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

Latvia Fights Back for its Children

In this, the second and concluding part of Latvian Member of Parliament Julija Stepanenko’s article on Latvian-origin children unjustifiably confiscated by foreign child protection services (CPS), she describes the ground-breaking work by Latvia on this issue. Julija Stepanenko is at the forefront of these efforts. The Saeima (Latvian Parliament) has unanimously adopted  a Declaration on Latvian Minors Abroad, which sets out the basis in international law for intervention by the country of origin in foreign CPS cases. Latvian authorities have initiated a publicity drive to educate their citizens of this cruel system before they take their families abroad. Legal aid and consular assistance is also provided to help parents regain their taken children. This article was originally published on 30 December 2017 in the Sunday Guardian with the title Latvia’s inspiring campaign against forced adoptions as part of our on-going weekly series with them called Global Child Rights and Wrongs.

Latvia, Freedom Monument, Pixabay, Sirdna, CC0

Since the tragic day of October 28, 2015, when Laila Brice, a Latvian origin mother who had been fighting for the return of her daughter who was confiscated by British social services, lost the last chance in court to regain her daughter, things have changed. The non-consensual, or should we say, violent adoption of Laila’s daughter was like a cold shower to many Latvian politicians and officials. Even though it didn’t prevent the biggest sacrifice – Laila’s daughter – measures were taken that were not in vain.

It was primarily Laila Brice’s case that provoked a strong response from the Saeima (Latvian Parliament) which on 28 January 2016 unanimously adopted the Declaration on the Protection of the Rights of Minor Latvian Nationals in Foreign Countries, [For the Saeima debate on this declaration with English translations of the proceedings, see Latvian Parliamentary Debate on Minors Confiscated by Child Protection Agencies Abroad]. This Declaration expresses our concern that there have been systemic breaches of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, in particular, the failure to have prompt communication between both countries when it comes to deciding a Latvian child’s future. Such delay led to serious consequences of belated intervention by Latvian officials in the last, and tragically, inevitable stages of cases such as Laila Brice’s, where it was stated by the British courts that the admitted delay in informing the Latvian authorities would not be considered as an argument for re-opening a case.

The Declaration also calls upon competent authorities of foreign countries to evaluate cases of forced adoption of Latvian children that breach their rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to the preservation of their identity, including name, nationality, family relations and native language, and for taking into consideration the desirability of continuity in the child’s upbringing, as well as the child’s ethnic, religious and cultural background. It further calls upon the competent authorities of foreign countries to, in conformity with the 1963 Vienna Convention, “inform, without delay, the diplomatic or consular missions of Latvia regarding all cases when appointing of a guardian is within the interests of a minor Latvian national” and to take “special consideration” of the recommendations of the Latvian diplomatic and child protection officials on the “further care for the child in a family environment consistent with Latvian culture and identity.”

The Declaration as an international document is not only an invitation to inter-governmental communication and an expression of concern, it also sets out an agenda for Latvian officials to follow and to acknowledge their duty of preventing such cases and defending the interests of the child to stay with the closest relatives possible, or at least with fosterers of the same origin.

The Latvian Government offers some legal aid to Latvian parents facing removal of their children abroad. Both the Latvian Ministry of Justice [see Ministry of Justice Guidelines] and their Ombusdman [see Ombudsman’s notification], whose remit includes child welfare, have issued public notices warning of Latvian children being removed from their parents and placed in new homes by foreign authorities, especially in Britain, Ireland, Norway and Germany. The Ombudsman’s notice is displayed in the airports. Parents are told to contact the Latvian embassy for assistance as early as possible in such cases.

The notices warn parents about foreign rules regarding children such as the age below which a child may not be left alone in the home, corporal punishment being an offence in these countries, requirements for homes to be “child-proof”, i.e., having covers for electric sockets, safety locks on doors and windows, car seats etc., and matters that may not strike a foreigner, such as smoking in a car with a child present being an offence. The Ombusdman’s notice on Norway and Britain warns that investigations into families can be opened on the report of a neighbour. The Ministry of Justice’s guidelines on the United Kingdom includes simple examples that illustrate the manner in which parents are judged in these countries. One of the examples is of a parent facing prosecution for leaving a two-year-old unattended in a car for ten minutes when going to the pharmacy. Another example is of a parent facing investigation for leaving a three-year-old child at home in care of a 14-year old when going to the store for half-an-hour.

The Latvian Government has also set up a high-level Working Group to protect the interests of Latvian minors abroad in child protection cases. The Ministers of Justice, Foreign Affairs and Welfare are part of this group.

The Custody Courts of Latvia have excellent experts who are now starting the practice of communicating directly with British courts in the most complicated cases. We can see the outstanding and professional teamwork of the Ministry of Justice and the Custody Courts, who are ready to take care of the family, and identify and evaluate relatives with whom the child can be placed, instead of being given to strangers abroad.

Sometimes we are called upon by the foreign country to prove that we can provide medical services, child protection and education. I believe Latvia, as a small but excellent modern European country, can do so at much higher level than some other countries.

Latvia has a wonderful educational system, family-friendly and comprehensive social services and excellent healthcare for children. Yes, children are removed from families in Latvia as well, but each case is evaluated with the true interests of the child in mind. Loving parents, if they have made a mistake, are given the chance to reunite the family.

There is some difference between families in England and Latvia  but the difference does not always mean neglect or violence. For example, it appears that grandparents are much more significant family members in Latvia than Great Britain might consider.If in Great Britain a grandmother of 60 could be considered incapable or uninterested in taking care of the children just because of her age, in Latvia, a 60-year-old grandmother is absolutely focused on her grandchildren, has control over the situation and is full of energy, wisdom and initiative.

Pixabay, Henrijs, CCO

One cannot estimate a standard for the family, for the true emotions and affection in a family. However, the golden standard of the best interests of the child is to stay within a loving biological family. Just like a surgical procedure, the separation of the family should be carried out only when all other means fail, and even then, the surgeon must have a heart to feel the despair of the child, trapped in the system.

© Photo: Latvian National Centre for Culture

For now, I can only express my hope that someday we will have an excellent communication with Great Britain and other countries regarding the rights of Latvian children. All countries experiencing this issue with their minors abroad should come together on a common platform.

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.