Following the enlargement of the EU in 2004 and 2007, a significant number of Eastern European Roma migrated west to flee poverty, prejudice and escalating ethnic violence. Some sell Big Issue North. With its sound economy, diverse society and perceived commitment to multiculturalism, the UK appeared to many Roma families an ideal place to settle. As a young mother from Slovakia told me: “We came so we can live like regular people, so our children are not afraid to go to school, so we can sleep in proper beds, and eat well”.
Yet for many enthusiastic families, dreams about prosperity and security have not materialised. Often settled in low income, ethnically diverse, urban areas of the UK, Roma families regularly face multiple disadvantages, including discrimination, precarious employment, poor quality housing and poor health. Restrictions on welfare benefits for EU migrants and benefit sanctions have left a rising number of families destitute or homeless. Research suggests that economic insecurity, language barriers, fears about prejudice and employment inequality leave Roma families open to acute stress and difficulty adjusting.
In this context, it is not surprising that Roma support groups report increasing numbers of families coming into contact with social care services. However, social work interventions have failed to ease many of the challenges faced by them. Instead, there has been an increase in childcare proceedings and child removal orders. It is estimated that between 2009 and 2015, there was an increase of 733 per cent of Roma children in foster care. Department for Education statistics show that from 2017 to 2019, the proportion of Roma children deemed to be in need across the UK rose, as did the proportion in local authority care.
Some children need to be placed in care to keep them safe. Such decisions, however, are often skewed by prejudice and determined by poverty. While precise data is unavailable, groups working with Roma families confirm that child welfare involvement with impoverished Roma families is mainly due to neglect rather than physical abuse or sexual exploitation. But few social workers make a distinction between neglect and poverty or culturally specific parental practices. Roma community workers insist that they too often equate Roma culture and poverty with harmful behaviour and risk. European Roma Rights Centre research into British child protection practice with English Gypsy and Roma children demonstrates that child protection professionals are reticent to challenge their presuppositions and assumptions about stereotypical “Gypsies”.
Regularly labelled by social services as “hard to reach”, “unco-operative” or “hard to engage”, Roma families experience an excess of penalising intervention and surveillance. Such an approach stems from a lack of knowledge about Roma culture and a failure of social services to understand or acknowledge the reasons for Roma people’s often understandable evasive behaviour and mistrust towards public officials.
Dada Felja, from the organisation Law for Life, insists the way Roma families engage with and perceive social services in the UK is informed by their “negative experiences with public services in countries of origin”. Roma migrants she worked with in a focus group in Derby explained: “Roma have been discriminated against by white people in their countries of origin. When a Slovak white person comes to interpret for Roma, they have the same feeling that they had in their country of origin. They feel racism so they don’t believe what is being said. Roma people also think: I’m not going to tell this person anything.”
And yet few local authorities have invested resources to understand the significant issues and experiences faced by the members of this diverse but highly disadvantaged community. The structural racism and historical oppression that reproduces poverty and puts so many Roma families at risk goes largely unquestioned, and the system that confuses poverty with neglect goes unchallenged. In this way, social work support ignores the causes of poverty and amplifies its harmful consequences, often blaming vulnerable families for their vulnerability.
To generate positive change, we must stop confusing neglect with poverty and distress. We need to acknowledge centuries of oppression faced by Roma people and understand the pernicious effects that racism and exclusion have on them. We also need to invest in universal and truly supportive services, rooted in anti-discriminatory practice, focused on preventing emerging problems so they do not become crises.
Joanna Kostka is a lecturer in social work at Lancaster University. Her book Financing Roma Inclusion with European Structural Funds: Why Good Intentions Fail is published by Routledge