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Stealing children: institutionalising Romani children in Italy

3 October 2000

Kathryn D. Carlisle1

The legend that Gypsies steal children is one of the many myths burdening Roma. Roma themselves know the truth: for at least the past two hundred years, non-Romani state, church and charity authorities have been stealing Romani children from Romani families and remanding them into institutional care. This problem is today particularly widespread in Italy and instances of taking Romani children from their parents in Italy seem to be increasing.

"To pretty to be a Gypsy"

When Elvizia M. was taken from her mother on July 14, 1999, police officers reportedly told her mother that the reason for her removal was that chipper, green-eyed Elvizia was "too pretty to be a Gypsy." Her father came immediately from Romania to prove that his daughter had inherited her not-stereotypically-Romani eye colour from his side of the family. Her mother, Ms A.M., told the ERRC, "I knew that this happened in Italy [children being taken into state custody], but I didn't know that it was an issue of prettiness. I was afraid that we would never see her again2." After one month and constant lobbying by volunteers who work in Casilino 700, the camp where the family lived, including photos of the baby in her mother's arms after birth, Elvizia was finally returned to her parents.

Elvizia's case is an extreme example of how Romani minors are taken from their parents. Being "beautiful" meant that she couldn't possibly be Romani, or that perhaps she had been stolen, hence the "uncharacteristic" eye colour. The fact that she could be removed from her family so arbitrarily indicates the weak position of Roma in Italian society. As absurd as the reasoning is, there are many similar cases.

Reasons for removal

Common justifications for state child theft are "unsanitary living conditions", "exploitation of minors" and "abandonment". Laws designed to protect all minors are often applied inconsistently and arbitrarily when Romani children are at issue. Frequently the one to suffer the most is the child taken into custody, forcibly removed from home environment and family.

One reason commonly cited for taking Romani children into state custody is "sfruttamento di minori" or "exploitation of minors3". Accusations of exploitation are often brought against parents whose children beg, sell roses or knick-knacks, or who are simply with their parents as they do the same. On one single day, May 22, 2000, 18 Romani minors were picked up in and around the capital city of Rome, according to Italian television newscast TG24. The children were reportedly caught begging or stealing, and were placed in police custody waiting to be placed in institutions or foster homes. Though there are no national statistics specifically for Roma, in 1998, 1047 minors were placed in institutions in the Lombardy region alone5. Non-governmental organisations believe that many if not most are Romani.

Most Roma born abroad or born to immigrant parents live in so-called "camps" which are often below hygienic standard6. Cases considered abandonment can occur when children are left unattended in camps - the alternative to accompanying parents during the day's activities.

For Roma, there is often little choice but to take their children with them while begging or working. Ms M.D., a Romani woman who earns approximately 30,000 Italian lira (around 15 euros) a day begging by the metro stop near St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, lives in the Casilino 700 camp in Rome, where more than 1200 predominantly Romani inhabitants lived until mid-Summer 2000 in dismal conditions. "There is no way that I can leave my five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son alone in the camp all day," Ms M.D. told the ERRC. "The children get tired, and so do I, being on the street from 9 AM to 5 PM, but there is no one I can leave them with and I don't make enough money to afford a babysitter. In the end, what choice do I have?"7

But she became scared that her children would be taken away from her. Local police had verbally warned her that begging is considered abusive and dangerous for her children, and that she risked having her children taken into state custody. Her neighbour, after being warned several times, decided to heed police threats. Her children are now in Romania with their grandmother. "It was the most difficult decision of my life," Mrs H.D. told the ERRC. "Back in Romania I am afraid that they are hungry. But here they could be stolen, and I couldn't live with that8."

Surveillance

Frequently Romani children are taken from their families on grounds of truancy, although in similar cases pertaining to non-Romani families, children are not removed from parental care. Frequently also, Italian authorities "monitor" Romani families, conducting surveillance to ascertain child-rearing practices and render judgement on them.

The standard fine for truancy is 250,000 Italian lira (around 130 euros). It is a fine for minors (under sixteen) caught out of school during attendance hours. A notice is given to the truant child, and the fine sent to the parents' address. After this, parents have 60 days to pay the fine, or pay a 30% penalty in addition to the original amount. This information comes from the Child Welfare Office in Rome9. The same official at the Child Welfare Office also confirmed that 25 Romani families in Rome are under surveillance for their children's truancy and risk having their children taken into state custody. The official, who would not give his name, was adamant about the difference between "Gypsies and Italians…the same laws do not work for both." When questioned if this was the Child Welfare Office's policy, or the official's opinion, he responded, "We just follow orders. These are decisions made by the local government." If true, then indications are that the city government of Rome advocates that the Child Welfare Office and other officials working on child care issues make a distinction between Romani and non-Romani minors when deciding if cases of truancy are punished by fines, or are forwarded to the judicial system, where child custody becomes an issue. According to the the Child Welfare Office of the Social Services Department of the Naples municipality, 300 Romani children from various camps are "under observation" to monitor their living conditions and determine whether they should be taken into state custody10. The "white car" (the Child Welfare Office vehicle used to pick up children targeted for state custody) has come to symbolise a parent's worst fears of losing a child to the system.

Government spokespersons assert that removing Romani children from Romani families and other paternalistic, disruptive and invasive practices are for the good of Roma. According to some public officials, a practice such as stripping minors from their natural parents is a necessary action to save Romani children from a dismal future11. Mr Luigi Lusi, Counselor for Nomad Affairs, has offered his solution to what he sees as a fundamental problem of "Gypsies". City officials will monitor individual Roma to ensure compliance with the law. Children who miss school, according to Mr Lusi, are doing so because they are out "stealing and pickpocketing on the streets12." He has also stated that this is the fault of "delinquent parents and their culture." The opinion that crimes such as pickpocketing and petty thievery are carried out almost exclusively by Roma is widespread in Italy. Mayor of Rome Mr Francesco Rutelli has voiced support for Mr Lusi's initiatives as a way to help Roma help themselves13.

"Unsanitary conditions"

Using sanitary conditions as a justification, almost every young Romani boy and girl could be taken into custody, according to Ms Anna Maria Cirillo from the organisation Opera Nomadi, an Italian NGO that provides humanitarian assistance for Roma in Italy. "There is no denying that most of the camps range in the quality of their living conditions between bad and very bad," Mr Slatko B. told the ERRC. Mr Slatko B. is a Romani refugee from Kosovo who has been living in the Scampia camp in Naples for two years. "When 750 people share one fountain, as in Scampia, it is impossible to keep clean." Mr Ferdinando Bucci, formerly a lieutenant with a police unit in the camp at Casilino 700, told the ERRC that he believed the same resources used to forcibly remove Romani children from their families should instead be used for improving living conditions and guaranteeing Roma equal opportunities in society. As he pointed out, foster family costs 600,000 Italian lira (approximately 310 euros) per month for every child they host; city detention centres spend 120,000 Italian lira (around 60 euros) per day and juvenile prisons spend 900,000 Italian lira (around 460 euros) a day per inmate. "Essentially," Mr Bucci told the ERRC, "the resources used by Italian authorities to tear families apart could be utilised to guarantee minors, and their parents, the right to live with dignity and without fear." As it is, substantial amounts of money are being spent to strip Romani children of the possibility to grow up in their own environment with their natural families.

Romani children placed in surrogate families are often traumatised by the experience. "A child whose world is turned upside down in the course of a few days will have a lot to reckon with in the future," according to psychologist Caroline de la Brosse, a therapist who works with traumatised infants. "And who's to say that the foster or adoptive families are actually prepared to deal with the results of the trauma a child suffers when taken from their parents against their will14?" In fact, according to the Rome Child Welfare Office, the state only provides a social worker who visits foster or adoptive families an average of twice a month. Counselling to assist these families must be sought independently. "I know children who were returned to their parents when they became too unruly, or remained 'uncivilised' according to the foster parents," said Ms Anna Maria Cirillo from the organisation Opera Nomadi in a recent interview with the ERRC15. "In one case, a girl taken from her mother when she was nine-years old was returned after six years, and Child Welfare never bothered to check her housing situation." The girl reportedly told Ms Cirillo that she was returned to her parents by her foster family (she was never adopted) because they were concerned about her puberty and felt that she had promiscuous tendencies…something only "other Gypsies could understand16."

Impeding the return of Romani children to their families

Bureaucratic complications and the complex Italian legal system not only pave the way for children's removal, but also impede their return. Until recently, Mr Marian Dumitru lived in the camp Casilino 700 on the periphery of Rome. Having fled Romania after racist attacks exploded in his hometown of Craiova, Romania in the early 1990s, he and his wife settled in Rome to find ethnic tension and segregation. Now Mr Dumitru has seen his family life painfully disrupted. According to Mr Dumitru, he was waiting by a coffee shop in the centre of Rome on Via Barberini, January 19, 1999, hand-in-hand with his 3-year old son Joan Fernando. Two municipal police officers arrived and began questioning Mr Dumitru in "very rapid Italian," he explained. "I really didn't understand much, but they began pushing me and one of them pulled out a gun," he recalls. At that point, according to Mr Dumitru, they forced him behind a building, pulled out a written document and demanded that he sign. "I had no idea what I was signing," Mr Dumitru told the ERRC.

His son was then taken into state custody and he was called to preliminary proceedings and charged with "abandonment", even though he had been holding his son's hand at the time of his detainment by police officers. Attorney Magdalena di Girolamo, who has now taken on Mr Dumitru's case, explains that "abandonment according to Italian law can also be spiritual or emotional." Mr Dumitru had no attorney during preliminary proceedings and was not provided with legal assistance. The court decided that the child was to be taken into state custody, and the family monitored to determine if they could regain their son.

The family had no news of their son Joan until June 11, 1999, when Mr Dumitru was allowed to visit him. According to Judge Foschini of the Minor's Court, the first judge to oversee the case, the fact that the boy cried when he saw his father was proof of the need for him to be permanently removed from his parents. A request for adoption proceedings to commence was requested by Judge Foschini, based on Child Welfare Office reports of the father's poor living conditions and child's delicate emotional state. Hearings had not yet taken place at the time of writing in late August 2000. At the same time, Mr Dumitru was attempting to gain a residence permit to stay in Italy throughout the proceedings; Mr Dumitru did not have a legal permit to stay in Italy and was under threat of expulsion, even before proceedings began.

"Saving" Roma

Articles in the Italian press play on stereotypes about Roma and downplay the painful reality that people are losing their children. In almost all cases, the Italian perspective reflected in media coverage and official commentaries is clear: that Roma do not care for their children, and often condemn them to a life of squalor and slavery; that children taken from their parents are being saved; and that the state knows better than the Roma.

Lobbying on the part of volunteers for Opera Nomadi in Naples often keeps children in that city out of the initial stages of state custody. By intervening immediately and protesting unfair treatment of Romani parents, they hope to ensure the swift return of minors to their parents before court proceedings begin. This includes everything from appearing at the police station where minors are detained, calling local council members, and sending alerts out through the local press. Ms Cirillo believes that "since we have begun intervening on the part of Romani families, more than half of the children taken into state custody have been returned to their parents before the case reaches legal proceedings. However, that wasn't the case even a year ago17." Active campaigning in Naples on the part of Roma and local NGOs seems to have slowed the trend of detentions of Romani children.

But not all Romani communities have the benefit of proactive local NGOs. According to immigration lawyer Simona Sinopoli, once the children have been taken into custody awaiting proceedings in Minor's Court, it is difficult to exit from the system. The road from a state institution or temporary foster family where the children are placed, back to their parents is long and problematic, even if the parents are found to be dependable guardians after being monitored by social assistants.

Rather than providing assistance to Romani families living in a situation that is considered precarious, Italian authorities now appear to be acting to strengthen the system that removes children from their parents. A building to house what have been termed as abandoned children is reportedly under construction in Florence. Two adjoining buildings are designated as what one Italian daily termed a "refuge for child slaves" caught on the streets of the city "begging, selling roses or stealing18." As it is described, this temporary station does not seem designed to return minors to their parents. Children designated as "in need" will likely be placed in state custody and not returned to their families. According to the Florence Prefect Mr Achille Serra, as quoted in the Italian daily La Nazione, there are a dozen "good families" lined up and ready to offer their homes to the "troubled children". Mr Serra reportedly went on to state, "We can only hope that these solid, stable, volunteer Italian families can face the challenge. If not, the children will grow up in state institutions19." The detention centre itself seems to target one type of minors - Romani. As one local policeman said, "If we don't take them from their parents, they will continue to rob and harass. It takes a structured plan to break this vicious cycle perpetuated by Gypsies."

As a last resort, some Romani parents, distrustful of the system and sceptical as to whether they will ever get their children back, have decided that their only chance is to take the law into their own hands. According to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, on May 3, 2000, a Romani couple from Mil an did just that â€? the mother, Ms Avdija Ahmetović entered the religious institution Beato Palazzolo in Brescia where two of her children were detained, and carried them out "violently pushing a nun as she passed20." The father, Mr M. Ahmetović sim ultaneously entered the religious institution Fanciulla Abbandonata and ran out with their other four children unobserved. They were found in the Tuscan town of Grossetto on May 9, 2000 with their children who were taken back into state custody. The two were arrested and are presently facing criminal charges for kidnapping. One headline concerning the incident announced, "Nomads steal children entrusted to religious institute21".

Endnotes:

  1. Kathryn D. Carlisle is local monitor for the ERRC in Italy.
  2. European Roma Rights Center interview with Ms A.M., July 26, 2000, Rome.
  3. The punishment for “exploitation of minors” specified in Civil Code Article 330 is loss of custody.
  4. TG2 newscast at 7.30 pm, May 23, 2000.
  5. Italian weekly magazine Donna, June 19, 2000.
  6. The situation of Roma in Italy, including racial segregation into “camps for nomads”, is the subject of a forthcoming report by the ERRC.
  7. European Roma Rights Center interview with Ms M.D., June 15, 2000, Rome.
  8. European Roma Rights Center interview Ms H.D., June 15, 2000, Rome.
  9. The Child Welfare Office is part of the municipal Social Services Department. Each city, or commune, has such offices.
  10. Once taken into state custody, a minor must appear with her family or responsible guardian before Minor’s Court (Tribunale dei Minori). In closed proceedings, a judge decides whether the child at issue is to be returned to her parents, or placed in a state-run institution for minors or a foster family. After placement, the family will be monitored for a year by social assistants to evaluate if the child is to be returned or not. After the year has expired, if the family is not deemed fit, new proceedings are held and the family has six months to appeal, after which, the child will be either placed in an adoptive family, or remain permanently in state custody until he or she reaches 18 years of age.
  11. Italian daily, La Nazione, June 7, 2000.
  12. European Roma Rights Center interview with Dr Luigi Lusi, May 2, 2000, Rome.
  13. Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, February 2, 2000.
  14. European Roma Rights Center interview with Dr Caroline della Brosse, August 15, 2000, Rome.
  15. European Roma Rights Center interview with Ms Anna Maria Cirillo, July 27, 2000, Naples.
  16. European Roma Rights Center interview with Ms Anna Maria Cirillo, July 27, 2000, Naples.
  17. European Roma Rights Center interview with Ms Anna Maria Cirillo, July 27, 2000.
  18. Italian daily, La Nazione, June 7, 2000.
  19. Italian daily, La Nazione, June 7, 2000.
  20. Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, May 5, 2000.
  21. Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, May 5, 2000. In Italy, Roma are often referred to by non-Roma as “nomads”, even if they are not itinerant.

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