Scores of Latvian Children Deprived of their Families in Foreign Countries (Part I) by Julija Stepanenko

Latvian Member of Parliament Julija Stepanenko is at the forefront of the Latvian Government’s efforts to retrieve children confiscated by foreign child protection services (CPS). In this the first part of her article (which will be published in two parts) she describes how an ever increasing number of Latvian children are being unjustifiably removed by CPS, especially in Britain. This piece was originally published in the Sunday Guardian on 23 December 2017 under the title Lessons from Latvia on how to protect children overseas  as part of our ongoing weekly series in collaboration with them called ‘Global Child Rights and Wrongs’.

Latvian children in national costume. © Photo: Imants Urtāns.

I should start by saying that it is every country’s highest responsibility to protect and secure the needs of its children, because there is no future for the country that leaves its next generation abandoned to strangers.

Home is where the heart is

“the hearts of those who left belong to Latvia” © Photo: Latvian National Centre for Culture

Since the banking crisis struck Latvia in the year 2009, we have lost countless families, leaving for Great Britain and other countries in the hope of a better life. Many Latvians left with their spouses and children, and some gave birth to new children abroad.

However, we all know that the hearts of those who left belong to Latvia, and but for the circumstances they would never have left. But legally their children, once enrolled in the foreign system of education or healthcare, are being looked upon as if they belong there.

The “habitual place of residence” principle determines which country has jurisdiction over the child. As a result, we have more and more of our little citizens, who actually belong in Latvia, being forcibly adopted in foreign countries despite all arguments for their return to Latvia, or placement with carers of Latvian origin.

Growing number of children taken every year

Every year, nearly 20 Latvian children are removed in Great Britain. The official figures of our minor citizens abroad being forcibly deprived of their Latvian families, which includes both child protection cases and inter-parental custody disputes (under the Hague Convention), are worryingly high and growing nearly each year, as can be seen in the table below:

Figures of the Latvian Ministry of Justice.

Children removed from good parents

Not all the children taken in these cases have been abused or neglected by their parents. I have personally met many mothers and grandmothers of children confiscated abroad. They are good people, who are competent to care for their children. The proof that the system can make mistakes that turn into personal tragedy is the case of Karrissa Cox and Richard Carter: the parents were eventually acquitted after being charged with harming their 6-weeks-old baby. The bleeding in the baby’s mouth for which they were blamed was discovered to be a medical condition called ‘Von Willebrand disease’, which in no way could be linked to violence or cruelty, but it was too late to regain their child who had been put up for adoption.

in Great Britain 95 percent of the approximately 5000 adoptions per year are forced

The attention to Latvian children abroad came into the spotlight in Latvia in 2015 when a Laila Brice, was about to lose her final battle in Great Britain for her beloved daughter. All the force of our Cabinet under former President Andris Bērziņš, the Latvian Ministry of Justice, and numerous delegations from the Latvian Parliament were unable to stop the forced adoption of Laila Brice’s child in Great Britain.

Public protest in Latvia

Laila Brice received strong support from the Latvian public. A beautiful concert: “Latvia, I am your child”, was held in Riga (Latvian capital), with children and artists performing throughout the day. Activists gathered countless signatures under a petition appealing to the Government to take diplomatic action.

Concert in Riga, Latvia protesting forced adoption of Laila Brice’s daughter in Britain.

Government persuaded to intervene

We had to overcome the reluctance of some Government officials still keeping themselves in the comfort zone of non-interference in such matters, we had to work against the belief that only bad parents lost their children to the child protection system in foreign countries. It took some time to change the way people in Latvia saw the problem.

To me it was clear that whatever the circumstances were, the fact that the mother was fighting for her child sanely and bravely was worth considering. Why ignore the bond that the child has with its mother? Why consider a child as property that can be confiscated? Why turn the child into a tool of punishment for the parents and not consider the child’s needs?

Harsh Child Protection System in Foreign Countries

These are the things I still do not understand about the harsh child protection system of countries like Great Britain. There are many cases in which the parents are guilty and not able or even willing to bring up their children. In some cases the parents are even dangerous for their children. Clearly such cases paved the way for child protection services in these countries, to routinely question every parent’s custody. But can it be acceptable to ruin 9 out of 10 families in order to save one abused child? This is the logic that British social workers give for the easy confiscation of children in their system. I will leave the criticism of another country’s legal system here for its local politicians – this is their duty and let them have the courage to speak out and ask for the lost balance in child protection. I will only say that our Latvian parents, and all immigrant parents, have to be very careful and aware of the risk of unjustified child removal when moving abroad, even for a temporary job.

Warning immigrants

We have to do a lot of work in preventing such cases – explaining to parents the main dangers of the system, encouraging them not only to cooperate with foreign social services, but also to know their rights. Without knowing their rights, in a stressful situation, parents are made to sign documents that legally translate as abandoning the child, when in fact they had no such intention.

Usually the parents are capable and normal. But the children are made to live separately. They are not even allowed to meet with their parents except under supervision, and then they are not allowed to speak in their native tongue, so that the foreign social worker can “judge” their interaction. Many of these children are forcibly adopted, after which all contact stops. To understand the scale of the problem, consider that in Great Britain 95 percent of the approximately 5000 adoptions per year are forced, i.e., take place without the consent of the birth family.

The author is a Member of Parliament in Latvia since 2014. As a lawyer and mother-of-four she is particularly interested in family friendly policies and traditional family-oriented child education.