The Best Interest of the Child and Child Safety Policies as Mechanisms of Institutional Racism

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by Daniela Ortiz
© Daniela Ortiz, Justicia. Plegaria anticolonial a Fernandito Tupac Amaru
Statistical chart on types of neglect in the RUMI simulator
Risk factors not linked to physical, emotional or sexual abuse marked in the RUMI simulator
Result of the Unified Registry of Child Abuse (RUMI) simulator

In a Eurocentric, capitalist, and patriarchal way of life, notions such as “security,” “welfare,” and “protection” are constantly being applied in the social and authoritarian rhetoric of the contemporary European context. 

The narrative that Europe is a safe place, that whiteness emanates protection, has been part of the rhetoric that has historically reinforced the perception of Europe and its forms of life as a space of salvation, as a horizon to be reached. In practice, not only is it clear that this supposed space of salvation is reserved exclusively for white European citizens, but also that for the existence and maintenance of this space where the vital, economic, and health-related security of those who occupy the summit of the global social structure is possible, it is necessary to maintain an order that exploits, persecutes, controls, and even murders the peoples and individuals of the global South considered to be expendable by the colonial capitalist system. On the other hand, the rhetoric of security as a vital horizon to be reached has instilled the notion that the European and white population's ways of life are the “right” ones, the ones that should be adopted, if not imposed on the rest of humanity.

In the current European context, it is through legal mechanisms that the ideology of white supremacy is transferred to reality. Through the institutions, violence and control are imposed on migrant and racialized populations, thus consolidating the mechanisms of exploitation, persecution, and detention of migrants through a system of migration control based mainly on legality and in the rhetoric of which the notion of security is central. It is not only a system that seeks to safeguard the security of white European citizens, of business capital, or of their territories, it is not only the European right-wing that boasts that the ways of life of the migrant populations coming from the global South are a “threat to Europe.” To a large extent, the discourse on security also includes the construction by the European left-wing of the supposed need to provide “protection” and “security” for asylum seekers, migrant minors, and the migrant population in general. In this way, the system of migration control uses paternalistic rhetoric, in which it not only deprives the populations it controls and oppresses of their autonomy, but even goes so far as to exercise all kinds of institutional violence in the name of the supposed protection of those populations, cynically designated as “vulnerable” by the same political power that deprives them, makes them illegal, expels them, exploits them, violates them, and even murders them. 

One of the areas where the control mechanisms of European states and authorities use the safeguarding of the welfare and security of those who they in fact violate as their main argument is that of migrant children. Several legal and bureaucratic mechanisms have been designed and implemented to violate migrant minors in the different contexts where institutional racism is strengthened through paternalistic discourses as well as alleged protection and security. 

In October 2020, the cases of migrant children who were forcibly separated from their mothers after crossing Spanish borders finally became part of the public debate1. This debate only focuses on those separations carried out by the Las Palmas, Gran Canaria Prosecutor's Office during the months around October 2020, but not on the hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of cases of forced separations that have occurred since the imposition of the Framework Protocol on Certain Actions with Respect to Foreign Minors in 2014, the year in which legislation was passed regarding the procedures that imposed the separation of mothers and children until DNA tests confirm the filial link. This  protocol was created by the recommendation of the Spanish Ombudsman in the face of the alleged “risk of trafficking, illegal adoptions or even organ trafficking.”

Under the guise of giving “protection” and “security” to migrant minors, in 2014, Spanish authorities decided on the automatic and forced separation of mothers and adult relatives of minors crossing a border area. In this way, those families who, after crossing the border, are “interned” in the Temporary Stay Centers for Immigrants (CETIs) are subjected to forced separation involving the internment of minors in Protection Centers, keeping them separated from mothers and other family members for up to 7 months that the process of certifying such filiation through DNA testing may take2. This practice of violence against migrant children is protected by the legal argument and mechanisms of the alleged “best interests of the child” where, in the name of the child's safety and protection, a series of acts of violence are imposed on the child that are as serious as the forced separation from his or her mother. 

This same violence exercised by the Spanish state is what recently was reported on in the media regarding the separation of minors from their mothers, fathers, and other relatives in the U.S. context. Here, it was also the legality concerning the “best interests of the child” and the use of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008 that built the legal path to exercising one of the worst kinds of violence imaginable against children in the name of their own safety.

Although the cases of forced separations in areas along the Spanish borders have managed to briefly appear in the media and political debates, silence remains in regards to the processes of removal of custody within the territory, committed mainly by child protection agencies such as the Directorate General for Child and Adolescent Care (DGAIA) in Catalonia, the Specific Intervention Teams for Children and Adolescents (EEIIA) in Valencia, the Directorate General for Children, Families and Births in Madrid, and the various offices of Social Services throughout the country.

In these contexts, one would imagine that a removal process at the hands of Social Services or Child Protection occurs because a child is living in a situation of sexual, physical, or psychological violence. But what the figures show us, as well as the testimony of dozens of mothers and migrant families, is quite the opposite. The processes of removal of custody and opening of files with the aim of controlling families are largely due to racist, classist, and sexist motives.

According to data from the Statistical Data Bulletin on Child Protection Measures issued by the Unified Registry of Child Abuse (RUMI) in 20183, 56% of the files opened for child abuse were for “negligence,” that is, there was no situation of physical, sexual, or psychological violence, rather a family might have accumulated “risk factors” such as being a “nucleus in an immigration situation with serious economic or legal difficulties or lack of support,” considered as having “insufficient economic income to guarantee the basic care of the child”, being “a single parent nucleus with serious economic difficulties” or “one of the parents is a prostitute,” among others (See the graphics). 

In addition, of the 12,679 cases opened for “negligence”, 9,328 are in the “mild or moderate” category. This coincides with the fact that the largest number of open cases is through Social Services, where families are approached precisely because they do not have sufficient resources. Catalonia is the second autonomous community with more open cases, of which foreign minors represent 85%, a large majority despite the fact that the migrant population is a minority. One must also take into account that this data does not consider how many of the minors with Spanish nationality are racialized, so the underage population with open cases could be even greater. 

Recently I used the RUMI simulator4, marking certain “risk factors” such as being a single mother, not being able to attend school meetings, being a migrant, or having frequent changes of partners, in other words, no factors linked to any type of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. The result issued by the simulator was that the child was living in a situation of “negligent abuse” and the system made a recommendation to the competent authority to open a file and make an investigation of the family. 

Once again, in the name of the security, welfare, and protection of the child, the family is criminalized through profoundly racist, classist, and macho legal mechanisms, which lead to the exercise of one of the worst forms of violence against a child, the forced separation from his or her mother, father, or family. 

These two modes of institutional violence against migrant children marked by the RUMI simulator are only a small part of the legal mechanisms that have been generating extremely harsh situations designed to maintain the continuity of the colonial order through institutional racism. From the murder of the young Moroccan Illias Tahiri in the Tierras de Oria Center in Almería5 to the suicide of the Colombian-born 9-year-old Jesus Ander in Cantabria6, both in the custody of the child protection system, the exercise of violence was accompanied by "containment protocols" and the argument of the need for protection and guardianship of these minors and the “best interests of the child,” supposedly to protect their safety and well-being.

In November 2020, in Barcelona, Loubna, mother of Nour B., has been confronting the impunity of the Directorate General for Child and Adolescent Care DGAIA and representing the hundreds of mothers affected by institutional violence exercised by this entity7. Three-year-old Nour was taken from her family because of a medical report stating that the child was not gaining the weight that corresponded to her age, something that may be common in the developmental process of some children, and a situation that should be treated by doctors, if this condition were to put the child's health at risk, a report that would later become part of a file where other “risk factors” such as those mentioned above were added8. Nour was removed from school by the authorities without any notice to her mother, who learned of DGAIA's taking custody of her daughter when she went to look for the child at school and did not find her. On the other hand, it is known that neither the medical services nor the authorities of DGAIA have so far conducted any medical examination or treatment of the child since she was taken from her mother and forcibly admitted to a juvenile facility. Loubna, along with a group of more than 50 women of Moroccan origin, several of whom have been affected by the removal of custody, and supported by the grassroots anti-racist organization Papeles para Todos y Todas, has taken the floor to denounce what the left and white Catalan and Spanish feminism do not want to hear, and which has been denounced by different groups and activists focused on political anti-racism for several years now.

Loubna's struggle to get her daughter back is the same struggle as Kelly Agbon’s9 to get her son back, given up for adoption to a white family after he was taken from his mother's arms before she was deported to Nigeria without her son. It is the struggle of Ferdinand Kome and Monike Mbakong to get their son Walter back10. It is Linda Porn's struggle to seek justice and reparation in the face of the institutional violence experienced in her family by DGAIA11. It is the same struggle that Maria had when she took refuge in the Uruguayan consulate in Barcelona after a sentence was handed down by the Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) that required her to hand over her daughter to the white Catalan man who had allegedly sexually abused her and was never investigated.12 Loubna's struggle is that of so many migrant and racialized comrades who take a stand against the system of “protection” of minors, which, using the argument of security and the “best interests of the child,” not only take away the freedom and love of life from those they control but also break all the community ties of non-individualistic forms of upbringing. It tries to break all those communal forms of protection for the lives and upbringing of migrant children, forms that are currently resisting the protests and political organization of migrant mothers who have been denouncing racist removals of custody. 


1 “Las mujeres migrantes separadas de sus hijos en Canarias: Los niños no comen y enferman porque sus madres no están" (El Diario. October 22, 2020)

2Una familia siria pide que le devuelvan a su hijo tras meses esperando las pruebas de ADN (El Faro de Melilla. April 22, 2020)

3 Boletín de datos estadísticos de medidas de protección a la infancia (2018)

4 Unified Registry of Child Abuse Simulator (RUMI) 

5 “Khadija Alanti, la madre de Ilias Tahiri: "El vídeo habla por sí solo: no es un accidente, es un asesinato" (El Diario. June, 20 2020)

6  “Un centenar de personas piden justicia por la muerte del niño en un piso tutelado en Tudela”

7 “Un centenar de persones es manifesta al CAP La Serra perquè retornin una menor als seus pares” (Diari de Sabadell.  October 28, 2020)

8 ORDRE BSF/331/2013, de 18 de desembre, per la qual s'aproven les llistes d'indicadors i factors de protecció dels infants i adolescents. 

9 “¿Dónde está el hijo de Kelly Agbons?” (El País. June 17, 2012)

10 “Ferdinand Kome y Monique Mbakong: atrapados en un laberinto burocrático y víctimas del racismo institucional” (El Diario. September 6, 2019)

11 “El hombre del saco” (Píkara Magazine. 2019)

12 “Retiran a una mujer uruguaya la custodia de su hija y se la entregan a su padre, que fue acusado de abusar sexualmente de la menor” (Público. October 9, 2019)

Translated by Lia Kastiyo-Spinósa

Daniela Ortizaims - through her work - to generate visual narratives where the concepts of nationality, racialization, social class, and gender are critically understood in order to analyze colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal power. Her recent projects and research address the European migration control system, its link to colonialism, and the legal mechanisms created by European institutions to be able to exercise violence against migrant and racialized populations.