Italy expands controversial program to take mafia children from their families before they become criminals

More than 200 people sentenced in Italy mafia trial

Rome — Italy has not only renewed but decided to expand a controversial program to remove children from their mafia families to break the cycle of criminal behavior being passed down to new generations.

The "Free to Choose" project has been in place in the Calabria region — the base of the powerful 'Ndragheta crime syndicate — since 2012. Now, it will be extended to the Sicily and the Campania regions, respectively home to the notorious Cosa Nostra and Camorra mafias.

The aim of the program is to remove children from the mob culture they were born into and break the generational cycle of crime, giving the children a chance to live a normal life.

Authorities can only remove a child if they can prove to a court that they're physically or mentally endangered by their family's criminality. Police and social workers then swoop in without warning and take the child away. The families have no say in the matter.

People take part in a demonstration on Italy's National Day of Remembrance and Commitment to Remembering the Victims of the Mafia, March 21, 2024 in Rome. Stefano Montesi/Corbis via Getty

So far, 150 children have been removed from their families and placed in foster care in secret locations around the country. Thirty mothers have chosen to join their children, with seven also agreeing to act as witnesses for state prosecutors.

"This is a historic moment in the fight against the mafia," Justice Minister Carlo Nordio said at the signing of the document extending the program, which was attended by five government ministers and the Italian Bishops Conference.  "The fight against the mafias is also fought by opening new paths to generations capable of freely deciding which future to live."

Roberto di Bella, who founded the program, said at the signing ceremony that during his 25 years as a juvenile court judge in Calabria, he found himself trying fathers, and then their sons. 

"We tried boys for trying to kill their mothers who wanted to separate from their mafia husbands," he said. With the Free to Choose program, he said, "we set out to change life trajectories that would otherwise have been inevitable."

"There are children being taught to shoot at eight years old. There are children dealing crack at eight years old," said Chiara Colosimo, head of the Italian parliament's anti-mafia commission.

Di Bella said he'd been contacted by some mothers asking for help in saving their children from mob indoctrination. He said he'd even received letters from several mafia bosses thanking him for giving their children a chance at a different life.

But the scheme has also drawn criticism, with some arguing that even mobsters have the right to be fathers.

A crackdown, and Italy's evolving mafia landscape

Italy has waged a concerted law enforcement crackdown on organized crime in recent years, and it has led not only to hundreds of arrests and prosecutions, but a shift in the entire mafia landscape.

In September, Matteo Messina Denaro, a convicted mastermind of some of the most heinous murders carried out by Cosa Nostra and considered Italy's No. 1 fugitive, died in a prison hospital just a few months after being captured. He'd spent decades on the run.

Italian police capture mafia boss after 30 years on the run

A long-ignored crime syndicate based in southern Italy's Puglia region, known as the Fourth Mafia, has emerged in recent years as the country's most violent mafia.

One of the leaders of the group, based in the town of Foggia, escaped from a maximum security prison in 2023 by tying bed sheets together, but was captured in France in February.

The clans based in and around Foggia — though less sophisticated than the 'Ndrangheta, the Camorra or the Cosa Nostra crime syndicates — are said to rely on extortion, bombings and threats to extort residents.


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