Anti-Roma prejudice rampant in state child protection services
In October 2013, and in the aftermath of the hysteria surrounding blond Maria in Greece, child protection services in Ireland removed two children from the custody of their Roma parents believing that, because they did not resemble their parents, they had been abducted.
In a recently published special enquiry, Irish children’s ombudsman Emily Logan found that ethnic profiling played a crucial role in decisions to remove the child.
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Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald, Prime Minister Enda Kenny and Acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan have officially apologised on behalf of the State to the Roma families concerned. An implementation group has been set up to act on key recommendations in the report.
The swift and decisive action of the Irish government is to be commended. The work of child protection services is complex and sensitive. Staff need excellent training, support and high levels of cultural competence. Engagement and empowerment of the Roma community are key and there is absolutely no place for stereotypes or prejudice.
Unfortunately, as networks working to promote the rights of children and equal opportunities for Roma respectively, Eurochild and ERGO Network know only too well that deep-rooted prejudice and stigmatization of Roma communities is rife across Europe. All too often it is the professionals working within the health, social and education systems that perpetuate a presumption that Roma families somehow provide substandard care to their children.
This has led to an over-representation of Roma children within the public care system across Europe, and deep mistrust within the Roma communities of the authorities whose experience of State intervention is primarily punitive.
In the other high-profile case, Greek authorities recently awarded permanent custody of ‘blond Maria’ to a Greek national charity. Maria will most likely spend the rest of her childhood in institutional care. The Roma adoptive parents remain in custody for false administration.
‘Discovery’ of Maria was essentially by chance. Police officers searching the Greek Roma settlement remarked that the blond girl did not resemble with her parents, sparking speculation that she had been abducted from her non-Roma parents. Media hysteria followed.
Maria’s images –a blond girl seated between Roma adults - reinforced a commonly held view that Roma are bad, and non-Roma are good. The story led to Maria’s birth place - a Roma ghetto in Nikolaevo - a small Bulgarian town, where Maria’s brothers and sisters were later themselves taken into state care by the Bulgarian authorities.
It would be simplistic to blame the professionals involved in these and other cases. Social and child protection services are often under-resourced and over-stretched. Training and support is often inadequate and does not sufficiently challenge underlying prejudice and discriminatory attitudes.
In some countries, there is still a prevailing belief that children are better off placed in public care rather than investing effort in supporting those who are perceived to be ‘bad families’. Separation of a child from their family should be a last resort but too often support services are non-existent or inaccessible to the Roma.
In fact it is often the lack of adequate living conditions that prevent families providing a supportive environment for their children. It is important to acknowledge the root causes of Roma exclusion and address systemic failures in the delivery of mainstream services, like education, housing, infrastructure, health and employment.
What is clear is that parenting ability has nothing to do with cultural or ethnic background. It has everything to do with how parents feel about themselves and how they are able to cope with day-to-day challenges often in extremely impoverished situations.
It appears that Ireland will learn the lessons to ensure that such mistakes never happen again. It is time for other countries to follow suit so a new generation of Roma children grow up proud of their identity and able to fully enjoy the same opportunities as their non-Roma peers.
Ruus Dijksterhuis is executive director of the EU level Roma network, ERGO. Jana Hainsworth is executive directive of Eurochild, a network of organisations promoting the rights and well-being of children and young people in Europe.