ON a golden summer evening, a tourist crouches in a narrow cobbled street, aiming his camera at the sunlit dome of one of the loveliest baroque churches in Rome. Before he can shoot, he is surrounded by a group of ragged, dirty children who seem to have appeared out of nowhere. They jostle him, aggressively, holding out hands and speaking in broken, heavily accented Italian. One of them shoves a sheet of cardboard at him, hitting him with it at hip level. On it is scrawled, in English, ``We are poor - please give money.''
Before he can fumble for change, the children are gone in a whirl of long skirts, bare feet, matted hair, and laughter. He continues taking pictures. Only later does he discover that his wallet was neatly lifted from his pants pocket.
``All Gypsies are thieves,'' says Signora Halilovic, a stout Gypsy from Yugoslavia, echoing the view of many Italians. ``We don't work, we don't have houses, we live on the land. I've been here 25 years. I've never worked. I have nine children. They steal wallets, jewelry - just to live, to buy a bit of bread.''
Though public opinion is heavily weighted against the Gypsies, there are some Italians who feel that it is not the nomads who are exclusively to blame. The Gypsies' treatment at the hands of Italian society and the gradual disappearance of their traditional nomadic means of livelihood, these observers say, drives them to strike out in antisocial acts.
Robberies by Gypsy children, most of them from Yugoslavia, are a daily occurence in Italian cities. Local authorities estimate there are 4,000 to 5,000 Gypsy children in Rome who steal regularly in the streets. A group of six children usually commits about 15 robberies per day, according to a municipal judge in Rome. Invariably, the children are under 14 years old, and cannot be prosecuted by law.
Last April, after an exhaustive police investigation, 15 adult Gypsies were tried for sending their children out to rob. The children testified to being beaten if they returned home empty handed. The adults were sentenced to prison, to be followed by deportation to Yugoslavia. The children were placed with other Gypsy families. The street thefts go on as before.
Large numbers of Gypsies come and go over the Yugoslav border every year. Under Italian law, if they present a passport and register with the police within six months of arrival, they can obtain a residency permit and are allowed to work. But many do not have passports, few register, and almost all live as nomads. It is impossible for the government to keep track of numbers or provide services.
Judge Nitto Francesco Palma presided at the April trial of the 15 Gypsy adults. He was appalled at the children's account of their living conditions.
``I saw little children - some as young as 7 - with very intelligent eyes, very quick,'' Judge Palma says. ``But they were all undernourished, barely clothed, filthy, illiterate. They lived in total degradation. Their life consisted mostly of getting beaten in the morning so they would go out and steal, and getting beaten in the evening if they hadn't stolen enough.''
Palma feels little can be done to stop child crime in Rome. ``Exploitation of children is part of the Gypsy way of life as far as I can tell,'' he says. ``So ... there's not much that can be done. It's an ineradicable tradition.''
He admits authorities could crack down more on street theft, but says the police have more pressing problems, such as organized crime and terrorism.
Claudio Betti is a volunteer at a church-based community-service group that provides informal schooling to Gypsy children. He says the children are ostracized by students, and even teachers, in public schools, and therefore rarely attend.
``I've been a high school teacher for four years,'' he says. ``I once asked my pupils what they thought about Gypsies. Of more than 500 ..., not one defended them. Some said they should all have been killed.''
Mr. Betti also points out that the Gypsies' traditional means of livelihood have vanished with industrialization, and since many cling to a nomadic life style, they are hard pressed to feed their families.
``All the work the Gypsies used to do, like making pots or raising horses, has been destroyed by the change of society,'' he says. ``Nobody uses horses [or] ... handmade metal pots. These jobs ... were suited to the Gypsies' nomadic way of life. Nomads can't go and work in a factory.'' Integration as a solution
Some Italians would like to cut off the problem at its source - by keeping the Gypsies out of Italy. But Judge Giuseppe Santarsiero of Rome's Juvenile Court says that is impracticable.
``These poor Gypsies are expelled from Yugoslavia, so they come to Italy,'' says Judge Santarsiero. ``Many times we have said to the immigration authorities, `Take them back home.' They took them to the border, and the Yugoslav authorities gave them documents and sent them back to us.''
Santarsiero believes the solution lies in humanely integrating the Gypsies into Italian society. He believes it is poverty that makes them steal, not tradition.
``The exploitation of children is typical of an impoverished society,'' says the judge, who grew up in Lucania, in one of Italy's most depressed rural communities. ``I see the conditions of the Gypsies as similar to those of the peasants who migrated north from the south of Italy.''
``If we consider the problem purely from a criminal point of view, the state's only response would be repression, arrest, and imprisonment,'' he says. ``I say that the best solution is to help the Gypsies find their own place, taking into account that they are nomads, but helping them integrate ... into society. Some have already done this.
``The Juvenile Court organized a conference in which we urged people to recognize the marginalization and persecution in which these Gypsies live,'' he says. ``They are our society's untouchables.''
The purpose of the conference was to persuade local authorities and communities near Gypsy camps to provide job opportunities, better treatment from institutions such as schools, and sanitary facilities.
Santarsiero points out that in some north Italian communities, notably Turin, local authorities have persuaded Gypsies to stop stealing and accept work other than their traditional kinds of occupation.
But in Rome, ``there's a lot of resistance [among] the local population that has to be overcome,'' he says. ``Often we're talking about slum populations who have passed through the same experience of poverty as the Gypsies, but who have forgotten what it was like.
``I'm not saying that these Gypsies are little angels, ... They're very clever at finding ways to survive,'' Santarsiero says. ``But most of them are poor people who need help. And you have to help them, that's what I think. A civilized nation is known for the way it cares for people - even the poorest.''