Members of nineteen families facing eviction file in to a small conference room. The multigenerational group listens intently as LifeTogether director Sri Kumar Vishwanathan describes the situation: his organization, in partnership with several private firms, was, at the last minute, able to secure eighteen apartments on the outskirts of town for families who have defaulted on rent, and are thus being forced to move out of a building in one of the city’s “socially excluded Romani locations.” The apartments offered to those present contain only bare walls, no appliances and insufficient facilities–a sink, but no shower or tub.
This particular community’s unemployment rate stands at a shocking 100 percent, a phenomenon that is common in many of the poor Czech Romani enclaves. In order to survive, families often rely on money lenders who use unethical practices, charging exorbitant amounts of interest, thus forcing families into vicious cycles of poverty which are difficult to break.
As a result of their dire economic situation and deeply entrenched systemic discrimination, several families at the meeting have already had some of their children taken away by the state and at least four others are in danger of having their children placed into state care.
“The mothers were ashamed to say their children are under the threat of being removed from the family,” Vishwanathan, who founded LifeTogether in the northeastern Czech town of Ostrava thirteen years ago, related to me in private after the meeting. “They feel they have failed. But it’s not their fault.”
“Czech Republic is number one in Europe,” he continues, “in terms of having the highest rate of forced removal of children from Romani families and placed in state-run institutions.”
Indeed, Human Rights Watch has found that the Czech Republic has the highest number of infants under the age of three forced into institutional care of all EU countries.
Vishwanathan’s organization works to help prevent such practices, which have been criticized by the European Roma Rights Center and Amnesty International, among other human rights watchdogs. LifeTogether provides many services for the Romani community, including legal aid, counseling as well as help for children who run away from state foster care institutions.
To truly remediate the situation, however, a systemic overhaul is long overdue. In its Survey on Children in Alternative Care, Eurochild, a network of organizations and individuals working across Europe to improve the quality of life of children, outlines seven steps by which European governments could prevent forced removal of children from families in poverty. Eurochild states:
EU member states should invest more in moving away from a child care system based on large institutions and move towards the provision of a range of integrated, family-based and community-based services.
Another Eurochild recommendation suggests that “the involvement of children, young people and their families is crucial, both in the decision- making processes affecting them directly and in the development of alternative care policies and services. They should therefore be empowered to participate in all stages of the care process and the EU should encourage the development of peer led groups of children, young people and parents with experience of care.”
The European Roma Rights Center identifies the role of the social worker as key in addressing systemic discrimination, as social workers are those who determine whether a family is “definitively incapable of caring for a child.” This decision is often driven by preconceived conceptions and a social worker’s view of the Romani community. The Bratinka Report, a study discussed in the ERRC document, found this to be the case:
This report found that 38% of social workers felt that the main obstacle to better relationships were the “unsavoury characteristics of the Roma”, that the Romani minority should attempt to adapt to the majority, that affirmative action programmes for the Roma were a waste of money and their influence negligible, and that it would be good to strike hard at Romany criminality and disregard for generally accepted norms. Forty-two percent of social workers felt that pro-active programmes for the Roma were an unfair privilege for one group of citizens. The ramifications of these perceptions may indeed correlate with the disproportionate representation of Roma children in institutions and necessarily question whether Romani families are given a just assessment of their rightful capacity to raise their own children.
Because social workers’ prejudices can ultimately lead to the break-up of a family, it is crucial that, as the organization Eurochild asserts, “all professionals working with and for children, including those in the education, health care, child protection and social work sectors, need high quality on-going training and supervision.”
Furthermore, Eurochild advocates that risks of social exclusion associated with poverty must be reduced:
The fight against child poverty must remain a key political priority of the EU. Social inequality denies children equal access to services and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. A strong political framework is required at EU level to ensure all member states put in place the necessary structural reforms to ensure all families have access to a minimum income and adequate services.
This year happens to be the EU Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, and in that regard, the Czech Republic has far to go. Considering the critical situation of the Romani population living in poverty, it is an abomination that the newly elected Czech government plans to cut social spending rather than invest in uplifting marginalized communities so they can live fearless, dignified lives.
“That’s very big of you. You are noble people,” Vishwanathan responds to one mother’s offer to forgo her chance to move into the apartment offered by LifeTogether before the meeting with the families concludes. The mother wants to give a preference to a family in danger of having its children removed by the state. She says, “There are nineteen families and eighteen apartments. Of course I will give a family that needs it more a chance first. We, who have kids, know how it is.”
Fortunately, following the eviction from an already long-neglected building for the poor, she and her children will be able to stay at her aunt’s for now.
Posted By Tereza Bottman
Posted Aug 7th, 2010