The District Court heard an updated report about an unaccompanied minor who had gone missing in care several months earlier and had not been found.
The solicitor for the Child and Family Agency (CFA) informed the court that this matter was last before the court twenty days before for the purpose of the extension of an interim care order for the unaccompanied minor who had been missing in care for a number of months. The matter was then listed again two weeks previously for the purpose for an update in respect of the Garda investigation.
The court was provided with an updated report prepared by the allocated social worker. The garda investigating the case was called to provide an update to the court. He told the judge that following a media release seeking information on the child’s whereabouts two people came forward informing An Garda Síochána that they may have seen the missing person.
One of the reports was that the child may have been spotted on a moped electrical bike and the Garda said that the area was canvassed for CCTV and the description of the clothing given was similar to the clothes the child was wearing on the day he went missing. The second report received was a potential sighting of the child sleeping rough in the city centre area and the Garda said that a picture of the child was shown to other homeless people and charities who worked in the area at night time.
The Garda told the judge that ten phones had been seized and they were still awaiting for the phones to be analysed by the technical team.
Judge: “A child is in care and he is missing and nothing is happening. A couple of alerts have gone out and he has not been found.”
The judge referred to criminal matters before the children’s criminal court and that the child may be “in the control of somebody else”.
The judge was told that the Garda had asked for priority to be given to the matter and that he would follow up on a fingerprint request to Interpol as he was still waiting to hear back. The Garda said that he was also awaiting information back from Google to track the source of emails to an IP address. The judge said that he was concerned on the length of time it was taking for the information to come back and he raised a number of queries in respect of the media releases.
The solicitor for the GAL asked the Garda what level of Garda rank was dealing with this matter and he told her that it had been sent to a sergeant, inspector and Garda headquarters.
The social worker told the court that she was allocated to the case at the end of March 2021 and she had prepared a report for the court. She outlined the steps that had been taken since the last court date including phone calls and a strategy meeting and she had also requested a meeting with the chief superintendent. The social worker confirmed that the child remained missing.
The judge asked the social worker whether she had any beliefs about the situation prior to the child coming into care and what the narrative was, as he was “found with a pile of drugs and then absconds”. The social worker said that she had never met the child “to form an opinion in that way” but that he was not granted bail in the Children’s Court and he then absconded. She said that the child “may still hold a fear of criminal charges” but that she had not met him personally.
Judge: “Would you be concerned if you thought a minor was trafficked in here and then put to work to carry drugs… something doesn’t add up.”
The GAL gave evidence and said that she had reviewed the social work files but had not had an opportunity of meeting the young person. The GAL referred to a person who had been in contact and she had received information that “he is getting messages and he is safe where he is staying but is fearful of being located by the guards”. The person had said that the child “hasn’t left the premises where he is staying at the moment”.
The GAL said that she had tried to reassure the person that there were no charges again the child and that he could present himself to the International Protection Office and seek asylum. The GAL told the court that she had been told that “all these messages are being relayed” but there was no evidence that they had been.
The GAL emphasised that the child had been missing since the end of December, approximately four months, and he was due to reach the age of majority during the summer, she said that they were “up against the clock on this one”. The GAL said that she had contacted RTE to run a media release but RTE had said that the news was “too busy” and the media release was “limited in terms of the take-up” and it was not on the website. It was discussed whether it was possible to include information in the media release to state that the child would “not be in trouble” but the Garda had said that they could not give that guarantee as they did not know what information that they might receive from Interpol.
The GAL told the court that other people that had been giving information “had gone back under ground.” She said that there was a “lot of mistrust” in that community about the gardaí as “a lot are in the country illegally”.
The GAL said that she had been hoping to progress matters and had been looking at the “television and RTE news at this stage”. She said that “perhaps senior members of the gardai can assist as the GAL solicitor had “not had any luck”.
The judge was told that no date had been given yet for a meeting with the chief superintendent but it was hoped that it would be as soon as possible. The judge was also told that there was a difficulty in obtaining an order from Google to release information as it could only do so for “criminal charges of sentencing of three years or more” and they were looking to have the information released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The judge said that he would extend the interim care order for one week and if no meeting had occurred with the superintendent that a subpoena would issue to relevant persons to inquire as to what had “been done to follow this child”.
When the matter came back before the court, the CFA solicitor said it was back in to provide the court with an update on the progress of the Garda investigation. She said there were a number of outstanding matters to be dealt with and the Garda was present to give evidence in that regard.
Judge: “Did you find him?”
Garda: “Unfortunately not. Our investigations are ongoing.”
The judge asked whether there had been any further developments in respect of the young person’s parents. The CFA solicitor said their whereabouts “remained unknown.”
The solicitor said the head of the CFA had written to the Assistant Garda Commissioner in order to organise a strategy meeting, and although two dates had been offered, the CFA had yet to receive a response.
Judge: “When was the letter sent?”
CFA solicitor: “I don’t have the letter to hand so I’m not entirely sure of the specific date, but we are still waiting to hear from the Gardai.”
The judge said the CFA had “a big responsibility here.” He said it had a duty to find the child, and that the matter was particularly urgent as “it is not known where the child is or what has happened to him, and there is a serious concern that he might be mixed in criminal activity or being held by criminals.” The judge went on to say that “this is not just a box ticking exercise for the CFA. The matter has to be constantly followed up with.”
The Garda said that since the last date, two warrants had issued for Google in respect of email communications which the young person had made while in custody. He said the information had been received, but all of the communications within the emails were in [the child’s language] and therefore required translation, which was awaited.
Judge: “When was the information received from Google?”
Garda: “The emails were received last Friday.”
Judge: “Okay, this is not directed at you, but there is a child here potentially in very difficult circumstances… The CFA and the Gardai need to be acting as if this is their own child. If this was the father or mother they would be on the phone every day seeking updates, so that’s what I expect in terms of getting the documents translated and following up on the strategy meeting.”
The solicitor for the GAL said enquiries had been made with RTE to run a media release, but RTE had flagged issues with this. She said it was her understanding that there had been further recent correspondence between senior members of the Gardai and RTE to see if there was any possibility of the media release. The Garda said it had been discussed, but RTE said that displaying the young person’s image and information on television might in fact cause harm to him, given the circumstances of his case.
The Garda said they had recently received confidential information in relation to a former roommate of the young person. He said the person was interviewed by the Gardai and a warrant issued for the search of his address, but he denied any knowledge of where the young person might be and the search did not return anything.
The Garda further said that they had been provided with a mobile phone number [based in the child’s country of origin] in respect of a potential contact for the young person, but this was “a dead end.” He said the number failed to connect.
The judge said he was adjourning the matter for one week and expected three things to happen in that time frame. He said: “I expect an update from the Gardai on the efforts to find the child, and an update from the CFA on the follow up with the Assistant Garda Commissioner in respect of the strategy meeting. Finally, I would ask that the Gardai and the CFA treat this matter as if the child was their own.”