. Obviously, the son then had to remain in the care of the HSE. This lady was then subsequently deported. Once back in Nigeria, despite numerous attempts by detectives from the GNIB, it was not possible to contact her. She was given contact numbers by members of the GNIB, including their own personal phone numbers to call once she got back to Nigeria, but she did not make contact.

Through her legal counsel, she indicated to the District Court that because of her circumstances in Nigeria she did not want the child to be returned to her. In March 2010, the Department sought the assistance of the International Organisation for Migration in this case. A meeting was held between the IOM, the HSE and the court-appointed guardian ad litem to the child, and an official from the Department’s repatriation unit, to discuss a trip to Nigeria by the social worker and the guardian ad litem. That trip was to attempt to achieve a reunification. The Department’s position was outlined at the meeting - that legally the Minister had no obligation to provide assistance. However, given the exceptional circumstances of the case, as a humanitarian gesture, the Minister was prepared to provide the kind of assistance that might normally be provided to a family who had voluntarily repatriated to Nigeria.

The guardian ad litem and the social worker travelled to Nigeria to meet this lady. She still maintained that she did not want the child returned to Nigeria, as she said her living conditions were so inadequate. An application was made subsequently to the HSE in April 2010 to revoke the deportation order. That was considered and the order was reaffirmed. It was stated that this lady had no income and was living in a remote area with no kitchen, toilet or bathroom facilities. A report to the Department stated that an application to revoke the deportation order would be vigorously pursued. In August 2010, the District Court was informed that the child’s father had been in contact with the HSE from his home in London and had advised that he wished the child to be returned to Nigeria to be united with the mother. This lady contacted the HSE herself and confirmed finally that she now wished to have the child returned to Nigeria. She stated that the child’s father had secured employment in the UK and that he was now in a position to support his wife and child.

Her subsequent circumstances are such that she has accommodation in Nigeria. Her solicitor representing the guardian ad litem requested further assistance from the Department concerning travel and security arrangements. The Department has paid for the flights to Nigeria for all concerned.

On 7 October, a multi-disciplinary meeting was held of all the State agencies involved. A detailed plan was drawn up concerning therapeutic work to be undertaken with the child and his mother in Nigeria. It was decided that the minimum period needed in Nigeria by the social worker and a therapist, in order to effect a successful reunification between the child and the mother was seven days. This was arranged for. A huge amount of work was done to try to deal with this case as compassionately as possible, while at the same time ensuring adherence to the immigration laws of this State.

I do not accept Deputy Shatter's contention that there was not joined-up thinking. Neither do I accept his apparent suggestion that the State took revenge on this child, as he patently said here last week.

To conclude, I have a two-sentence response to that. It is unbelievable that the Minister does not even understand what he is saying. If, when this mother was detained, the State had provided accommodation for her and the child, both would have been deported, none of this would have occurred, and none of the subsequent difficulty and expense would have been incurred by the State either.

Second, it is extraordinary that the Minister can tell this committee that a therapist had to be paid for to go to Nigeria to provide seven days of therapy to facilitate the mother and the child re-establishing a relationship, and, presumably, to ensure attachments continued and to overcome whatever distress and trauma the child had suffered. If the Minister does not understand that the need for a therapist derived from the events in which the State was involved from the moment this woman was arrested until the child was returned, he is beyond understanding anything.

The Minister should acknowledge - there is no shame in it - that on occasions mistakes are made. He should acknowledge a mistake was made and arrangements should be made to ensure this is never repeated.

We will move on. We have discussed the matter enough.