Roma Children at Risk and an “Unhitched” Government System

| Slavka Kukova,

Over the past month I tried to hold discussions with one hundred people in four large cities in Bulgaria about how the government should go about providing quality care to Roma children at risk and what prevents it from doing so at the moment. At the organized round tables, social workers from child protection departments and directorates for social assistance, employees from schools and education inspectorates, heads of hospitals and social services, directors of children’s homes and Roma organizations all offered suggestions. The most important thing was that no one denied that the problem exists. I must admit that this amazed me after so many years of denial. I never did figure out how exactly this change had come about, but I could definitely sense a difference.

Of course, one of the first problems we discussed was the fact that no one knows how many Roma children are at risk, what kinds of problems they face and where they are. And where facts are lacking, neither policy nor practice can be effective. This is the case because neither those who make the policy nor those who put it into practice are mobile. They wait for the Roma to come to them, instead of going to the Roma. Furthermore, there is no connection between practices and policies (or administrators). Just as there is no connection between maternity wards and social services, nor between schools and child protection services, nor between Roma and non-Roma non-governmental organizations, nor between Roma at risk and schools and hospitals and so on. There are no functional connections or communication on either the vertical or horizontal planes. In some cities, all structures working with children at risk are subordinate only to their direct supervisors above them, while in others they are united at the local level, but have no connection with the leadership above them. Those who are united have similar interests and understandings, but little connection to the real needs that should be driving their work. 

No one knows exactly what is being cooked up in Sofia as part of the projects for deinstitutionalization and social inclusion. The one thing that is clear, however, is that once again local, small and practically oriented organizations, which are the only ones working with Roma on the ground in the ghetto, will not have access to the government’s grandiose European projects.

Everyone who works with Roma on the ground knows that this work is effective and that the Roma themselves consider it necessary and useful. They also know that such work is only being done by Roma. The only problem is that the government obviously does not envisage supporting such work.

All participants in the discussions also united around the viewpoint that work with impoverished Roma must be multifaceted and that only if they have access to good living conditions, education, work and regular incomes can they provide quality care for their children and not be forced to rely on state services. This means that if there were an active state policy within the realm of social assistance, employment, education and the social sphere, on the local level a teacher, a social worker from social assistance, an employee from the department of labor, a doctor, and an NGO activist working on the ground would all have to work together on every case of a family at risk in order to achieve a lasting and satisfactory effect. This is not the case now and there are no signs it will become so.

We continue to lack a force that would unite people to work for people, even if this is their job. What’s more, everyone talks about the outcomes and results of various phenomena and uses that to explain why their work has no effect. No one works to prevent such phenomena. It creates a sense of being unable to foresee any future events whatsoever, as if we live in a complete information blackout, as if there is no escape.

This reminded me of how, when we went to the ghettos for interviews as part of this study, I went with some friends to draw with the children from the poorest part of Stolipinovo. The first reaction on the part of the Roma themselves was to ask why we were doing it, and they didn’t accept the answer “because the children enjoy it.” They asked whether we were from a church or a political party. Oka-ay. Afterwards, when my colleague (Desi Petrova) brought clothes there, the children themselves each grabbed as much as they could carry and ran off, shouting “German-y-y-y-y!” However, when we talk about the children in the ghettos at our round tables, those who work for social services or child protection services say that the initiative for bettering Romas’ lives must come from the Roma themselves, otherwise it just creates a consumerist attitude. However, they couldn’t think of a single forum, meeting, or Roma initiative that they themselves had participated in, while the Roma who attended our meetings are active and whoever wants to see them can. But you have to go to them.

But why doesn’t anyone want to see them? I’m thinking about whose interest it is in to do something or to not do something for the poor Roma and their children. Roma children at risk and Roma children in social homes have created jobs for social workers and employees at the homes for decades – and there are no Roma among these workers. The Roma children who are enrolled but who don’t go to school feed the teachers at segregated schools, and the teachers aren’t obliged to do anything to stop this, because it is in no one’s best interest for the Roma to be educated. The mothers in maternity wards justify the salaries of doctors – who once again are not Roma. Roma children and families who have access to social services are again clients of non-Roma service suppliers. Now the Roma will be counted, but once again we won’t know exactly how many there are and once again it won’t be Roma doing the counting. In the ghettos, the poorest of the poor are the target of many crimes, but again the police and the prosecutors are not Roma and they don’t even record these crimes. No matter how hard a Roma may try to legalize his home, the clerk at the town hall will always refuse to do it, because for her he and his house don’t exist on paper, so hence they don’t exist in practice either. Once again, the clerk is not Roma. It is obvious that the Roma ghettos are what they are due to the inaction of non-Roma, which is completely based on their own interests. If all this is true, then what is the point of talking about the Decade of Roma Inclusion at all (which, by the way, no one mentioned at our discussions) or about a framework program and a series of other political documents with long titles?