Roma children: Britain's hidden care problem

Silhouette of a woman holding hands with two children
Image caption A rising number of Roma families are coming into contact with social services

The decision by Rotherham council to remove three foster children from a couple because of their support of UKIP provoked intense criticism, but one important detail which emerged is that the children were from a Roma family - one of a growing number coming into contact with social services in the UK.

"I've seen the news and read the stories on the internet. They've made me worry about my children," says Jonas, father of four and a Roma immigrant from the Czech Republic, now living in Rotherham.

"They think we're stupid and can't take care of ourselves... if social services knock at my door, I won't let them in.

"It's because we're Roma. We can't speak English; we're an easy target," adds his wife Yvetta.

The distrust between Rotherham's Roma community and social services has grown in recent years - as has the city's Roma community.

Media panic

Foreign media coverage has played its part in stoking the panic, too. Last year a highly sensationalised documentary aired on Slovakian television, painting a picture of British social workers out to make money from vulnerable Slovak children. Unchecked foster parents, the documentary claimed, included criminals and prostitutes.

Image caption Social services across the UK are seeing a rise in the number of Roma children being taken into care

The programme's scare tactics were taken up in other Central and South Eastern European countries and created fear among Roma communities - including those living in the UK.

"The TV said British people will take the Roma children out of the family and a lot of Roma people here in Rotherham were worried," says Jonas.

"But we had a meeting at the community centre with 200 people and the deputy council leader and social services answered questions and that calmed things down."

While these sensationalised reports told many untruths about British social services, it is true that social workers are increasingly coming into contact with Roma families. Rotherham council says it has 43 Roma children in care or on child protection plans - far higher than the national average - and it is not just in Rotherham where this is happening, either.

BBC Radio 4's The Report programme has discovered how several local authorities across the UK are seeing a rise in Roma families coming into contact with social services.

Just how many families they are engaging with is unclear, not least because Britain's family courts are highly secretive for protection reasons.

Local authorities such as Rotherham and Sheffield report a rising number of Roma parents with child protection plans, or even having their children taken into care. The Department for Education says the number of children in care who they categorise as Gypsy/Roma has quadrupled since 2009.

"The issues we've had with Roma families have been around poor school attendance, physical chastisement of the children and a lack of boundaries - letting them stay up all night and run around on the street," says one London-based social worker who has worked with Polish Roma families.

"Some parents were sending their children out begging, or getting older children to stay at home and look after their siblings."

'Mentally diseased'

Such lifestyles are typical of many Roma living in countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania, where the Roma have experienced a long history of marginalisation and mistreatment.

Image caption Roma communities live an impoverished life in many countries across Europe

British Roma families speaking to The Report said how in their home country children were segregated at school, and British social workers who have travelled to Central Europe told us school teachers they met there viewed Roma children as "mentally diseased".

So it is not surprising that thousands of Roma families have come to Britain in search of a better life - but a clash of cultures is now coming to a head, not least because Roma people are just not used to authorities taking an interest in their welfare.

However, the scale of the problem has now got to a point where Slovakian authorities are involved in family court cases being heard in the UK which concern Roma children.

"We have got now probably 40 families with children who have problems in the UK - around 90% are Roma children, up to 150 children," says Andrea Cisarova, director for the Centre for International Legal Protection of Children and Youth in Slovakia, who currently spends about three days per week attending cases across the UK.

But this level of court intervention, where children could be forcibly removed from their parents, is alien to many Roma.

"I don't have any doubt about the reasons of the UK social services, when they see a child is neglected they have to do something," says Miroslav Wlachovsky, the Slovak ambassador to Britain.

"But that you can adopt children without the consent of their biological parents, this is an issue which Slovaks do not understand, full stop," he adds.

One of the key concerns cited in the recent Rotherham case where Roma children were taken from their foster parents was a lack of cultural sensitivity - and this is something I have heard from many people in the Roma community during the course of this investigation.

For example, if very young Roma children are taken into care here in the UK, they will be raised to speak English, not Roma - and this puts an immediate barrier between themselves and their parents, who may not speak English, arguably reducing the chance of reuniting the family in the future.

Rising Roma population

As a possible solution, Slovak authorities are encouraging British social services to send children back to Slovakia to live with their extended family, if parents here are unable to care for them properly.

There are also calls to enhance the services available to support Britain's Roma communities, to ensure children can maintain their cultural links if taken into care - although the coalition government cut the Migrant Impact Fund in 2010.

Just how many Roma people are living in the UK is unclear.

The local authority-led organisation Migration Yorkshire, which is conducting research into the Roma population, estimates about 200,000 Roma are currently living in Britain, although the recent census did not register Roma as a distinct category, with the closest demographic term being "Gypsy/Traveller".

But the Roma are distinct in culture - and this distinction is important, because if the government is unsure how many Roma people live in the UK, then it will not be able to get funds for initiatives to help the Roma out of the tens of billions of euros the European Union has set aside for social inclusion projects.

"My challenge to central government is to do what other nations in Europe are doing and do a proper undertaking of the Roma population - not just the traveller and gypsy population," says the former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, whose Sheffield constituency has had a significant rise in the Roma population.

"If we can get that together then we stand a chance of dealing with this without there being exploitation by those who would like to fan the flames of discontent."

Britain's Roma population is likely to rise in coming years, when restrictions are lifted in 2014 on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants working in the UK - both countries have some of the largest Roma populations in Europe.

A spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government told the BBC: "The government is committed to helping local authorities to meet the challenges they are facing in integrating Roma citizens.

"We welcome the initiative by councils in setting up a National Roma Network to improve understanding and knowledge of the situation of Roma in the UK, to share expertise and experience, and to help overcome problems in integrating Roma at the local level."

Listen to The Report on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 20 December at 20:00 GMT. You can listen again via the Radio 4 website or The Report download.

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