Across the UK, the child protection system provides a range of services for children who are experiencing interfamilial stress or bereavement, disability, or serious illness in one or both parents, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect. While each UK nation is responsible for its own policies and laws around aspects of safeguarding and child protection, they are all based on similar principles that aim to prevent behaviour that can harm children or require action to protect children
Though the primary purpose and function of various child protection systems in the UK work to protect the welfare of vulnerable children, commentators on the historical oppression of Romani and Traveller communities suggest that Romani and Traveller children are disproportionately represented in child protection systems for no other reason than that they are from Romani and Traveller communities. Regarding basic human rights, this is a serious allegation. There are, though, some conceptual tensions associated with this claim. First, little is known about how many Romani and Traveller children are involved in child protection systems in the UK. Second, little is known about the scale and nature of Child Protections concerns with Romani and Traveller children and families, and third, little is known about the lived experiences of Romani and Traveller children and families themselves.
ROMANI AND TRAVELLER PEOPLE IN THE UK
The presence of English Romani Gypsies in the UK, some of whom had travelled from India through Europe, has been noted since the early sixteenth century. However, Acton (1979) argues that it was the intense moral panics and legislation against ‘vagrants’ in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century that shaped the ethnicity of diverse nomadic groups who had to band together in the face of persecution.
Irish Travellers, who are indigenous to Ireland, have migrated to the UK and throughout the world. They share significant experiences, especially of racism and harassment, and some cultural norms with English Romani Gypsies. The latter also share some cultural and historical features with ‘Roma’ (itself an umbrella term) who have migrated to the UK mainly since the late 1990s, first as asylum seekers fleeing persecution and discrimination in different countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and subsequently as migrants from A8 EU accession countries, namely Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and then A2 countries, Romania, and Bulgaria.
There are considerable difficulties in calculating numbers of people who identify as Gypsies, Travellers, or Roma, however we may assume that there are between 125,000 and 250,000 Gypsies and Travellers (Ryder et al, 2014), broadly similar to the British Bangladeshi population, and probably round 200,000 Roma people living in the UK.
As previously indicated, there is significant diversity across all the groups of communities referred to as “Romani” or “Traveller” in the UK, but they all experience similar aspects of exclusion, discrimination, and poor outcomes across multiple domains, in accommodation, education, health, criminal justice, employment. Lack of adequate, secure, and culturally appropriate accommodation, which for nomadic or semi-nomadic Gypsies and Travellers is a legal site for their caravan, underpins unequal access to education, health, employment, and other services. This combines with racism, institutionalised discrimination, problematic professional attitudes, and the strengthening neo-liberal context of privatisation and reduced budgets to create entrenched exclusion. Gypsies and Travellers in housing, especially if the choice is a forced one for lack of alternative, can experience different pressures including psychological problems due to cultural aversion to bricks and mortar, isolation, and racism from neighbours. For Roma, who until 2014 had restrictions on employment and now face further benefit curbs, accommodation is predominantly in poor and exploitative conditions in the private rented sector. The situation of all the groups is frequently exacerbated by stereotypical treatment in the media and prejudiced and sometimes inflammatory political and public discourse.
The discrimination experienced by Romani and Traveller groups has parallels with that experienced by other minority groups, for example in criminal justice. However, the specific history of their relationships with majority sedentary society requires a broadened frame of reference within which policy makers and practitioners can find space to reflect on the ideological dominance of the myths and distortions which pervade perceptions. In parallel with the importance of mindfulness of slavery and colonisation in relation to other Black and Minority Ethnic groups, it is essential to remember the centuries of harassment of Romani and Traveller people across Europe, including genocidal policies in the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.
A crucial part of the political context is also the achievement of political alliances and solidarity between Romani and Traveller communities in pursuit of equality and human rights and their promotion of more informed and fruitful engagement between their communities and the majority society, as represented by organisations such as the former Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition, the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. These coalitions draw from common experiences of discrimination and from the strengths of community experience, drive a commitment to achieve change. In specific relation to child protection, social change also requires child protection professionals to acknowledge oppression and to take proactive steps to meaningfully engage Romani and Traveller communities, both collectively and individually.
CHILD PROTECTION SYSTEMS IN THE UK
Previous research about child protection provision for Romani and Traveller communities in the UK has highlighted how the broader social and political context affects interaction between social workers and the communities, and, despite some examples of positive practice and committed individual initiatives, a wider failure on the part of child protection professionals to engage with and respond sensitively to meeting children’s needs. The current structures of child protection work, which have moved far from any community orientation, have not helped child protection practitioners in the task of sensitive engagement. Nor has the corporate context, in which control is still often a primary mode of engagement with local Romani and Traveller families, in which child protection practice may become caught up in assessments of need which remain framed by stereotypical assumption and prejudice.
The impact of stereotypical assumption and prejudice toward Romani and Traveller families has been evidenced in several Serious Case Reviews (Oulton, 2008; Bromley Safeguarding Children Board (BSCB), 2014; Harrington, 2014; Johnson, 2014; Eades, 2015). Taken together, these Serious Case Reviews indicate that Child Protection Practice with Romani and Traveller families can be driven by oscillating examples of discrimination which, underpinned by unhelpful value judgements, can lead to inconsistency or delays in work needed to protect the welfare and safety of the child. Whilst child protection systems should work to include careful consideration of the child’s best interests, emerging evidence suggest that decisions do not always achieve this and are instead made in one of two ways (BSCB, 2014; Harrington, 2014).
Firstly, child protection decisions can be justified by pathologising reactions. In these cases, children can be separated from their families and communities in the belief that the conceptual Gypsy, Roma, or Traveller ‘culture’ is the primary object of concern (Allen, 2012). In these circumstances, threshold criterion, the measure by which child protection systems become involved in the child’s life, are lower than they might otherwise be for any other child of circumstance. Second, Serious Case Reviews have shown that child protection professionals can also seek to avoid pathologising reactions by raising threshold criterion to justify the decision not to intervene in family life when intervention might be necessary. Here child protection reactions can be seen to become complicit with cultural relativist reactions (BSCB, 2014). Regardless of the way in which decisions are taken, Serious Case Reviews show that when child protection practice is justified though pathologising or cultural relativist reactions they will fail Romani and Traveller communities, as well as Romani Traveller children themselves.
THE POSITION OF ROMANI AND TRAVELLER CHILDREN IN PUBLIC CARE IN THE UK
The impact of prejudice towards Romani and Traveller communities in the UK has been seen to lead to a pathologising approach to Gypsy, Traveller and Roma families including the removal of children into care. Until 2009 however, it was not possible to comment with any accuracy on how many of these children have been taken into care because that data did not exist. To some extent, it is still not easy to comment with great accuracy on this situation because, except for data from England and Northern Ireland, there are no ‘official’ government sanctioned data sets on the proportion of Gypsy, Traveller or Roma children living in care in the UK.
The reason cited for this lack of information reflects various constitutional privileges throughout Europe which prohibit data collection which might be used to reduce a person to a socially constructed ethnic label such as “Gypsy”, “Roma” and “Traveller”. Whilst the avoidance of ethnic compartmentalisation might serve to reduce discrimination, it also presents a significant barrier for child protection practice and its responsibility to develop meaningful communication between those people who access services and those people who provide them. For Romani and Traveller children, their specific exclusion means that they are homogenised within Eurocentric data sets which then conceal the concern that children from these communities are overrepresented in various care systems across the UK. Within the English context, the following table shows the number of children identified as ‘Travellers of Irish Heritage’, and ‘Gypsy/Roma’ in care since 2009, the first year that these ethnic groups were recorded.
Table 1: Numbers of Gypsies and Travellers living in care in England 2009 – 2016
Traveller and Romani Advice and Information Network
Understanding why there has been a disproportionate increase in the number of Romani and Traveller children being taken into public Care in England is complex. The main barrier is in the decision by the Department for Education in England to group the terms ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Roma’ together. The fact that both groups maintain their own sense of identity and separateness from one another is not represented here. Not only does the joining of these two terms highlight the inability of the Department for Education to recognise the importance of ethnicity, but also, consistent with broader concerns across Europe, the failure to value the importance of individual representation or individual circumstance. In response to the rise of far right anti-Roma discourse in the UK it could be argued, for instance, that the 833% increase is less likely to be impacting on English Romani Gypsy children and more likely to be directly related to Roma. With no differentiation between ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Roma’, this hypothesis cannot be easily substantiated. Given the reported importance of these surveys in the identification and evaluation of resources for children living in care, the inability of the Department for Education to accurately represent the numbers of Gypsies and Travellers may have a serious implication on placement policy, placement planning, placement regulation and equal opportunity. This in turn continues to negate cultural identity, and individual autonomy as required by health and social care policy.
A further barrier is identified in the lack of research evidence which reliably considers the risks or experiences of significant harm within Romani and Traveller families, and the difficulties that some child protection professionals might encounter when trying to apply rigid statutory frameworks which might not effectively account for the Romani and Traveller perspective. As social work intervention with Romani and Traveller families is often reported to be characterised by the presence of reciprocated fear and anxiety, these tensions might not always lead to the best possible outcomes for the child. At times, for example, a family may be afraid and feel the need to hide from, or avoid social work involvement. Simultaneously, a social worker, responsible for assessing and safeguarding the needs of a child within strict timescales, might misinterpret a family’s reluctance to cooperate and justify the need for more immediate routes of intervention earlier than they might otherwise do with non-Romani and Traveller families. It is for this reason many of the Romani and Traveller people are thought to become powerless and confused as social work involvement quickly escalates from an initial meeting to full and formal child protection enquiries. Allen and Adams (2013) summarise communications from organisations working with Roma and refer to the miscommunication, misunderstandings and resultant poor practice that can arise when professionals, with no knowledge of a community’s language, working through an interpreter who may only know the national language rather than the specific Romani dialect, attempt to discuss within limited imposed timescales complex concerns and support packages for which the client has no framework of understanding. Where meaningful attempts are not made to verify responses through more direct and deliberate forms of inquiry, false assumptions can be made which heighten any awareness of risk.
It is also unclear how, and for what reason, Romani and Traveller children become involved in child protection systems. Regarding public Care, there exists some concern that child protection professionals might also be using legal processes, enabled in part by Section 20 1989 Children Act to accommodate Romani and Traveller children for unacceptably long periods of time before issuing proceedings. Section 20 is also seen to enable child protection professionals to coerce parental consent to take children into public Care from people who feel threatened and intimidated by statutory involvement in family life, or who do not understand the implications that such a decision will have.
The move to include Romani and Traveller children in the current census methodology was prompted by the social ideology contained within the Children and Young Persons Act (2008). Whilst this is a positive move towards social equality, the terms used for their ethnic compartmentalisation, ‘Travellers of Irish Heritage’, and ‘Gypsy/Roma’, do not accurately reflect the diversity of communities that may, or may not identify them. The compartmentalisation of children in this way demonstrates that although ‘Travellers with Irish heritage’ or ‘Gypsy/Roma’ are now identified as being separate within government policy, the opportunity to comment with any accuracy on the numbers of Gypsy and Traveller children is still not available. What is more, this census also assumes that people will voluntarily identify themselves under these terms, but we know that Gypsies and Travellers may often choose not to do so, against a background of public hostility to their identity.
The methodological approaches used by the Department of Education are therefore ineffective because each Local Authority do not accurately record the ethnicity of Romani and Traveller children. The actual number of Romani and Traveller children living in in public care in England may well be consistent with National Trends, but procedural irregularities mean that ethnic recording systems are ineffective and inconsistent. Therefore, TRAIN is developing a strategy to lobby for the disaggregation of the ethnicities “Gypsy” and “Roma” in government social policy and census methodology so that a more accurate understanding of the representation of English Romani Gypsies and Roma children in child protection systems can be enabled.
Romani and Traveller people all share common experiences, of racism, discrimination, poverty, and social injustice, including the systematic removal of children into alternative care. Consistent with broader experiences of social injustice and oppression, and the misuse and abuse of section 20 of the 1989 Children Act detailed in case law, it is important to understand how children and family law is being used to enable Romani and Traveller families. The widespread misuse of section 20 enables child protection professionals to avoid and subvert the alternative statutory means of removing a child from their parents' care that require more stringent tests and controls, and in doing so unlawfully interfere with people's family lives and adopt an overly paternalistic approach. This is not just a matter of bad practice, it is wrong. It represents an opportunity for child protection professionals to deny Romani and Traveller fundamental rights and should no longer be tolerated. For this reason, TRAIN is issuing a series of Freedom of Information requests to identify the scale of which section 20 is being used with English Romani Gypsy, Roma, and Irish Traveller children as a prelude to care proceedings for lengthy periods or thus failing to follow principles of good practice. Where identified, TRAIN will work to provide offending local authorities with stringent criticism and possible exposure to successful claims for damages from Romani and Traveller families.
TRAIN is also implementing a large-scale research project which will be the first national effort to collect data on the proportion of Romani and Traveller children being supported by child protection systems and identify factors that contribute to the representation of Romani and Traveller children in public Care. The research will assist policy-makers and advocates in protecting and promoting the rights of Romani and Traveller children. By identifying problems commonly experienced by Romani and Traveller people in England vis-à-vis child protection systems, this study intends to help set future priorities for State policy and action. To achieve this, TRAIN is:
To identify a meaningful solution to the difficulties that have been presented, this document has provided a basis for action. Reflecting on the challenges that remain this paper has outlined TRAINs work to i) lobby for the disaggregation of the ethnicities “Gypsy” and “Roma” in government social policy and census methodology; ii) clarify the routes into public Care for Romani and Traveller children thus exploring the judicial concern regarding the misuse and abuse of section 20 agreements; and, iii) implement a national effort to collect data on the proportion of Romani and Traveller children being supported by child protection systems.
Number of Romani and Traveller children living in Public Care
Similar statistical data in Northern Ireland show that ‘Traveller’ children make up the largest ethnic minority group of children living in care in that country (National Statistics, 2016). Taken together with data published in England and Northern Ireland these figures show that Gypsy, Traveller, and Roma children are being taken away from their families and communities at a disproportionate rate. As the following discussion shows, when compared to ethnic groups, the numerical increase of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children being taken into public care is growing.
Using the statistics available through the Department for Education, Table 2 below presents a summary of the increase and decrease in number of children living in public Care in England per ethnicity. Considering the base number reported in 2009, Table 2 shows the population changes as a percentage up to 2016. Table 3, then presents a line Chart to show that, in the majority, the number of children living in public Care in the UK increased or decreased consistently between these dates. However, using the same statistics available through the Department for Education, Table 3 shows that between 2009 and 2016, the number of Travellers of Irish Heritage in care has risen by 350% and the number of Gypsy/Roma children has risen 833%. The increases that are reported are not consistent with National trends, and when compared to population data, suggest that Romani and Traveller children living in the UK could be 3 times more likely be taken into public care than any other child.
Table 2: The changes to the number of children living in public care in England 2009 - 2016 presented as a percentage.
TRAIN has been working to support Traveller and Romani families who are experiencing child protection involvement since 2015. It was set up to respond to urgent need and because no other specific support for Traveller and Romani children and families in child protection existed in the UK.
Since 2015, TRAIN has been providing free telephone advice and support to parents whose children are in need, at risk, or are in the care system, and with members of the wider family or community who are raising children unable to remain at home. TRAINs main aim has been working on capacity building to help Traveller and Romani communities to help themselves. TRAIN has always been managed by two volunteer social workers and each year the work that TRAIN has been involved in has grown. In 2017, for example, TRAIN provided help and support to 61 families. TRAIN enabled people's voices to be heard, and it has enabled the situation of child protection to reconsidered and to be taken seriously. Whilst advocating for one family a Judge made it clear that without TRAINs involvement the outcome of Care Proceedings would have been quite different.
Today a growing number of organisations are beginning to see and exploit the need to provide help and support to families in matters related to child protection. There is now money available to organisations so that they can fund advocates, online media tools, training videos and information services and all of the other things that TRAIN has been providing. What TRAIN has done for the last 3 years on a free and voluntary basis, other well meaning organisations are now receiving payment to do as well. For this reason, the work that TRAIN has been championing has come to a natural end.
The fact that more organisations are working to support Traveller and Romani families who are experiencing child protection services is fantastic. As many of these organisations are also grassroots Traveller and Romani Community groups, TRAIN's aim to work on capacity building to help Traveller and Romani communities to help themselves has seemingly been achieved, not through consultation though, but by example, innovation and leadership.
TRAIN hopes that those people who found the strength to ask for help in the past will enable others in the future to speak out about the situation that they are in and to seek support early and without delay. It hopes that other well meaning funded services are able to understand and cope with the complexity of child protection policy, and it hopes that the new organisations taking over TRAIN's role are sufficiently knowledgeable and skilled to spot and challenge procedural irregularity and to fight for natural justice, without compromise, in a way that Traveller and Romani families urgently require and deserve.
Most importantly TRAIN hopes that the unique challenges faced by Traveller and Romani families in Child Protection will not be dismissed, minimised or denied. If the significant discrimination that Traveller and Romani face in child protection is not taken seriously, all of the work that TRAIN has tried to achieve and all of the lobbying work it has done will be undone.