By Jennifer O'Connell
Her name was Ruth.
She had another name, a name from Nigeria, but she preferred not to use it.
Too many painful memories, perhaps.
She was 15 years old when she was sent to Dublin by her grandmother, who hoped she might make a life for herself here, after the rest of her family had been murdered in an attack on their home by militants in Nigeria.
In the beginning, things went well for Ruth. She started in fifth year at a high-achieving girls’ school in south Dublin. She lived in HSE-provided accommodation nearby. Her English was quite good, and she seemed to be settling in well.
‘‘She was as bright and as cheerful as you could expect anyone to be, given what she’d been through," recalls one of her teachers.
Until the day, about three months after she started, that she didn’t turn up to school. Her teachers called the hostel and contacted her social workers, but no one had any idea what had happened to her. She had vanished into thin air.
Six months or so later, one of her teachers was watching the news. There was a report about local protests over the opening of a lap dancing club in the south of the country. He recognised one of the dancers. It was Ruth.
Some 502 migrant children have gone missing while in state care over the past ten years. But Ruth is an exception: she is one of only 58 who have turned up.
She never came back to school; her teachers still don’t know what happened to her after she was spotted in the lap dancing club. But they took some comfort from knowing that she was alive.
No-one knows what has happened to the other 444. Their photographs have never been festooned on lampposts; blurry CCTV footage showing them walking off into the distance has not appeared on the evening news; newspapers have never camped out on the doorsteps of the hostel where they lived, or offered rewards for information leading to their recovery.
The following children are some of the 141 registered ‘missing’ on a Garda operated database - ie. missing kids.com - which doesn’t state if they were in the care of the HSE or not.
Their names will probably mean nothing to you. But you can’t help thinking that, if they’d been snatched from the homes of their parents, that wouldn’t be the case.
There’s Simona Baric, a solemn faced Bosnian girl who went missing last summer from her accommodation in Monaghan, and whose height made her look much more than her 11 years.
Congolese Jennifer Anne Bena Princess, who went missing in Tralee in 2004 as a cherubic six-year-old, and is now thought to be in Britain. If she is still alive, Jennifer would have celebrated her 12th birthday this week.
Li Ki Yeh, a 16-year-old Chinese boy who disappeared last April from his accommodation in Dublin 2.
Kenyan Caroline Njoki, who was just 11 when she went missing from her accommodation on Dublin’s Lower Gardiner Street almost three years ago.
Jiao Ai, a slight, pretty Chinese girl of 16 with full lips and large eyes, who walked out of the hostel she was living in at 6pm one evening in March 2009 and never came back.
Six-foot tall Vasile Cichistu, a handsome, blue-eyed 16-year-old, who disappeared from his west Dublin accommodation six years ago.
Chen Hong Yu and Xiao Ming Chen, two 15-year-old Chinese girls, who were last seen hanging around Parnell Square one evening in January 2009.The list goes on, and on, and on.
In 2009 alone, 45 children went missing while in state care; only 36 of these have been traced.
Last October, more than a decade after the first separated children began arriving in Ireland, the HSE and the Garda Síochána finally signed a joint protocol which agreed the procedures which would be followed when a child went missing in the future.
The move came after repeated criticisms from those working in the area about a perceived lack of cooperation between the HSE and the gardaí; about poor record-keeping and poor inter-agency communication; and a haphazard approach to investigating the disappearances of so many of these children.
The HSE has taken some further steps to improve the care given to these children when they arrive in Ireland; from now on, they will not be dumped in a hostel managed at night by only security staff, and will instead be found a place with a foster family.
However, with 444 children already missing, these measures smack of applying for planning permission to fit a door to the stable, long after the horses have bolted.
Organisations such as Barnardos believe they still don’t go far enough to protect children like Ruth, who are vulnerable to a very particular fate.
‘‘Separated children are at specific risk of trafficking for sexual or labour exploitation," says Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos.
‘‘All gardaí and HSE personnel dealing with these children must be aware of the very real risks facing them in order to move swiftly and efficiently to find and protect these children if they go missing. We cannot allow these children to be exploited by individuals or gangs who exploit them in the worst ways for financial gain."
Denis Naughten, the Fine Gael TD, spoke about his concern last week that ‘‘traffickers may be using the care home system for vulnerable children as ‘holding pens’ for their victims until they are ready to pick them up’’.
It is hard to imagine any child more vulnerable than one who travels here alone, often from thousands of miles away, with little money, no family or friends to protect them, and often no idea where they’re going.
Yet the inertia which surrounds their care and the high number of them who disappear is staggering.
Once again, this weekend, the country is dealing with the fallout over the shocking numbers of children who have died under the watch of the HSE.
But what about the many more who have vanished while they were supposed to be in its care? Does the colour of their skin or the foreignness of their name mean they don’t count? Does it make their disappearance less alarming?
If the measure of a society is how it protects its most vulnerable members, then this society has had little reason to feel proud of late.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on June 6, 2010