Romani Children in State Care: the plight of the Alushi Family
20 October 2016
Two of Myzejen Alushi’s five children are growing up in state care institutions in Tirana, over 100 kilometres from their family home in Fier in south-western Albania. Myzejen is half Egyptian and her husband Lulush is Roma; their children were taken away and placed in separate institutions without any court decision; and the Alushis are still the legal guardians of eleven-year-old M.D. and five-year-old Sh.A. This is the story of their struggle to get their children back home.
Despite the fact that both parents are unemployed and poor they managed to scrape together the money to get to Tirana to see their children. In March 2016, they submitted requests to the House of Orphan Babies (Shtëpia e Foshnjës) to take their daughter home for a few days, or longer if possible. The institution refused their requests, citing an evaluation by the Regional Directorate of the State Social Services of Fier, which claimed that the living conditions in the family home do not meet minimum standards.
In April, the Alushis tried, without any success, to free their eldest son from the Zyber Hallulli children’s home. Their requests to take their boy home were rejected on similar grounds, and the institution stated the following in a letter dates 29 April 2016:
“…you say in your request that your family lives in normal conditions, but the social and economic evaluation made by the Regional Directorate of the State Social Services of Fier does not confirm that. This is reported on their evaluation presented to the institution, supported by pictures of the place where the mother’s family lives. What is most important is that we are not convinced about the behaviour of the child’s mother and his stepfather, and unconvinced that the child will not be exploited and neglected again during the period of his stay with his family. In this situation, it is impossible for us to monitor his stay during these days with his family. Based on the child’s highest interest and taking into consideration his psychological and emotional state, we are of the opinion that your request can not be accepted during this period”.
But in fact, the Social and Economic Report cited makes no mention of any reason why the child might be exploited or neglected, or her emotional security threatened during her short stay with its biological family.
The actual conclusion of the Regional Directorate of the State Social Services of Fier is that “given the social and economic conditions of this family, where the monetary incomes are limited and hardly secured by the family, with the family living in a house, which does not meet even the minimum hygienic and sanitary living conditions, as well as given the limited possibilities for the child’s education and welfare, we are of the opinion that the child should not return to his biological family until the family manages to secure appropriate conditions for their children’s welfare”.
The report mentions three interventions concerning the longer-term management of the case: cooperation with local government to provide social housing; to work with the Labour Office to help the parents to find jobs; and close collaboration with the Fier Child Protection Unit to follow up on the case.
Having failed to get their children back home, the parents redoubled their efforts, sent requests for access to all the relevant local and national institutions, and petitioned the Ombudsman with a complaint. The complaint raised a number of issues which included: the damaging effect of institutionalisation on their children’s development; the emotional trauma caused by separating two children from their parents and siblings for over two years; questions about how children could be kept for two years in such institutions on the basis of an emergency order, and should the same criteria apply for temporary and permanent return of children from the institutional care to the biological family. The complaint to the Ombudsman also demanded to know how the parents’ poverty can serve as justification for prohibiting the children from being with their family on temporary monitored visits.
In principle, poverty cannot serve as a justification to violate parental rights and responsibilities, not only would this be discriminatory against the parents, but it would be testament to the failure of the state to provide the necessary support for families to raise and educate their children.1
The ERRC has referred the relevant authorities to the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg Court, regarding the placement of children in institutions, away from their families, namely the Soares de Melo vs. Portugal case (application No. 72850/14) regarding the exercising of the parental responsibilities, and protection of children, where the Court notes that “A family may not be punished or jeopardized because children live in poverty. Therefore, the state must play the main role in helping or supporting families in material or other material forms, emphasizing the family”. Measures must be taken by the responsible authorities to empower and provide all the necessary supports to families to facilitate the return of children to their biological parents wherever possible.
The parents, Myzejen and Lulush, are now registered as jobseekers at their local employment office, have been issued with personal identification cards, and the Fier municipality is working with non-profit organisations like Terre Des Hommes to support the family continuously and has provided Lulush with a selection of small products to sell. One child is registered and attending school, and the other is going to kindergarten.
We have requested information from the Municipality regarding the parents’ application for social housing, and were informed by the Municipality that “the application of family Alushi will remain suspended until there is a complete legal framework and housing plan in place for the vulnerable families of the former communes.” We will be following up on this.
Following on these positive family developments, we prepared a new request in July for a temporary return of the five-year-old girl for a week-long family visit. This new request was accepted by the Tirana House of Orphan Babies, in a decision that marked a turning point not only for the Alushi family, but also for all Roma and Egyptian parents who have had their children placed in state care institutions.
The parents were also able to accompany their daughter girl during a recent stay in hospital, and her brother was able to visit his grandmother and relatives on a temporary visit. It is to be hoped that these first temporary visits can prepare the ground for a permanent return. ERRC will continue to work with central and local institutions to resolve this case, which will take more time and effort.
There is much that needs to be done to support vulnerable families. There is a need for sustained multi-stakeholder interventions that combine access to health services and social housing provision; viable economic empowerment and employment opportunities; legal services; counselling and psychological support for parents and children; monitoring and supervised home visits by relevant local authorities in those circumstances where children might be at risk. However, getting the institutions to agree to requests for temporary returns of the children to their family homes marks a first step victory. We hope this success will lead to more returns of children to their parents, alsways prioritising what is in the best interests of the child.
1 See Decision of the High Court no. 00-2012-2472, dated 22.05.2012.