EMMI sued for taking away too many Roma children from their families due to poverty

March 28, 2018

EMMI sued for taking too many Roma children taken away from their families due to poverty
Photo: abcug.hu

“The Hungarian child protection system offers removal rather than prevention as an answer to extreme poverty. We can catch this bad practice red-handed anywhere in the country, not just in Nógrád. We would like to change the system with this lawsuit.” – ERRC attorney

Translation of “Neither a bathtub nor a bed – they’re taking Roma children away” appearing in online daily abcug.hu on March 13th, 2018.

Child protection experts in Nógrád county are removing too many Roma children from their families, most of them because of poverty. That’s the allegation by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), based on a comprehensive study, which filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Human Resources (EMMI) in December. The ERRC wants the courts to declare that the system is unlawful, and for something to finally change in the child protection field after so many years. For now it looks like the government is trying to handle child poverty by taking children from their families.

I don’t consider this a problem [that is, that there’s no bed or bathtub, etc.] because that’s their culture. They’ve been living this way for centuries, that’s how they raise their children. (…) A lot of families don’t have those tools (bed, bathtub) which we would expect, and as a result, recommendations are made for removing the children. But these are economic problems to which we don’t react by initiating removal, but by helping the parents to be able to care for their children in the most suitable way. (…) Whether a child ends up in specialized care or not depends on the personality of the professional (the family care specialist) and who they are. Each one has a different tolerance limit for how long a child can remain in their family.” (child welfare basic care associate)

– excerpt from a study by the Chances for Children Association (Gyerekesély Közhasznú Egyesület)

The European Roma Rights Centre filed a lawsuit against EMMI because they believe the child protection institutions of Nógrád county, which are under EMMI’s direction, are taking children away from their families based on the social origins and economic circumstances of their parents. For a decade, the organization has been researching the proportions of Roma children in child protection specialized care, the reasons for this, and who is responsible. According to every study, Roma children represented a majority of those in specialized care programs, and in the most recent study conducted in Nógrád county, the proportion of Roma children was nearly 80 percent. This fact helped form the basis for the lawsuit.

Nógrád is one of the most disadvantaged counties in Hungary. It lags far behind in development, and it is the sixth-worst county in Hungary in terms of purchasing power. It is characterized by persistent income poverty, low levels of education, an unfavorable labor market and poor housing conditions. The proportion of Roma in the county, nearly 20 percent of the total population, is significantly higher than the national average.

The proportion of Roma children among those that are taken away from their families – 80 percent – can still not be explained by the high proportion of gypsies in the county, nor by the deep poverty that afflicts the majority of the gypsy population in the affected villages. The situation, however, according to the opinions of local experts, is not a new development: it has essentially been the norm for decades.

“The study completely covers children under child protection specialized care and gives a comprehensive picture of specialized care in Nógrád county. A data sheet was written for all 308 children, the questions of which were filled out partially by child protection staff and partially by colleagues who manage the records of the county TEGYESZ (Child protection services) office,” ERRC attorney Judit Gellér told Abcúg.

The data collection and conversations produced the following results:

  • It is fundamental to the spirit of the child protection law that children may not be removed from their families because of poverty, but despite this, poverty or extreme poverty are present in most cases of removal. Most Roma children are removed from their families for economic reasons, but prejudice against them also ranks strongly among the other causes. The leading cause of removal is the neglect and endangerment of the children and “parental incapability.”
  • Much rarer justifications are the parents’ physical or mental condition or substance addiction, deviant behavior of the child, the social and housing situation of the child, or physical abuse. A majority of children coming into specialized care are never placed back with their families.
  • At the same time, the data analysis and the interviews suggest that the parents and children maintain very strong relationships. It seems clear that this is not primarily a question of poor relationships between parents and children, but about environmental circumstances like insufficient income, unfavorable labor markets and insufficient housing conditions. The circumstances of affected families and the presence of various problems are almost the same among gypsy and non-gypsy families, but parental neglect and endangerment (the “parents-family problem”) are somewhat more common as causes for removal among Roma families than among non-Roma
  • Those interviewed were, almost without exception, experts with a high level of professionalism, but their views were often prejudicial. Some of the experts themselves admitted that the value system of the Roma was the main reason for the children being brought into the system.

“The Hungarian child protection system offers removal rather than prevention as an answer to extreme poverty. We can catch this bad practice red-handed anywhere in the country, not just in Nógrád. We would like to change the system with this lawsuit,” said the organisation’s attorney. They don’t claim that every case of a child’s removal from their family is an evil, forbidden thing, but they say that a child’s best interests must be taken into account in every case, and preventative support must be offered to families and decisions shouldn’t be made from behind a desk, which unfortunately often happens. “The current Hungarian child protection system focuses much more on the child’s economic welfare than on the child’s well-being, which includes emotional welfare. This comes in at the bottom of the system of considerations, if it even comes up at all as a factor,” Judit Gellér said.

She says it’s a problem that neglect as a cause for intervention is a very foggy category. “What do we call neglect? It makes subjective judgments possible, so that a dirty room or crumbling plaster could give a reason on that basis to take a child away from their family.” One staff member who spoke in the study and who works in child protection specialized care had a similar opinion:

“The parents are completely opposed to the removal of the children. They don’t consider themselves at fault for their children having to be referred. Because they don’t understand why the apartment can’t be dirty. Because for them it isn’t dirt, they don’t experience it as dirty.”

The organization believes that the ministry is responsible for the system persisting like this. “EMMI’s responsibility is that as the director of the social sector, it tolerates and maintains the child protection organizations’ discriminative removal practices. It should be its task to continually monitor the practice and to give professional assistance to the guardianship authorities so that the families can be kept together. As the ombudsman indicated, removal that can be traced back to poverty is a countrywide problem, which the ministry is aware of but still doesn’t act against and doesn’t provide the conditions that have preventative force and serve to raise the child in the family,” said Adél Kegye, the organization’s legal representative.

This is why the lawsuit is against EMMI, and individual cases are not being brought before the court. This is a systemic problem that families fall victim to. The goal of the lawsuit is to call attention to the poor operation of the system, even if the ombudsman’s report and the five-yearly report of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child – which showed that the proportion of Roma children under child protection is high – did not manage to push decision-makers to action.

The organization would like, among other things, for the ministry to suspend the unlawful practice, to assemble a professional working group made up of civil organizations and experts, and to entrust that group with developing a guidebook for child protection professionals on avoiding child removal based on economic considerations and national origins. Additionally, they would prepare an action plan on the suspension of removals based on economic and nationality factors that complies with international standards of child protection and fundamental rights.

The organization’s representatives understand that since the lawsuit is about changing the entire system, it could be difficult to inspect and check on whether the court’s verdict is being upheld. Similar problems came up in a recent Curia decision as well when the court required the responsible ministry and the Kaposvár municipal government to close a segregationist school in Kaposvár and to prepare a desegregation plan. We wrote about the difficulties involved in the adherence to and execution of the verdict in this article.

“This has to be a process. We don’t expect everything to change from one day to the next. But maybe now we’ve at least set something in motion,” Judit Gellér added.