The Travellers’ Times investigates the statistical rise in the number of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in the social care system and asks – what can be done?
A young Traveller mother with a megaphone stands outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the heart of London in a social media video clip seen by the Travellers’ Time. Her amplified pleas for help competing with the London traffic, she is surrounded by a small knot of protesters and supporters who wave banners and hand out leaflets to city workers and tourists as they scurry past the imposing entrance to the big stone palace that is the beating heart of British justice. On the protest banners and leaflets is the face of a young child and a name. The young mother cries out the name and demands justice. The name is of a child – her child -who she says was ripped from her loving embrace by the government and who, unless she can get someone – anyone - to listen to her and help, she will never hold in her arms again.
The heart-rending scene – of a mother calling for her lost child and claiming “forced adoption” – has fuelled possibly one of the biggest grass-roots Gypsy and Traveller social media campaigns that the Travellers’ Times has ever seen and this is happening as statistical evidence emerges of what, at first glance, appears to be an exponential rise in the number of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children being taken into care – a figure which could include “forced adoptions.”
The network of laws surrounding the reporting of children is a labyrinth. If a child has been taken in to care by social services or placed for adoption, then that labyrinth is also a minefield. The penalties for journalists breaking the potential laws, gagging orders and injunctions that surround such cases are severe. In some instances reporters are not even allowed to talk to any of the family involved – let alone tell their stories. Editors have fought against these restrictions of free speech in the past, and so have campaigners, railing against the chilling effects of ‘gagging orders’ and ‘secret courts’ which they say can lead to ‘miscarriages of justice’, but judges have said that the laws are in place to protect the welfare of the child and the laws will stand.
Yet the legal omerta is under pressure and there are cracks are appearing – in part caused by Gypsy and Traveller campaigners using social media to bypass the scrutiny of the state. Although the Travellers’ Times cannot report and publish names and details and stories and claims, it can read about the families involved on Facebook posts published by supporters outside the UK and click on and view petitions identifying children hosted by organisations like Change.org – which is based in the USA and are not bound by UK laws.
But how big is the problem of ‘forced adoption’ amongst Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities? Some grass roots campaigners – from all communities - claim that the “adoption industry” is target and profit driven and that councils and social services take babies and children to order, discriminate against minorities, and that not much has changed since the 1960’s when tens of thousands of children were taken off vulnerable mothers and forcibly adopted in both the UK and Eire. But is this the case today?
According to research by Dan Allen and Martin Naughton, two social work academics who run the Traveller and Romani Advice Network which provides support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller parents involved with social services, there has been a “disproportionate” rise in the number of GRT children taken into care when compared with children from other ethnic groups. Their research – using Department for Education (DfE) figures, shows that in 2009 there were a total of 20 Irish Traveller children in the care of social services. In 2016 there were 90. With Gypsy and Roma children the numbers start at 30 children in care in 2009 which had risen to 280 in 2016.
Dan Allen says that the highly publicised cases on social media – and the statistics – are in danger of fuelling a fear of engaging with social services amongst the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
The Travellers Times spoke to Dan Allen, who says that the “fear” extends both ways and that social work “isn’t very good at working with GRT communities generally.”
“We have social services who are in fear of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities because they are going by anti-Gypsy stereotypes that are all pervasive, and now we have also got Travellers who fear any contact with social workers,” says Dan Allen. “Social workers perceive community fear as reluctance to engage and misinterpret that as being justification to potentially remove that child from that situation because they don’t understand the relationship between statutory authorities and Gypsy and Traveller communities in general.”
Dan Allen is also concerned that Traveller women will not report domestic abuse in case that then leads to social services being contacted, which would then lead to their children being taken into care. Dan Allen claims that almost all the calls to TRAIN -and he is getting five or six a month – come from women in crisis and almost all are in some kind of domestic abuse situation.
A knowledge of the community amongst social workers is essential, says Dan, to stop miscarriages of justice. These miscarriages can happen, Dan Allen claims, because some social workers can draw on prejudicial and stereotypical notions about Gypsies and Travellers when giving evidence to family law courts.
“There is a massive issue in that some social workers can be unfettered in their ability to write racism in their reports, and if the family solicitor doesn’t recognise that Irish Travellers and Romany Gypsies are protected by equalities legislation, then there is no chance for the family. That’s even if they can get a solicitor,” he says.
He adds that social workers, “are under pressure” with “massive case-workloads and short timescales”, and may be in danger of “escalating” cases when more preventative work could be done with the family to reduce the risk of harm to the child.
However, there are solutions, says Dan Allen, and families should get expert advice as soon as they are contacted by social services and not leave it until it’s too late. “If we were to get a phone call early on then we can start to advise and help families understand the process,” he says.
To try to get to the bottom of the alarming statistics showing a rise in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in care that have been widely shared on GRT social media networks and may be adding fuel to an already existing fear of engaging with social services, the Travellers’ Times spoke to Yvonne MacNamara, Chief Executive of the Traveller Movement.
Yvonne MacNamara explained that it is important to understand the statistics being widely circulated on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller social media networks have to be taken in the broader context. She said: “the latest statistics available from the Department of Education show that there are a total of 70,440 children being ‘looked after’ (in care etc.).”
“Out of this overall figure, and this is of all the children in England who are in care, 0.12% are of Irish Traveller heritage and 0.4% are Gypsy/Roma. When you are talking about small numbers such as these, it is particularly unhelpful if you hear ‘percentage increases’ bounded about because even one or two more children can seem significantly more in percentage terms ”, she said.
She added that the current government statistics did not differentiate between adoption, fostering, care orders or placements – or how long the children remained in the care of social services - but that the Traveller Movement had just used Freedom of Information laws to obtain the breakdown of the statistics from the Department for Education
“We are analysing the results at this very moment and will be publishing them soon,” says Yvonne MacNamara.
“However, we can say that the number of Traveller children that have been adopted is very small, with a still small, but slightly higher figure for Gypsy/Roma – but there is no indication what proportion are Romany Gypsy and what proportion are European Roma migrants.”
She added that more research needs to be done to find out how many of the 280 Gypsy/Roma children in care are Roma and how many are Romany Gypsies
Reassuring families who are concerned about this issue, Yvonne MacNamara said: “Children cannot be removed from your care without due legal process. If you have any concerns whatsoever, then I would suggest seeking immediate legal advice and expertise”.
So the Traveller Movement say that their investigation has revealed that the number of ‘forced adoptions’ of Traveller children are “very small” and they will be publishing those figures soon, but both Dan Allen and Yvonne MacNamara are concerned that the larger increase in the statistics of Gypsy/Roma children in care (280 in 2016) are driven by Roma children from eastern European EU countries migrating to the UK, and not Romani Gypsy children - who are mostly UK citizens.
The Travellers’ Times spoke to Gaba Smolinska-Poffley, an experienced specialist family case worker for the Roma Support Group, to find out more and to talk about her work supporting Roma families.
“We have definitely seen an increasing number of enquiries and we hear more often from community members telling us there are more people being involved in child protection cases. I don’t know the reasons; I can only speculate, but we are definitely seeing an increase and it is quite worrying,” she says.
“Maybe its cuts to services – the cases we have seen seem to quickly progress from child in need into child protection because there is very little support out there. Recently we have had enquiries from Local Authorities all over the UK including London, Kent, Rotherham, Newcastle, Sunderland and other regions. We also hear of families moving out of the UK in fear of their children being removed.”
Gaba Smolinska-Poffley added that in the last two years most cases she dealt from were Roma families where parents are very disadvantaged. “They faced many disadvantages in countries of origin including discrimination in many aspects of life e.g. education, access to employment etc. Many families need more information on UK norms and procedures and support to understand British system and expectations” she says.
However, Gaba Smolinska-Poffley is keen to stress that in most of the cases that the Roma Support Group has worked on, they managed to support families to engage positively with public services and to make the positive changes required. The problem is, she says, is that there are not enough professional Roma family advocates available and that many disadvantaged Roma families find it difficult to understand UK practices, procedures and policies without support.
“What we have seen is that there is a huge gap between the understanding of the Roma about what is happening to them – and the understanding of social services about what the families understand,” she says.
“They are really demanding cases – the project workers put lots of work into them to make sure there is good communication and engagement between services and families and we have a very good understanding what are the concerns of social services and what they want the parents to do and then we would support the parents in order to make those changes.”
Gaba Smolinska-Poffley goes on to explain the reasons why advocacy support for Roma is so vital.
“Some families really don’t understand the whole process, they don’t understand what’s happening to them, and they don’t understand the implications of signing the documents they have to sign because of communication problems,” she says.
“In most cases interpreters are used that are not Roma and services presume the Roma families speak the language of their country of origin which they might only understand to a certain extent. Some families might say ‘yes we understand’ when they do not because they are worried that if they admit they don’t understand things it will be taken against them.”
“Also with the use of non-Roma interpreters you have different implications. Most of them will not have a good understanding of Roma culture, language barriers and difficulties and so on. Some of them may have discriminatory views as well which often impact on how they interpret and how they translate.”
“When the Roma Support Group get involved we are bridging between the families and social services. We work with social services to explain the difficulties may have and support families in understanding the process and UK expectations. For example, most of the time parent mentoring is done in a very short timeframe and there will be lots of information presented to the parents, sometimes in writing which they can’t read because they are illiterate or semi-illiterate which means they cannot benefit fully from the sessions.”
“Most of the cases we deal with come under neglect and most are related to poverty and lack of understanding of UK parenting norms. Parents don’t have access to information on child development or health awareness. They also don’t know how to access services.”
Gaba Smolinska-Poffley believes that families have better chance to understand the process, UK norms and expectations and make positive changes if experienced advocates and/or family support workers are involved. But she is concerned that in many areas there are limited support services and resources available to provide hands on support for Roma families and this may “possibly” be driving the number of enquiries the Roma Support Group is receiving.
“Families need to engage. Some families do not know how to do it do. They need to try to find a local support agency which may be difficult in some places because these agencies may not exist,” she says.
So it appears that the young Irish Traveller mother protesting outside the Royal Courts of Justice and the two or three other Gypsy and Traveller mothers campaigning for the return of their children through social media may be unusual cases – but they are unusual in that they are getting their voices heard and their situations publicised in the face of the gagging orders applied by the courts. Most parents who have their children taken into care do not start campaigns. They may be also unusual in that very few of the Gypsy and Traveller children taken into care have been adopted – according to Traveller Movement research soon to be published. It also appears that there is another reason that the mother’s case could be unusual. The Traveller’s Times has heard unconfirmed reports from Gypsy and Traveller grass-roots campaigners that the mother is now in Ireland and has been re-united with her child. The Travellers’ Times cannot verify the details of this and, even if we could, would not be able to report on them because of the law. And that is part of the problem because if there has been a miscarriage of justice – the media has been gagged and can’t report it.
However, there is a rise in the number of GRT children in care and this needs to be looked at in detail. Some of the rise in Gypsy/Roma children in care may be driven by Roma children and the Travellers’ Times will be undertaking a freedom of information investigation with UK councils to work out if this is the case. The smaller rise in Traveller children in care also needs to be examined and addressed.
Dan Allen suggests that cuts are driving a systemic failure. Advocacy projects that support and advise vulnerable and disadvantaged families from ethnic minority backgrounds, which include from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, need funding. Projects that work with social services to promote understanding of and a more positive engagement with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families in need are also needed.
“I can say categorically on the basis of the research I am doing right now with 210 social workers across the country that social work practice is becoming binary – and this is seriously concerning me and may have a big impact on how social services engage with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families,” says Dan Allen. “I believe that this is being driven by the cuts to social services.”
“Is the child at risk – Yes or No? If it’s a ‘yes’, then the social worker – often with the family in a position of crisis because of a lack of early intervention services which are also being cut –refers to support services to ameliorate that risk. But if that risk can’t be managed because those services are under pressure themselves, then the social worker – also under pressure with massive case-workloads and short timescales – escalate provision and will go for child protection in care sooner than they ought to because they are concerned about another serious case review, or a public inquiry, or another tragic child’s death. But what that means for vulnerable communities, is that we are escalating services much sooner without providing any preventative services or support services whatsoever and this has to change.”
To be continued…
By Mike Doherty/Travellers’ Times