From 2017 to date, 54 unaccompanied children – children who arrive in Ireland without an adult looking after them – have gone missing while under Tusla’s care, according to the agency’s figures.
Of those, only 18 kids were found, returned or accounted for, the figures suggest.
It’s important that the government publicises the disappearance of unaccompanied minors, says Fiona Finn, chief executive officer of Nasc, a migrant and refugee rights non-profit.
“They do not have family members in Ireland who can advocate for them or speak to the press,” Finn said.
Yet it seems not all of those who are missing are loaded up onto the Ireland section of a global database that the Gardaí at first said shows “all missing children in Ireland”.
A spokesperson for Tusla said An Garda Síochána is responsible for the database, “and queries related to its use would be best directed to AGS”.
A Garda spokesperson said an international non-profit for missing and exploited children runs the website, but that it too has access to the database.
“The Missing Persons Unit are the main users and the Garda Press Office have access if they require to upload details of a child in an emergency in advance of a CRI [Child Rescue Ireland] alert,” said the spokesperson.
They didn’t say why Tusla’s figures for kids who are still missing differ from the numbers on the database.
Information is uploaded there and a media appeal is published if it’s requested by “the investigation team and or local management”, they said.
The spokesperson didn’t say why the investigative team might advise against publicising the disappearance of some kids but said media appeals are only one method for locating them.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality said that decisions including “what and how information about the child may be released to the public if the child is not located” and arrangements for their return if found, are a matter between Tusla social workers and An Garda Síochána in line with their agreed protocol.
Tusla’s figures say that eight unaccompanied children went missing in 2020 and that Gardaí found one of them. Seven, then, are still missing.
There were photos and details, though, of just five children who had gone missing that year in the global missing kids database for that year, as of 26 September 2021.
From the unaccompanied children who went missing in 2019, Tusla said 18 haven’t yet been found.
But there were photos and details of five children in the same database for that year, as of 26 September 2021.
For 2018, one child’s details are posted as missing in the database, while Tusla figures say that seven kids are still unaccounted for from that year.
Most of the children with photos and names uploaded on the Ireland section of the global database seem to be kids of colour.
It’s unclear how many of them were unaccompanied minors, as the database includes all children who have gone missing.
Children are considered missing from care when Tusla doesn’t know where they are, says a spokesperson for the agency.
When that happens, Tusla follows reporting protocols between itself and An Garda Síochána.
They didn’t say exactly what the protocols are, but said that Gardaí have “primary responsibility for investigating the child’s whereabouts”.
“However, the child’s social worker and carers continue to make enquiries,” said the spokesperson, and pass any information on to Gardaí.
A spokesperson for the Gardaí said there are several other ways besides media appeals to inquire and find kids who go missing under state care.
Inquiries include but are not limited to DNA testing, working with Interpol in case a child has left the country, and checking with embassies to see if family has been in touch to report them as missing, they said.
“All missing person investigations remain active until the missing person has been located,” the spokesperson said.
In 2009, a review by the Garda Síochána Inspectorate of how Ireland handles cases of missing persons recommended that An Garda Síochána bring clarity to its missing persons web pages.
“Including what is shown on each and why. At present, there is no explanation as to why some individuals are profiled and others who are missing are not,” the review said.
Gardaí should ramp up its partnership with the HSE, [which had responsibility for children in care, before Tusla was created in 2014,] to “minimise the risk of children in care going missing”, said the review.
Also, among its recommendations is that the force should strengthen its missing persons unit, hiring additional personnel.
A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána did not respond to a query asking why it still doesn’t clarify why its missing persons databases profiles some but not others, despite the recommendations.
But they said that the missing persons unit does not have an investigative function.
It “provides advice, guidance and assistance to Gardaí investigating Missing Person Incidents,” they said.
Currently, the spokesperson said, the missing persons unit has one detective sergeant, two detective Gardaí and one garda staff member – which is one more person than at the time of the 2009 review.
Finn, the CEO of Nasc, says there should be a clear protocol for reporting and publicising the disappearance of unaccompanied children.
Finn is also worried, she said, about the high number of unaccompanied kids who are still missing from previous years.
If, as in 2019, nearly 20 kids who went missing in only one year are still yet to be found, she said, then the system isn’t working.
“We would very much welcome a statement by An Garda Síochána as to what efforts have been made to find these children and ensure their safety,” Finn said.
Local superintendents are in charge of investigating missing person reports, said a spokesperson for the Gardaí.
They, or in some cases an assigned senior investigative officer, guide the investigations and make the calls on what steps should be taken for each case, said the spokesperson.
Having An Advocate
Finn, the CEO of Nasc, says every child who goes missing should cause alarm, regardless of immigration status. “The full weight of the State should be brought to bear in trying to find a missing child.”
Unaccompanied minors are especially vulnerable, she said, because they don’t have anyone to advocate for them besides the government.
Unaccompanied minors have Tusla-appointed social workers but don’t have legal guardians, says a recent joint report by the international non-profit Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees.
While the Child Care Act 1991 saysthey should have equal access to a “guardian and/or a legal representative” that doesn’t happen in practice, says the report which explores unaccompanied minors’ transition to adulthood in several European countries.
That they don’t have legal guardians in Ireland sometimes means they go through childhood statusless and end up in direct provision as adults because social workers might decide against applying for asylum on their behalf, while they’re still underage, the joint report says.
It says that legal representatives and not social workers should make these calls.
Stephen Kirwan, an associate solicitor at law firm KOD Lyons, says independent legal guardians can also play a vital role when unaccompanied children go missing, by following up with the Gardaí.
It ensures, he says, “better more consistent and independent follow up”.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, said that Tusla social workers carry out the same duties as guardians do in other European jurisdictions in fulfilling the needs of separated children seeking asylum.
Kirwan said that social workers and legal guardians should have separate roles. “An independent guardian ad litem should be appointed in all cases as a matter of course.”