Slough has made the headlines over the past few years for the number of immigrants it attracts. But even for a town used to migrants, the appearance of 89 unaccompanied Roma children during the spring of 2007 surprised the council.
The Berkshire town has had a Roma community for 10 years so it was natural that Slough would be one of the places to which families would send their children after Romania joined the EU in 2007.
The children, some as young as seven, presented themselves at the town hall to ask for help. Nicky Rayner, Slough’s assistant director for children and families, says: “They were walking in and saying: ‘I’ve got no money, can you look after me?’ Some had siblings, some were pregnant, and some had babies. At the peak, we had 10 kids a week coming in.”
The first children to present themselves were dealt with under the Children’s Act, but by February the workload was too great to be handled alongside day-to-day duties. The council supported a plan to create a seven-strong special team to deal with the problem, while backfilling some other positions.
The plan, says Rayner, was to get the children to the best place quickly. “What we did was give the message that, yes, we will meet our responsibilities, but we will do so in such a way that if someone came here and they had a granny in Scotland, we would contact her and reunite them. We have applied the usual approach of trying to track down families.”
However, establishing the identities of the children proved difficult. Lauren Watts, who led the team, says the children were reluctant to say where they had come from. “Most were anxious. Some had been primed on what to say when we were trying to ask them questions. When we started questioning things just didn’t add up.”
All 89 children were individually assessed by the team, which included two Romanian speakers and two part-time translators.
The Romanian consulate confirmed the identities of 31 children, 13 others were known to the Romanian authorities, despite giving incorrect details to children’s services, and the identity of 19 remained unknown.
Providing accommodation for the children while investigations took place created its own challenges. Many of the children, having travelled across Europe in the back of lorries, were very independent.
Watts says: “We did put some children in foster care but that broke down quickly they weren’t used to the rules and regulations. In the main it was supported lodgings, where we bought in extra support.”
Two of the children – one 15, the other 16 – were married to each other. “We kept them in one placement, but in separate rooms,” Watts adds.
Given the negative coverage the children’s arrival received in some parts of the press, it may seem surprising that the slew of stories were encouraged by Slough itself. But this was done for two reasons: to send a message to Roma families in southern Romania that sending their children to the town was not going to help their children and to central government that national policy was placing a costly burden on councils.
Rayner says: “I don’t think the media publicity was unhelpful on that occasion, as it highlighted a serious resource problem for the council. If it hadn’t stopped when it did, we would have had a very serious financial problem.”
Getting a quick start, making good communication with other agencies and getting the message to the Roma community in Romania to stop sending children (only one child presented themselves after May) meant that the costs for the whole operation stayed below £300,000.
It is being considered an isolated incident no other local authority has reported a similar experience. All the children have now left Slough. But while many have gone to family members, the whereabouts of 22 are unknown it is thought that some moved to France or Spain.
But Watts says that even though they provided a challenge, they were a great group to work with. “It was a fantastic experience to progress with the children they’re a great community. We learned about the ethos of the family dynamic and they really look after each other.
“Despite some of the challenges they face, they have a fantastic resilience and humour in the face of difficulties.”
Where are the 89 now?
● 30 were refused support after having their ages confirmed as over 18, and were referred to the Romanian consulate in London.
● 22 were reunited with family in the UK.
● Five returned voluntarily to their families in Romania.
● 32 were reported to the police as missing persons.