PRAGUE – Michal Dord was eight months old when he was taken from his mother and placed in state care.
His earliest memories are from when he was about 3, when he was moved to a “grey building with a concrete front yard.”
It was one of four different state care institutions he lived in before he turned 18, and began asking questions about his background and family. Why had he been placed in care? What had happened to his parents? Did he have any relatives? It wasn’t until Dord was 26 years old that he finally learned the truth, when two authors contacted him to ask about his childhood in an institution. To find out more about his past, Dord went to the local city council and requested access to his personal file. He was stunned by what he discovered.
"I was shocked to read that I was taken away when I was just eight months old because my mum was poor," said Dord. "I was under the impression that she did not want me, but the file had proof of her fighting for me for years."
Dord, now 33, is not alone: the Czech Republic is the last country in the European Union to institutionalise newborn babies instead of placing them in foster care.
According to the Czech government, 265 children aged three and younger lived in state care institutions in 2020. Fifty-three percent of these children were, like Dord, of Roma descent, despite Roma representing a small minority of the overall population, around two percent.
In 2020, the Council of Europe condemned the Czech state for disproportionately diagnosing Roma children with mental disabilities and assigning them to "special schools" with a more basic curriculum. Roma also face difficulties finding work and structural barriers in finding housing. The excessive institutionalisation of Roma children is, according to the European Roma Rights Centre, a continuation of the country's historical oppression and a form of racist violence.
It wasn’t until 2014 that Dord was reunited with his mother, Gabriel Dordova. She told VICE World News that Dord and his older brother Jiri, were forcibly taken from her.
"It was 1988 when a social worker, together with a police officer, turned up at my door and told me to hand my two sons to them," she said in a phone interview.
"I held them in my arms and did not want to let go, but the police sprayed pepper spray in my eyes and took Michal, an eight-month-old baby and his five-year-old brother away," she said. "I was still breastfeeding my youngest. The milk kept coming out even though my baby wasn't there."
In an emailed statement to VICE World News, Czech police said they had no record of the incident described by Dordova, and said officers would only use agents such as pepper spray “in exceptional cases… to ensure that no violence or escalation occurs.”
Dord and Jiri were placed in two different institutions in the city of Liberec, in the north of the country, forcing Dordova to travel for several hours by public transport to see them. "The visits were far shorter than the journeys there,” she said.
After a year of negotiations with the social services, Dordova was allowed to bring Jiri, but Michal was to remain in state care.
The more Dordova fought the system, the harder it became to see her son. "When he was four years old, they banned me from spending time with him. I could only wave and look at him through a glass window," she said.
Separating children from their mothers and siblings is not the first cruelty inflicted on Roma women. Between 1966 and 1991, the Czech state sterilised thousands of women against their will under the country's official eugenic policy aimed at eradicating the Roma population.
Despite being reunited with his family, Dord still understandably bears the effects of a childhood in state care.
Studies have shown that institutionalisation has an array of negative effects on children’s social behaviour and attachment to others. Dord described that children and carers would come and go. “Noone ever stuck around for more than a few months, in rare cases a few years” he said.
“I find it difficult to form relationships, it takes me months to trust someone. By that time I do, they are usually gone.”
Most Western countries made a leap towards individualised and community care as long ago as the 1940s, but under state socialism Eastern European countries introduced a number of new institutions.
At the end of the Second World War, there were 166 Czech child care institutions housing 10,752 children. In 1962 there were 760 institutions housing 45,058 children in the Czech Republic.
“Children with disabilities and/or of Roma descent were primary targets of this”, said Tereza Hradilkova, a prominent campaigner for deinstitutionalisation in the Czech Republic. Hradilkova says this trend persists to this day because of the old-fashioned education of care professionals and educators in the country.
"Care workers are educated in a segregated system; teachers working with children with disabilities are educated through entirely different systems than those working with healthy children," she said. "We can't expect a reform when those who are raising our children are also taught by a system that segregates."
While Czech state care institutions for children older than three years of age have a legal maximum of 48 children at a time, there is no such law regarding institutions for newborns.
The Czech government says it is committed to abolishing state care for children under the age of three. "It is definitely not appropriate to place small children in state care," Adam Vojtech, the country’s health minister, told VICE World News.
Earlier this month, the country’s Lower House of Parliament approved such a ban. The bill will now go to the Upper House and ultimately the Czech president before being signed into law.
It’s something that children’s rights NGOs, certain politicians, and former workers in the state care system have been lobbying for since at least 2011, when the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the Czech state to end institutionalisation of young children.
Jana Voldrichova used to work in a child care institution in Prague. She told VICE World News of a man in his early 30s visiting an institution after finding out he had been placed there as a baby.
When he saw the baby beds, he froze because he had had recurring dreams of standing behind bars, not able to escape. "These are the bars," he told Voldrichova while pointing at the baby beds.
Voldrichova said that institutionalisation could cause trauma, as children become confined to a single setting. She was stunned when a seven-year-old boy, who had never been outside of the institution, came to visit her.
"He opened every single shelf and drawer in the kitchen. Everything was foreign to him because he had never been to a house before," she said.
"He asked me about the foreign smell, and it took me a while to realise he was talking about the roast I was making for dinner. It made me realise how much children in institutions miss out on.”
Voldrichova worked in the state care system for 13 years. But she is absolute in her beliefs that the entire system must be abolished.
"Take the kids out, blow the place up and start over," she said.
When Bohumila Krejcikova picked up two brothers aged two and three from a childcare institution, she was horrified.
"The carers stripped them of all their clothes and handed them over. We were given two naked children who had only seen us once or twice,” said Krejcikova, a temporary foster parent for Roma children. “Their clothes and toys belonged to the institution, while the children owned nothing."
The degrading and traumatic situation stands in stark contrast to taking in children from foster families where she could visit them and gradually get used to the transition. "The children from foster care are well adjusted and capable of creating healthy bonds, whereas children from care institutions may carry the consequences of early life trauma their whole lives."
She said that children from state institutionalised care take a longer time to adjust to everyday life. Things that most people take for granted such as going to the supermarket, seeing animals, or even eating solid foods are foreign routines that children who spent time in institutions take months or even years to adjust to.
“I've seen three-year-olds choke on a bread bun, "said Krejcikova.
According to Jonathan Lee from the European Roma Rights Centre, the Czech state had a vested interest in keeping these institutions open. "Their very existence creates a need for children to be placed there to sustain the system," said Lee. "Institutionalising young children always fuels emotional neglect, which they will carry with them into adulthood."
He believes that the only way to prevent the excessive placement of Roma children in state institutions is to close them down entirely and replace them with foster care.
"These solutions do have the best interest of children and should be put in place," he said.
He also points out that Roma families often lose their children due to poverty, which is, according to Lee, illegal. "This is especially problematic because poverty amongst Roma is often caused by systematic discrimination and historical persecution."
Today, Dord is in daily contact with his biological family and visits his mother regularly. He has become an outspoken voice against the institutionalisation of newborns, and a powerful advocate for reform.
"Roma children are being placed behind various institutional walls, where they become invisible to the majority population," said Dord. "I was one in thousands."