‘Blonde angel’ case: Don’t demonise ‘bad’ parents, look at the system

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The case of Maria Ruseva, a Roma girl of Bulgarian nationality, reveals a wider tendency in society to want to demonise ‘bad’ parents.  But reality is never quite so simple, writes Jana Hainsworth.

Jana Hainsworth is the secretary-general of Eurochild, a child rights NGO based in Brussels.

The plight of Maria Ruseva is symptomatic of deep rooted poverty and prejudice facing Roma communities throughout Europe.  Bulgarian authorities now plan to remove seven of Sasha and Atanas’s other children, placing them in different social care services including an institution. 

Eurochild’s member, the National Network for Children in Bulgaria, is querying this decision. In its open letter to the Minister of Labour and Social Policy, the Social Assistance Agency and the State Agency for Child Protection, it states that poverty should never be reason for separation and families living in conditions similar to those of the Rusev family need complex support.

From the day Maria’s image was splashed across international media – a blonde girl seated between two Greek Roma adults – the case has provoked outrage and reinforced the pervasive negative image of the Roma people. Roma are the largest minority in Europe, estimated at around 12 million. Most live in abject poverty and are ostracised from mainstream society. 

In Bulgaria there are literally thousands of families like the Rusev’s. The family lives in a single room in a crumbling house in Nikolaevo, 270 kilometers east of Sofia. The Roma ghetto lies outside the legal town-planning zone, so houses are built without regulation and there is no investment in infrastructure.

On the surface, it could seem that placing Sasha and Atanas’s children in public care is the best solution.  Indeed they are likely to live in better material conditions. Many people will feel that because they gave up their child, Sasha and Atana are unfit parents and therefore should be punished. However, for Eurochild, the situation is much more complex.

It can never be a solution to separate children from their biological parents, without first supporting the family and ensuring their material needs are met. Eurochild is by no means condoning the behaviour of the parents, if indeed they did sell Maria to the Greek couple. What we are saying is that this likely reflects the behaviour of desperate people in desperate circumstances. 

Bulgaria has a long history of institutional care for children. There are some 122 institutions throughout the country.  Together with Hope and Homes for Children and our national partners, Eurochild is campaigning to end institutional care for children by ‘Opening Doors for Europe’s Children’.  

Whilst efforts have begun to ‘deinstitutionalise’ by placing children in family-based alternatives and small-group homes, the intake of under threes to infant homes is more or less stable at around 2,500 children each year. And only 2% of those entering infant homes are in fact orphans. It means that investment in family support to prevent children being removed from their parents is still weak or non-existent.  

Social workers have excessive case loads, poor training and low pay resulting in low morale and inability to support struggling families. Poverty remains the main reason for the placement of children. And in Bulgaria over 50% of children are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, while 78.2% of families with three or more children are living on less than 140 Euro per person per month.

The case of the Rusev family has attracted media attention. Social services will make every effort to portray an image that the children are taken care of, and better off outside the family. In fact the protection measures will split the seven brothers and sisters not only from their parents, but also between them. The children will be placed in different services, including a specialised institution. 

But away from the media spotlight on this particular family, what does it say about the system as a whole? Even if it were in the best interest of the children, there is no way that the state could afford to look after all the children living in extreme deprivation. In fact the placement of children outside the family is largely random and it is not surprising that Roma are heavily over-represented. Vital public resources are being poured into a system that perpetuates social divide and feeds mistrust between the Roma and majority populations.

We believe that there are real alternatives. It has to start by engaging and empowering Roma communities. For example Habitat for Humanity Bulgaria has successfully introduced micro-finance home improvement loans, working in partnership with local community-based organisations. 

Crucially the professionals involved are building long-term relationships with the Roma, not only accompanying the home improvements but also helping them access other services such as financial education, reproductive health and health education, school mediation and basic life skills and professional training. Several hundred families have benefited from the scheme, enabling them to initiate change in their lives and to take responsibility for that change.

The case of Maria reveals a wider tendency in society to want to demonise ‘bad’ parents. But reality is never quite so simple. The solutions lie in accompanying families early – before and after childbirth, engaging with parents so they feel listened to and empowered, and ensuring all families are able to live dignified lives and take responsibility for caring for their children.

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