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How do you solve a problem like Maria?

November 17, 2013

This song, loved and hated by people in equal numbers, from the 1959 musical The Sound of Music, adapted into a film in 1965, couldn’t be more apposite for the situation that Greece now finds itself in.

It is almost five weeks since a blonde, fair-skinned and blue eyed girl known as ‘Maria’ was discovered in a police raid on a Roma settlement on the outskirts of the town of Farsala in central Greece. The police were looking for illegal drugs and unregistered firearms, and they came across a little girl (aged about five years) who looked different. She was, they immediately suspected, a trafficked child – abducted, stolen or perhaps even sold by ruthless and uncaring parents. The Roma couple with whom she was living (Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou) were suspected of either abducting her or buying her in order to make money through benefit claims and, in years to come, forced marriage. Neither Christos nor Eleftheria was able to produce papers to prove that Maria was their child; the inevitable result was that she was taken into care – where she remains today, in the ‘Smile of the Child’ children’s home in Athens, 280 kilometres from Farsala.

A week after Maria was removed from the Roma settlement in Greece, another blonde girl (aged seven) was taken from her parents, this time from a housing estate on the West of Dublin in Ireland, after an anonymous tip-off to the Gardai via Facebook. This time, she was lucky – DNA tests quickly proved that she was the child of the parents she was living with, and she was returned home. But there will be repercussions from this unhappy experience, for her, for her family, and for others in the Roma community in Ireland – nightmares, fear and distrust of police and authorities, confirmation of long-held realisation that their lives are characterised by racism and oppression.

The motives of the police who took Maria into care were undoubtedly ones of welfare and protection; if Maria had indeed been stolen, there would have been birth parents somewhere who had been searching for her for years. But the evidence to emerge in the days after her discovery was that Maria was neither unknown nor unloved. Residents of the Farsala camp told police and reporters that a Bulgarian couple had a longstanding arrangement that Maria would be cared for by the Roma family in Greece, where she had lived since she was a baby. It was, in other words, a case of informal adoption or long-term fostering, not abduction or trafficking. It was, moreover, suggested that Maria’s birth father continued to visit, the last time only five days before the police intervention. Meanwhile her birth mother was living in Sofades, a village only 20 miles from Farsala. Video footage of Maria dancing, interviews with community members and family photographs showed a child who seemed to be happy and cared for, not just by the Roma couple, but by the wider extended family with whom she lived in the Roma settlement. Yet Maria is still living in the children’s home. She cannot be returned to either her birth parents or her informal adopters, because all the adults concerned are currently facing criminal charges. So, as the song goes, how do you solve a problem like Maria? It seems likely that she will remain in care for some time to come as the court processes unfold. She may then be officially adopted, but it seems unlikely that this will be by the Roma family with whom she has spent the first five years of her life. Is this child welfare? Is this child protection?

This story can be unpacked as a classic illustration of a moral panic, as originally described by Stan Cohen in his Folk Devils and Moral Panics, published in 1972. He writes:

  • ‘A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’ (1972: 1):
    • In this case, it is child trafficking that is at the heart of the issue; not only that, it is child stealing by Roma people, already judged for centuries to be ‘folk devils’, always to be treated with suspicion and fear.
  • ‘Its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media’ (ib.id.):
    •  The language the media used to describe Maria’s situation was highly emotive – the camp where she was living was described as ‘squalid’; as The Sun reported on 24th October, ‘Unkempt children played in the street waving sticks at strangers. Old motorbikes and car parts littered the neighbourhood, while stray dogs rummaged through piles of rubbish’.  In another newspaper story from 22nd October, the video of Maria ‘dancing for her captors’ was said to be ‘disturbing’. Most of all, however, what seems to underpin almost all the reporting of the case is a racist characterisation of the situation, the ‘dark skinned’ adults contrasted with the fair-skinned child, known as ‘the blonde angel’.
  • ‘The moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people’; ‘socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions’ (ib.id.):
    • Interestingly, the telling of this story has been left largely to the media. Children’s charities and others have been wary of getting involved and expressing their opinions about the case. But the case was said to ‘offer hope’ to the parents of Ben Needham (who disappeared in Greece in 1991) and Madeleine McCann (who disappeared in Portugal in 2007) that their children might still be alive, again affirming the idea that Roma people steal children. This is particularly disquieting given that it is known that it is Roma children who have historically experienced being ‘stolen’; for example, hundreds of Yenish Roma boys and girls were forcibly taken by the authorities in Switzerland between 1926 and 1972 (The Guardian 22nd October 2013).
  •  ‘Ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to’ (ib.id.):
    • Maria’s removal and the charges brought against her parents (birth and adoptive) were inevitable, but are, by no means, the end to this story.
  • ‘The condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible… Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten…; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself’ (ib.id.):
    • It is difficult to be certain where this story will end. It seems likely that Maria’s life, and that of all her carers, will be changed forever by this panic. Whether these changes are positive in the short or long-term remains to be seen. I would like to believe that the furore around this story has challenged stereotypes about the Roma community and will lead to a positive change in attitudes. The more realistic part of me fears that prejudices have been confirmed and that the Roma people, already discriminated against and stigmatised, will face further challenges to their lifestyle and their existence. This offers little reassurance, for Maria or any other children growing up in Roma communities across the world.

So to return to my question – is this child welfare or child protection? I believe that what this story shows is, to use another popular cliché, ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions’. What we, as social workers sometimes do in the name of child protection has untold negative consequences – look no further than the Orkney sex abuse scandal of 1991 in Scotland to demonstrate this. Social workers have a duty to care and to protect. We must do so carefully and respectfully, aware that our actions may have consequences way beyond our expectations.

Viviene E. Cree

17th November 2013

Reference: Cohen, S. (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, McGibbon & McKee Ltd.

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