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Czech Republic: Storm Brews Over Czech Child's 'Improper' Name

The case of a nine-month-old baby girl named "Midnight Storm" ("Pulnocni boure" in Czech) has been grabbing headlines in the Czech Republic. Midnight Storm was taken into state care last week -- not because she has been neglected or abandoned but because she has no documentation and her parents refuse to have her vaccinated. Local authorities say they acted in the child's interests, but children's charities have branded the treatment of Midnight Storm as scandalous. And they say it's not the first time an infant has been taken into state custody for the slimmest of reasons.

Prague, 1 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Midnight Storm's tussle with the local authorities started when her parents named her -- native-American-style -- after a storm that was thundering as she came into the world in a west Bohemian village last August.

The nine-month-old baby's parents espouse a back-to-nature lifestyle. For Midnight Storm, that meant a natural home birth, no vaccinations, and only one doctor's visit in nine months.

Midnight Storm is not a proper name, Czech or otherwise, so the authorities refused to register her and Midnight Storm was left without a birth certificate.

Local officials say they repeatedly tried to persuade Midnight Storm's parents to sort things out and bring their baby in for checkups -- but to no avail. So they asked the court to issue an order taking Midnight Storm into care.

Last week -- over the strenuous objections of her parents -- the baby was placed in a children's home.

Her mother, Blanka Fuxova, is allowed to stay with her -- but only because the baby is still breastfeeding.

There have been no allegations of neglect or abuse. By all accounts Midnight Storm has been well taken care of, and she and her mother are said to have a normal, healthy relationship.

What concerned the local social services was her lack of documentation and doctor's checkups. But what appears to have bothered them most of all is that the parents did not cooperate with officials. One told Czech TV: "From the very beginning the mother should have done what every parent does, that means go to the town hall, cooperate with the authorities, and arrange everything."

Marie Vodickova is chairwoman of the "Children in Danger Fund" (Fond ohrozenych deti), a children's charity. She says the authorities have been too heavy-handed. "The child was healthy, in good condition, and if there were problems with the birth certificate or with vaccinations -- there are thousands of children here whose parents refuse to have them vaccinated. You can debate whether this is right or wrong -- there are certainly arguments for and against -- but it's no reason to take the child into a home."

In fact a debate on children's vaccinations has started in the Czech Republic, where inoculations against diseases such as TB and whooping cough are compulsory. A group of alternative medicine practitioners last week launched a petition to scrap the compulsory system, citing risks of side effects. This echoes similar concerns in the U.K., after a single study -- widely criticized by experts and government officials -- appeared to show a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination and autism. Doctors there and in the Czech Republic stress it is far more risky to leave a child unprotected.

Tamara Seidlova heads the Social Services Department of the Klatovy district council, which recommended the district court order Midnight Storm be placed in care.

Asked why, she said: "Because the child had no documents for nine months. I think that's serious enough. And there had been no health checkup performed -- none -- because the family refused. So I think this was life threatening for the child."

Asked if Midnight Storm might not be better off with her family than in an institutional home, Feidlova responded: "Of course, as long as the family fulfills its function."

By law a child should be in a situation perilous to its life or health before it is taken into care. But charity head Vodickova says there are more cases like Midnight Storm's, where courts are often unwilling to go against the recommendation of the social services.

She says that even a family financial crisis is enough to have a child taken away. She cites the case of a one-year-old girl put in a children's home in Prague in January because her 17-year-old mother had lost her documents.

The often very slow judicial system means appeals can drag on. The ombudsman's office can sometimes help, but that can take time too. And even if the child is returned to the family, the damage has already been done, Vodickova says.

"These children go though a terrible trauma, then in a few weeks or months a grandmother or the other parent, say, might get the child. But staying in the children's home and the crazy situation where he was snatched away -- which the child must perceive as a kidnapping -- you can't ever wipe that away."

Vodickova says stricter deadlines for courts ruling on appeals would help cut the number of these cases, which she puts in the hundreds. She also suggests setting up a nationwide child protection bureau that would have some authority over district social services.

That will take time -- if it happens at all. But at least for Midnight Storm there may be some fresh hope. Czech TV reported on 30 April that her parents have given up the fight and picked a new -- this time hopefully acceptable -- name for her, "Eliska Gaja."