Record numbers of Hungarian children, newborns ending up in state care

May 8, 2015

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Record numbers of Hungarian children are being taken from their families.

“Hungary’s child protection services were nationalized in January 2013.  With that we threw out the baby with the bath water.”  – Léna Szilvási, SOS Children Villages, Hungary

Translation of Illés Szurovecz’s “We drag the children over the coals until all hope is lost” (“Parázson égetjük a családokat, míg minden reményt elveszítenek”) published by abcug.hu on 5 May 2015.

Employees of the child protection service write papers and argue over minor things.  Meanwhile, the children are the worst affected.  Léna Szilvási, program development director of SOS Children’s Villages, has been working on this field for decades. In her opinion what is happening in the field of child protection is a disaster, even if Hungary’s system of social services is more extensive than that of most neighboring countries.  The failed system change, the bureaucracy and the impotence has made everyone fed up.  And the helplessness has been inherited for generations.

According to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office (KSH) the incidence of taking children away from families continuously decreased until the 2000’s. Now there are 17-18 thousand children in the child protection system.  And the number continues to grow, reaching 19,000 in 2013.  Why is this?

The big decline was mostly due to the child protection law of 1997 which create the child welfare institutions and stipulated that no child could be removed from his or her family merely on account of poverty. The decline was also a result of the lower number of births. However, it would be wrong to make long term assumptions based on the increase of the past years. Actually numbers are not the real problem.

Is it right to place five thousand child into state care every year?

In the developed countries approximately 1 percent of the child population has to be taken away from their families and put under state care. In Hungary the number is slightly higher than that, so there is plenty of work ahead, but we do not have to expect significant decrease.

More and more newborns being taken into state care.  Why is that?

It means that the society is drastically split. Many families live in such bad conditions that neither they nor the experts have enough capacity. This is the tragedy. Sometimes the health visitors and the child welfare services take the newborn into state care right after birth, because they cannot see any chance of the family providing for its upbringing. And maybe this is not right. In my opinion if we could provide sufficient quantity and quality support for the pregnant women, fewer newborns should be taken away from their parents.

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What kind of assistance can be provided?

My dream is to establish what I saw 30 years ago in a maternity ward in the USA. There was a voluntary group of 20 dealing with 20 young mothers living in the ghetto, and they built up a friendly relationship, met couple of hours every week. Their children played together, they went to the cinema together, and it meant a strong connection to the world outside the ghetto. This kind of intensive thinking is missing in Hungary.

I knew a women who gave birth to her twins in 1993 and she finished the special school. She lived in a rented apartment with her husband who abused them. Fortunately they could get rid of him, but soon the third child arrived and she could not pay the rent any more and the calvary began. She got into a mother’s shelter.  After a while she had to leave, so she went to relatives to the countryside, and so on. She spent seven years wandering from home to home, from relative to relative, and it was terrible for the children. She seized every opportunity the system offered, but only this kind of help would have enabled her to normalize the situation of her family in time. These children are in their 20’s now.  They have low qualifications and live in bad neighborhoods. Most likely they will become young parents and the same story might be repeated with their children.

What could have been done?

The elimination of social flats should have been offset.  Even though the child welfare services were established in the early 2000’s no one can expect them to provide flats and create jobs. If there were programs intended to help them find accommodations, they might be motivated. But nothing happens.

This is the responsibility mostly of the governments.  And it is unlikely that more jobs or social rental apartments will be available. How could the situation be improved or solved?

In Hungary the provisional system is very extensive but it does not work well. Let’s take a look at the health visitor system, which is internationally acknowledged but it is defective precisely where it should be the most important. Why is it good? We know exactly where the highest poverty is and where the most newborns are, still the health visitors have the biggest burdens on these areas. We would need much more health visitors in Borsod County than in the bigger cities to improve the situation. Moreover, many deal with one family which makes the whole process difficult.

According to another child protection expert, Magda Révész, the advantage is the system is that there are many participants in it so they may make less mistakes.

That is right, but if they do not cooperate with each other it is useless. In Hungary the culture of cooperation is low.  If a child gets into the system he or she will meet the health visitor, the family assistant, the expert from the child welfare service, the expert’s committee, the child protection office … Ten people have opinion on one family, but if they do not trust each other or act in cooperated manner then the situation will only be more complicated. The families frequently complain that each expert and institutions tells them something different. Many times they do not think about preventing the real problems, but once the child is taken away from the family, the assistance ends. Sooner or later everybody will be tired of it. It is not enough to visit them very second week.  We have to grab the broom and the mother and we have to tell them what it means to raise three children. Actually we rake the families over the embers until the problem is so huge that there is no choice other than to take the children into state care.

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What is the biggest problem of the system? 

It is too slow and the relevant information is frequently lost between the different services. Usually the children are registered as “endangered” for years, the processes are stretched and the services always evaluate something, sending documents to each other which are sometimes read, sometimes not. This is the responsibility of mainly the leaders. There is only a very few of them who could organize the services and could overview the system. The mental capacity is there.  It just needs to be exploited. The system is fragmented and lot of energy flows away unnecessarily. And of course there are missing services as well. For example there is no place where abused children can be sent.

One of the reasons for centralization could be to change these things.

The child protection services were nationalized in January 2013. With that we threw out the baby with the bath water. Earlier even the poorest local governments were left alone.  Now the system is overruled.  Sure, it could work well.  But in spite of the built up institutional hierarchy, the local offices are still not operating well, and they cannot coordinate their cooperation. They should know the county-level needs, where they need what, but they have no clue about it, and even the participants do not have an overview of the system… Sometimes the child protection offices spend two months deciding which one of them has competency to decide in a case of a minor’s adoption.

Isn’t it clear? 

If a family registers its official address incorrectly and lives somewhere else, then it is not clear. And this is pretty common in Hungary. And for months nothing happens with the child, although in cases of the smallest children the fastest decision is required.

You mentioned that the law prohibits taking children into state care just because the parents are poor. In fact it happens many times. Where is the borderline? 

Well, it is not easy to answer.  It depends on the age of the children as well. Children has a totally different sense of time than adults. If I am late a week with something maybe my boss will scold me, but the world does not end. In case of a newborn sometimes a decision has to be made within hours if there is a problem. But the process is not tailored like that. In the US if a children is taken into state custody, the case has to be on court within 48 hours where the jury inspects whether the family caretaker was careful or not. Assuming the mother is found drunk, the father is nowhere, and the kid is unattended. In 24 hours a decision has to be made.

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Is it possible? 

Yes it is, providing the cases are not drawn like in Hungary. Here we do not use the focused risk analysis and the decisions are made after weekly or monthly visits. Once the decision is made, no one checks if it was the right decision or not. If they decide not to take the child away from the family, then an intervention is needed. It is not enough to send the parents to different authorities. We need an intensive care if we want to prevent the trouble. Even if there were some model programs, there are no funds allocated for them and the system will not realize what is necessary and will not recognize what the quality programs are. That is why we at SOS introduced a so-called family enforcement program with which to fill this gap.

How will it work? 

We say, all right: there is an overburdened child welfare system which cannot help the families with sufficient strength and energy. That is why we try to fulfill the gaps and, together with the child welfare services, we provide intensive assistance to the families. In the Southern city of Orosháza we will have a team of two, maybe three. They will conduct personalized trainings for the parents and children in the most severe crisis. If a trustful relationship exists, everything is much easier, but we need the continuous contact. We also have a program at Kecskemét: we established a temporary shelter where we provide assistance for the parents to set their own life and create a stable daily routine during which time the children are temporary accommodated.

Assuming there is no other solution left and the child has to be taken into state care, what happens with the child? 

Many of them end up with foster parents because fortunately that is a well operating system. Much better than in the neighboring countries where they still fight with demolishing the huge institutions. Officially, we cannot send children under 12 to receptive homes only to foster parents.

Does it work in practice? 

No, but it is a fact that there are big differences between the counties. For example in Bács-Kiskun County there are relatively few receptive homes so the little children usually go to those foster parents who already raise other children for 5-6 years. But for them it is not a good situation if a smaller child “pops in” for 1-2 months. Their daily routine is changed. That is why we would need a team of foster parents who are dealing only with children in crisis situation.

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If there is no free space at foster parents the child has to go to receptive shelter. What happens there? 

Officially a children can be in a group home for 30 days. (A group home shall be a children’s home offering care providing a home to a maximum of 12 children in an individual apartment or house, in a family-like environment. – ed.)  After that the child must be given over to foster parents or, if the child is older, either to a transitional apartment or back to the family. However, I met many teenagers who complained that instead of the promised 30 days they ended up waiting six months for the decision. We have the same problem here as I mentioned earlier: the child’s interest is not advocated, the decision making takes too long which is very harmful for the child. I met a mother sentenced to jail who was allowed to raise her newborn in the jail. She was sentenced for sixteen months but according to the law the children can only be in for 12 months. They knew it however the child protection services started to look for foster parents for four months only at the last minute. So the one year old child did not see her mother for three months. Had they been thinking in time it could have been avoided that the kid cried for seven days at the foster parents.

What are the chances of a child returning to his or her family after being taken into state custody?

Not good enough. If the parents can improve the situation and get the child back, the story is not over. In this case they also need intense assistance. I saw many cases when a mother get back three children after two years and has to be a mother of a big family from one day to another. This is a very significant change and the children bring new samples and expectations from where they came. The parents and the children have to learn again how to live together.

Do the families get any help for this? 

The foster parents try to re-habituate the children to the family, but this is not enough. I remember a case when an eleven years old girl got home from a group home. Her only desire was to get back to her original family, but she had friends in the group home and she also liked the adults in the group home. However she could never go back to see them as there was nobody accompanying her. Why do we act as though the four years she spent separated would not be important? Children are not objects. At least three months of monitoring the re-integration would be necessary. In case we do not intervene at the right time in the right way, we just create more children with special needs. Although we are aware that pediatric psychology practically does not work in Hungary.