Evictions carry health risk for gypsy babies: Pregnant women, nursing mothers and small children are all suffering as a result of the practice of evicting travellers. Jack O'Sullivan reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN Gwendoline felt labour pains last week, she recognised the signs. After having five children, the 34-year-old gypsy woman headed for hospital. But she found no safe haven.

The Hammersmith Hospital, west London, where she was booked in, was out of the question. She and her family, uprooted by bailiffs and police 19 times in the last year, were miles away, at Colney Heath, near Hatfield, Hertfordshire.

Gwendoline arrived at 8pm on 15 July at the Queen Elizabeth II hospital trust, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, but after monitoring and tests, was informed she was not in labour. 'I was told to come back the next afternoon,' she said.

Lamarr Wharton, 20, a niece, explained: 'A nurse said that she could not just walk into the hospital whenever she liked and say she was going into labour.'

Gwendoline added: 'I said we were being moved on all the time by police, so I couldn't go to the hospital I was booked into. The nurse said: 'Tough luck'. I felt I was being treated like dirt.'

Arriving home, she was in agony. Ms Wharton said: 'She was in so much pain, she couldn't get out of the car.'

By 10.30pm she could not hold on. Ms Wharton said: 'We started back to the QEII but there was no way we could make it, so we went to St Albans hospital. The baby was being born in the car.'

Four minutes after Gwendoline's arrival, John Henry emerged, the umbilical cord around his neck. Nurses acted quickly and the baby is now fine, but the hospital, which does not have a maternity unit, had to call in help from Hemel Hempstead hospital, where Gwendoline was eventually transferred.

Last night, a spokesman for the QEII hospital said: 'We would never turn away a woman in labour and in this case a doctor would have assessed the lady. We will investigate her complaint, but I believe staff would always be polite to patients.' A day after the baby was born, police in riot gear unsuccessfully tried to evict Gwendoline's community, including her five other children, from Colney Heath. The gypsies, most of them born-again Christians, persuaded parish council officials to give them another few days. Yesterday, they left peacefully.

Such experience is common, because of policies to evict gypsy communities even when they include pregnant women and nursing mothers. This is despite legal requirements for evictions to be humane and that all government agencies should work together, under the Children Act, to safeguard the interests of children.

Frieda Shika, of Save the Children, which is campaigning against the evictions, said: 'Travellers have no choice but to stop at unauthorised sites because there are not enough legal sites. With all these evictions, we have health visitors saying they are unable to keep contact with women whose babies need checking.'

Anne, a 35-year-old mother of five, gave birth to Kaziah, a boy, on 11 June. On the same day, her family was evicted from a site near Chequers in Buckinghamshire. 'I did not know where my husband or my children were. Since February, I'd been losing weight from the worry. I just kept thinking what are we going to do next? Where are we going to next? We were having to move late at night so the police didn't follow us, which is bad for the children. We have had terrible struggles keeping them at the same school.'

Because of the evictions, medical staff did not spot for several weeks that Kaziah, who has had to be moved five times since his birth, had a hernia.

Anne's sister-in-law, who was among those evicted yesterday, is more than eight months pregnant. Frieda Shika said: 'She has severe asthma and a doctor's letter saying she should not moved. But that does not seem to make any difference to the authorities.'

(Photographs omitted)