Lil' Sister Looking Out The Window
by Bernard Rorke

CW: child mistreatment, state violence, abuse

Back in May 2018, both Vladimir Putin and former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions hit the headlines in the same week by threatening to take children away from their families. In the New Yorker, Masha Gessen called this a form of state terror: “Hostage-taking is an instrument of terror. Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror.”

This form of ‘state terror’ is all too familiar to Europe’s Roma. While for centuries, racist folktales warned children not to wander into the woods lest they get ‘snatched by Gypsies’, the historical reality is quite the reverse. It is Romani children who have been kidnapped by the authorities and separated from their parents; kidnapped by authorities bent on forced assimilation, or in the case of the Nazis and their allies, gruesome experimentation and annihilation. In the democratic 21st Century, where anti-Roma racism has been routinized, disproportionate numbers of Romani children are removed from their biological families and placed in institutional state care.       

The ERRC, in its latest report Blighted Lives, asserts that long-term institutionalisation of young children is a form of violence; and the disproportionate overrepresentation of Romani children in state care amounts to a form of racist violence. So insidious and routinized are such practices that they rarely hit the headlines. One notable exception was the abduction by Irish authorities of two blond, blue-eyed Romani children from their homes in 2013. Amidst a public outcry, the children were returned to their parents days later, but only when DNA tests confirmed they were indeed family. 

However, for the most part, the fate of Romani children taken into state care goes unremarked and unchallenged. The Blighted Lives report builds on a decade of ERRC fact-finding and legal interventions challenging such discriminatory practices. Despite the legal prohibitions on the placement of children into care on the grounds of poverty or deprivation, poor housing conditions and abject poverty remain the most frequent reasons for removing Romani children from their biological families. 

by Sophio Datishvili for ERRC

These children are caught at the cruel intersection of poverty and racism, where institutional discrimination and dysfunctional child-protection systems result in huge numbers of Romani kids being placed in state-run care homes, where there is precious little by way of care. Worse still, some of these vulnerable youngsters become victims of abuse and exploitation.

Hungary: “The stuff of nightmares”

In 2018, a BBC documentary revealed the shocking plight of Romani children in Hungary, taken from their families and exposed to violence and sexual exploitation with the care system. Distraught mothers whose children had been taken into care, spoke of their powerlessness to protect their children from abuse in the institutions. 

The program exposed cases where pimps were grooming vulnerable young girls, where care workers seemed unbothered, and took no action to prevent the girls’ drift into prostitution; and met with bereft Romani mothers who described the situation as “the stuff of nightmares”. Other parents described how they lived in fear of mayors or other authority figures who had threatened to take their children away. It became clear that this threat operates as a means of social control and coercion, made all the more real because of the hugely disproportionate number of Romani children taken into state care.

parents described how they lived in fear of mayors or other authority figures who had threatened to take their children away.

ERRC research in 2018 showed that Romani children were grossly overrepresented in the care system in Nógrád County in Hungary. Although less than 20% of the county’s population is of Romani origin, over 80% of children in care are Roma. Despite the stipulation in the Child Protection Act, that children cannot be removed from their family solely for material reasons, the research showed that poverty and deprivation combined with stereotypes about Roma played a key role in removals. “In many cases, removals could be prevented by providing comprehensive support and appropriate services to impoverished families.” 

North Macedonia: victims accused of lying and inventing stories

In North Macedonia in 2018, the ERRC took action following disturbing reports of neglect and abuse of Romani minors resident in Skopje’s ‘25 May’ children’s home. In one case, a thirteen-year-old girl had to undergo an abortion, following an ordeal where she had been kidnapped and held for 30 days before she was able to escape. The care authorities did not report her disappearance to the police or parents. In her testimony to an ERRC human rights monitor, the girl also described how she had previously been sexually abused at a ‘children’s summer camp’ by an unknown older man. When she reported these abuses to care workers she was accused of lying and inventing the stories. 

When she reported these abuses to care workers she was accused of lying and inventing the stories.

Interventions by ERRC prompted a series of actions which included disciplinary measures against 33 staff members, the resignation of the care home director, two suspects being taken into police custody on charges related to human trafficking and abuse of minors. The scandal provoked strong condemnation from the Prime Minister and a promise that justice will be done. 

Czech Republic: guilty of large-scale and discriminatory removals 

On 23 November 2020, the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) found the Czech Republic responsible for large-scale and discriminatory institutionalisation of children with disabilities and Romani children in early childhood care institutions. Roma represent a mere 2.2% of the total population in the Czech Republic, but in different regions, account for between 30% and 60% of children in state care.

Roma represent a mere 2.2% of the total population in the Czech Republic, but […] between 30% and 60% of children in state care.

In his submission to the collective complaint, UN Special Rapporteur Dainius Pūras, noted that children with disabilities and those from ethnic minorities suffered more than others from the effects of institutionalisation, which he described as “devastating on nearly every domain of functioning.” As for the typical institution, according to the Czech NGO Lumos: “the setting is isolated and is distinctly identifiable as being outside the broader community (by the use of high walls or fences, barbed wire, guards on the gate, provision of school on site, inter alia); contact with the birth and extended family is not actively encouraged or supported, and is at times discouraged; care is generally impersonal and the needs of the organisation come before the individual needs of the child.” 

Racism denied

When staff and directors of care homes in different countries were asked by researchers why so many Romani children get taken into care, they repudiated any notion that racism or discrimination could ever be a factor. In follow-up discussions however, some were forthright in their views of ‘Gypsy lifestyles and culture’, and shared what they considered to be the unremarkable anti-Roma prejudices of the wider society. 

Most interviewees denied that ethnicity plays any role in removals, and then blithely went on to cite parental neglect, truancy, theft of firewood and potatoes, healthcare concerns, family tragedies, and ‘other pathological phenomena in the locality’ including drug and alcohol abuse. In most countries, the structural racism that reproduces such extreme poverty and renders so many Romani families ‘at risk’ goes largely unquestioned, and the dysfunctional systems which dump hugely disproportionate numbers of Romani children into state care institutions go effectively unchallenged. 

from Blighted Lives/ERRC

There are, in all communities, circumstances in which it is in the best interests of the child to be removed from the family, but such decisions must not be skewed by ethnic prejudice, and should not be determined by poverty. Removals have a traumatic impact on family life, and states must move to eliminate institutional care for children and to promote investments in community-based services for families at risk. Removal should be a last, and not a first option, and the threat of removal must not be used against Roma, or anybody else, as an instrument of what Masha Gessen termed “state terror”. 

The history of ethnic minority, Indigenous and other vulnerable children taken into care homes run by state authorities or religious orders is one unremitting catalogue of atrocities. Over recent decades, the haunting testimonies of cruelty and abuse from victims who were silenced, disbelieved and punished when they tried to speak up, should serve as a warning that wherever power and prejudice goes unchecked, the vulnerable will suffer most.

Featured image CC BY-NC 2.0 KaCey97078 (border cropped)

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