It's an age-old folk story: watch your kids around the Gypsies, or they'll steal them. This week in Ireland, police wrongly took two Roma children from their respective families simply because they were pale skinned and blue-eyed. In both cases, it transpired that the children were indeed being raised by their biological parents and had not been kidnapped.
The two incidents followed a case in Greece in which "Maria", a blonde-haired, blue eyed child was removed from a Roma couple who were not her biological parents.
Old and contemporary European folklore is full of stories about Roma, Europe's most vilified minority, abducting children. In Ireland, the Travellers, an indigenous ethnic minority, sometimes represent the abducting bogey. Where did this myth come from, and why do people still believe it?
The fairies, perhaps fed up by the the constant accusations that they were responsible for abducting children, have long since packed their bags and departed from the popular European folk consciousness. But children face a greater and terrifying array of real and imagined dangers than ever before. Societies still need bogeymen. Folklore gave us Christmas and Halloween, the basis of modern medicine, and transcendent folk music. Occasionally, however, it also gives voice to our darkest notions.
Across the Western world, the folk image of men in white vans, usually paedophiles, cruising around housing estates and attempting to abduct children, has become a popular expression of a very natural parental terror, but it is out of all proportion to the real risks children face.
For centuries, Jews were subject to the Blood Libel legend, which claims that they kidnap and murder Christian children in secret ritualistic sacrifices. The Blood Libel legend, though now largely but not entirely consigned to the dustbin of history's greatest shames, has been described by scholars as "a complex of deliberate lies, trumped-up accusations and popular beliefs."
Estonian folklorist Dr. Mare Kõiva recalls rumours from his childhood that black cars were attempting to abduct children, prior to sucking or draining their blood. The British folklore lecturer Dr. Gillian Bennett attests to the international distribution of rumours about children being abducted for their organs or kidnapped by gypsies. Witches, as children's author Roald Dahl pointed out, don't ride around on broomsticks; they are, in essence, folk figures that commit the most abominable and diabolical crimes imaginable.
Blaming the media for stoking fear is somewhat simplistic: although reporters bear a particular responsibility to interrogate their sources, they are as influenced by folklore as the rest of society. Almost a decade ago, during a high-profile missing child case, newspapers repeated the folk rumour that "white vans" had been since cruising the area; the case ended tragically but, as it turned out, neither white vans nor strangers had anything whatsoever to do with the child's disappearance.
In the 1980s, a moral panic erupted in the United States which saw hundreds of families ripped apart and scores of innocent people wrongly accused of ritually abusing and sometimes murdering their own children in dark, Satanic ceremonies. This allegedly involved drinking blood, grave robberies, strange incantations, ritual sacrifice of animals, and sometimes cannibalism, in a conspiracy involving tens of thousands of people. Similar accusations were levelled during medieval witch trials and against Jews. Tens of millions of people believed this contemporary update of these ancient folk stories. Of over 12,000 investigated allegations, every single one was proven to be completely false.
In the late 1980s, English and Scottish social workers, spurred on by reports from the US, repeated the same libels and myths about Satanic ritual abuse against the families of nine children in the Orkney Islands, took the children from their families for over a month and, as with the American case, coerced them into telling wild and untrue stories. The children and their families suffered long-term damage, and communities were shattered.
The same myth of Satanic abuse conspiracy and sacrifice was regularly repeated by sections of the Irish press in relation to another high-profile missing child case, causing untold pain to the boy's family; almost three decades later, they still sometimes wheel it out on a slow news day.
The libellous accusation that Roma and to a lesser extent Irish Travellers abduct children forms part of the same corpus of folklore. In fieldwork conducted for the Irish National Folklore Collection in 2007, I interviewed people about their views on child abduction. Many repeated folk legends which conflated stories of abduction by Romani women with rumours of strangers in white vans whisking children away. None of the stories had the remotest basis in fact.
The Greek case is, of course, a cause of serious concern, but the racist reporting which assumes that "Maria" was abducted, based on never-proven folk libels about Roma, has largely contrasted the "dark Gypsy" with the "beautiful blonde child". The child is not on any missing persons list and there is no evidence to show she was abducted - the rush to judgement is racially based. In societies based around extended family units where children are communally reared, or societies such as Greece where social services and the fabric of the State have effectively broken down, informal adoption is common. The full truth is far from established in this case, but this information vacuum should not mean that children throughout Europe who look different from their parents can be snatched by the State, regardless of their ethnic background.
In Ireland, it is disturbing that social services invested so much time and energy to rip these children from their families, causing immense distress - the terrified girl taken from her family refused to eat for three days - while, according to a report by the Irish Ombudsman for Children, hundreds of children who are genuinely at risk of abuse and neglect in non-Roma families have been effectively ignored.
Incidents like the Irish cases and the Orkney abuse scandal cause long-term reputational damage to social services, endangering public support for those who work with children at risk and thus placing more children in danger. It is alarmingly reckless and must not be repeated, ever again.
Thomas Acton, a renowned Professor of Romani Studies, says that there is no documented case of Roma or Travellers stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere. It might be hoped that, after the international attention paid to Irish cases, people will pause, if only momentarily, before blindly buying any old implausible story. Sadly, however, societies are notoriously resistant to accept or even consider evidence which challenges the ancient prejudices expressed in folklore (read some of the online commentary). Police and social workers are part of the folk too and, it seems, just as prone to fall for the same old myths as anyone else.