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Displaced childhoods

3 October 2000

By Dimitrina Petrova

The classical human rights doctrine posits that every human being, born free and equal in dignity and rights, endowed with a free will, is capacitated to make free choices. The free will is a transparent, self-reflective agency, expressing the individual's interest. The individual subject, a bearer of rights, is in principle an indivisible and autonomous entity, interacting only with other, equally free subjects of rights. Thus, the classical human rights paradigm leaves out of consideration the whole process of "becoming" a conscious bearer of rights. Its point of departure is the terminal point at which the process of achieving rights capacity is already accomplished. As to women, children, and the various categories of incompetent persons, their "personhood" is deemed incomplete, their rights and capacity to choose rationally - restricted. They are in need of custody - by fathers, husbands, parents, guardians, doctors, and other mature subjects.

Two centuries later, "Women's Rights are Human Rights". Humankind has covered the full distance - though only intellectually - to the idea that women are equal with men in their dignity and their rights. No analogy with children's rights, however, is easy to defend. Children's freedom to choose rationally is arguably limited and most people would want to see children's rights restricted, so as to reflect their immaturity. Parents across cultures strive to create a maximum of good life choices for their children, and respecting the children's unique personality and dignity, want to ensure and enhance the freedom of children to choose. In a society governed by Liberty as a fundamental value, this assumption is (becoming) the source of parenting strategies. However, parents want also to interfere with the choices of their children. At least, they want to exclude certain options, such as crime, drugs, or membership in violent groups. More generally, they want to help shape the range of options by influencing children's values. The tension between these two assumptions and the lack of self-evident ways of resolving it within the classical liberal paradigm turns the entire issue of children's human rights into one of the most challenging, highly significant areas of development of the human rights theory and movement.

In addition to the generally controversial nature of children's rights, even more complicated issues arise with respect to children who are members of discriminated minorities, including Roma. In the case of such children, the privilege (or duty) to act in the so-called "best interest of the child" is claimed not only by parents, but – to a degree much higher than with majority children - by the state. This is so because Romani adults are degraded in the public imagination and perceived as inferior people, and therefore as inferior parents. With majority children, the state steps into the role of guardian of their best interest only in exceptional circumstances – e.g. in parents' disputes in the context of divorce. But strangers acting on behalf of the state decide the destiny of children from disadvantaged ethnic groups far more frequently. For a variety of reasons, Romani children are often removed from their families and placed in "institutions": children's homes, special schools, boarding schools, orphanages, etc.

A glance at the plentiful public institutions for children in Europe reveals high numbers of Romani children living out defeated childhoods, branded as juvenile delinquents, mentally deficient, socially weak, developmentally handicapped, behaviourally problematic, with learning disability, retarded, etc. Acting allegedly in the best interest of the child, every year various authorities take hundreds of Romani children across Europe away from their natural families, and place them inside a huge and hardly visible labyrinth of "institutions", where their chances to develop their potential are perhaps destroyed. The children in such social "homes" are rarely orphans. In many cases, they are taken away - more or less manipulatively, and sometimes against parents' will - from Roma who are caught in the "vicious circle" of illiteracy, unemployment, extreme poverty, crime, drugs, alcoholism, prostitution, disease, illiteracy, unemployment. Few Romani mothers and fathers have ever been asked about the circumstances in which they lost their children to the state. Absent from the public debate are the voices of the institutionalised children. Few lawyers or other activists have set foot yet in one of the hundreds orphanages, foster homes, hostels, boarding houses, etc. In a few cases, happy adoptions have perhaps been arranged, doing justice to all. But for the rest, there are many unanswered questions. It is time for the public to be concerned about the Romani children, streamed to "institutions" by the multiple pathways of European racism.

Among the earliest childhood memories of many Europeans is this: mother and father were telling us that if we were not good children, the old Gypsy would come to take us away. Why were they lying?! They had got the story wrong! The opposite is true, mother. It is not that the Gypsies steal children; it is that Gypsy children are stolen and put away inside some blurry, chilling bad dream that has lasted ever since.

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