Care system fails Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children

Some children feel isolated after leaving care. Ivan Čentéš, CC BY-NC

A recent undercover project led by children’s charity Barnardo’s exposed the shocking realities facing vulnerable young people. It revealed that hundreds of children, some as young as 16, are being sent to live in isolation in bed-and-breakfast accommodation when they leave care, even if they are ill-equipped to do so.

While this is a problem that affects all kinds of children leaving care, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children face unique challenges. Even though the numbers of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children have increased significantly over the last five years, little thought is being given to their specific cultural needs in policy documentation.

It is important to note that people who are referred to as “Gypsies” “Roma” or “Travellers” in England actually constitute a rich and diverse group of communities. Accommodating this diversity means acknowledging, among other things, ethnicity, identity and cultural preferences. It also means recognising how these communities function. The immediate family is not the end of a child’s network in many cases, there are important inter-family connections and structured extended communities that need to be taken into consideration.

A special case

For many Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, the sense of family and community is a common feature of their individual cultures. Even if they assimilate somewhat into the mainstream, they maintain a resilient commitment to community traditions and continue to need the support that their extended family provides. If care services fail to act upon the importance of kinship, it will be significantly harder to help children make the move from care to independent living.

There are 60 Irish Travellers currently living in care in England and 180 Gypsy and Roma children. While small, these numbers represent significant increases; the number of Irish Travellers in care is up by 200% on 2009 figures and the number of Gypsy and Roma children is up by 350%.

There are methodological weaknesses in the government’s approach to reporting such figures but they do seem to give credence to a long-held suspicion that these children are being taken into care at a disproportionate rate.

While Barnardo’s points out that many children are being placed in unsuitable accommodation when they leave care, it could be argued that all Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children will be placed in unsuitable accommodation if they are not able to live with their communities and families.

Research has shown that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children who leave care often feel alienated and oppressed by the wider “non-Gypsy” society while they are simultaneously rejected by their own communities.

To overcome this sense of isolation, many feel compelled to seek some proximity to their cultural identity and community by creating physical and emotional distance between themselves and the living arrangements made for them. Some might abscond from provided accommodation while others might disengage from the services that are offered to them or ignore the expectations that are placed on them.

But because they might have been raised in foster care, away from their communities, they are sometimes unequipped to deal with the prejudices that they could have to confront. Some may not have been taught how respond to direct and indirect racism, for example. Others will almost certainly not be prepared to manage potential rejection by their own kin who accuse them of being contaminated by “outsider” influences.

For the transition out of care to be effective, there needs to be cultural continuity. It is essential that all children feel valued, and that they are able to experience continued cultural and social inclusion with Gypsy, Roma or Traveller groups. As Barnardo’s has shown, this ambition cannot be achieved if people leaving care are sent to live and suffer in cultural and social isolation. Placing Gypsy, Roma or Traveller children away from their community will only strip them of their identity, their need to belong and their need to feel close to other Gypsy, Roma or Traveller people.

In line with the recommendations of the 2014 Children and Families Act, the best option for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller care leavers is to be supported by Gypsy, Roma or Traveller carers. To make this possible, there is a need for those who work in leaving care services and others to forge and maintain relationships with Gypsy, Roma or Traveller communities and to advocate for the rights of the children they are working to support, and to support them to become independent.

Unless these children are given the right to maintain a sense of proud identity their culture will be lost. If this happens, the realities of isolation and forcing them to assimilate into mainstream culture will continue to affect their health and well-being long after their childhood has ended.