Unprotected – Being a Roma in Institutional Care in Hungary
There is a long-held consensus among child protection experts that all children need family care. However, according to estimates based on most recent findings, Romani children are more than twice as likely to enter the child protection system, are less likely to be adopted but much more endangered of being labeled with a mental disability or special learning need in comparison to non-Roma children. Reforms are in the planning but, due to the lack of structural changes, it seems unlikely that the perspectives of Romani children will improve significantly.
It is a widely held view in capitalist societies that if you are talented and hard-working enough you will advance in life, no matter what. Granted, there are Roma artists or intellectuals who were raised in children’s homes and became a master of their profession or gained word-wide recognition. For instance, children’s book writer and human rights activist Katharina Taikon – who became world-famous as author of the cultic Katitzi-series in the 70s in Sweden – belonged to those generations of Roma who were taken from their families for the purpose of integration. In the name of politics of forced assimilation, she was first given to a care family who ran a circus and then to a children’s home. The works of Hungarian painter József Ferkovics were displayed in three different continents. Still, when the time came, after high-school, to make a decision on what profession to choose, the leader of the children’s home where he grew up decided not to allow him to apply to the art college in Pécs but sent him to a training program for miners instead. Before being honored with the most prestigious awards and doing restoration work at the Versailles Palace in France and in the Vatican, Árpád Rostás had spent his childhood as an orphan in a children’s home with 200 other children.
These stories serve as remarkable examples for Romani children in state care and they could also be valuable as they can positively contribute to shaping how the majority of society thinks about these children. However, the fact remains that these stories could easily be misinterpreted by the majority and serve not as sources of inspiration but as a ground for making broad generalizations where they can be more harmful than beneficial. Individualist narratives which support the idea that, if doing their best, Romani children under state care will advance in life divert attention away from the structural discrimination Romani children face in the child protection system.
Taking a closer look at the everyday experience of children in state care reveals that stories of success are becoming harder and harder to find. The reason behind this is not the decreasing number of talented children but is deeply rooted in deficiencies of the state care system which greatly hinders Romani children’s progress in establishing their identity as a Roma as well as in improving their abilities. The problem – as we will see – is a systemic one, which implies that the only efficient solutions are those that bring about fundamental changes. However, a major concern is that, due to the lack of relevant data, it is impossible to work out comprehensive, global solutions, even if there was any intent on purging discrimination in the first place. Though, as recent studies show, the plight of these children remains especially acute.
What researches suggest
Since Hungarian legislation on the child protection system severely restricts the validity of existing researches, before further elaborating on the literature in detail, we need to take a closer look at specific Hungarian laws.
The legal protection of children is ensured by various national and international laws, such as the European Convention on Human Rights or the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the latter of which, in its ninth article, states that a child shall only be separated from his or her parents if it serves his or her best interests. The principle of protecting the children is also to be found in the Hungarian Constitution. An important milestone in the development of state care system was Act XXXI of 1997 on the Protection of Children and Guardianship Administration. The Child Protection Act laid down the legal foundations of the institutional structure of the child protection system and it also declared that children shall not be separated primarily on grounds of poor financial conditions.
Still, a major problem lies in the regulation, as the Child Protection Act does not allow the collection of special data on children in state care. Since the new Act on the Protection of Personal Data handles the affiliation to a national or ethnic minority as a special form of protected data, we find ourselves in a situation where, in Hungary, it is legally ensured that there are no officially available records on the number of Romani children in state care.
According to the annual report of the Institution for Family Politics, there are currently approximately 21,500 children in the child protection system. The numbers appear reassuring, with the number of children in children’s homes constantly decreasing and the number of adopted children growing, since 2010, by one hundred each year. This data presents the child protection system as if it were functional, lacking signs of any malfunctions or weaknesses and seem to follow the logic according to which if discrimination is not measurable, it won’t be mentioned in the reports and it certainly does not exist, at all.
Between 2007 and 2011, four studies have been conducted to explore the situation of Romani children in state care. All these researches found that, compared to their peers, Romani children face severe discrimination of various forms in the child protection system.
In a survey conducted in 2007, Mária Neményi and Vera Messing revealed that Romani children are disproportionately overrepresented in professional care compared to their proportion in the population. According their results, they are 2.5 times more likely to enter the child protection system than non-Roma children. Their findings are based on a survey covering a sample of more than 1,800 children. Same year, a comprehensive research was carried out by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), with the involvement of around one hundred experts. Among the findings was the fact that there is a higher probability of Romani children being placed in a children’s home instead of receiving a foster family: 58% of the children interviewed in children’s homes from their sample were Romani. According to their subsequent research four years later this figure has increased to 66 % by 2010.
Moreover, the ERRC-reports revealed many other harsh discriminatory practices: they found that Romani children are mostly taken from their family primarily based on financial grounds, such as extreme poverty, in spite of this practice being banned by law. Additionally, they have greater chances of being labeled with a mental disability and are less likely to be adopted than non-Roma children. The latter revelation strikes as quite odd, seeing how, according the Child Protection Act, the ethnic affiliation of the child is officially qualified as protected data. In these cases, – as these reports revealed – adoption workers simply informally inform the adoptive parents about the children’s ethnicity.
Causes and explanations for over-representation
Experts’ opinions on what could best explain the extremely high numbers of Romani children in state care are greatly divided. The study of Mária Herzcog and Mária Neményi –based on focus group discussions with 67 child protection experts – found that the interviewed experts’ view on the issue was that overrepresentation of Romani children has nothing to do with the functioning of the child protection system. Interestingly though, these considerations were seriously challenged by the ERRC-reports. Their conclusions are quite the opposite. Findings suggests that the most common reasons for the over-representation of Romani children in the child protection system include bad family circumstances, poor school attendance, the deficiencies of state care system and the prejudices of the state care workers.
On the one hand, the Hungarian child protection system seems to easily be able to recognize poverty when it comes to the act of separating children from their families on the grounds of poor financial conditions. At the same time, however, the bureaucratic apparatus tends to be entirely ignorant of the circumstances that cause poverty and does not want to deal with other key factors such as high unemployment rates, stigmatization of minorities or discrimination of Roma people at work which play enormous role in reproducing poverty.
School absenteeism is dealt with in a fairly similar manner. Above a certain extent, being out of school is severely punished. Less attention is paid, however, to reasons why children are absent from school. Is it maybe because Roma children of poor families have often no proper clothing in harsh winter or is it the feeling of constant abuse coming from their classmates or from the teacher that distract them away from going to school? Since officially teachers are not required to visit their pupils’ families, and no other mechanism of control over the causes exists, the real reasons behind school absenteeism remain unclear most of the time.
The critique of the child protection system’s financing: expensive and inefficient
Studies have also revealed that both child protection workers and social workers often hold deep-seated prejudices against Romani people. In spite of this, in order to become a foster parent it is still not legally prescribed to complete anti-discrimination trainings before occupying such a position.
A real difficulty lies in the lack of programs for maintaining children’s Roma identity. While foster families are usually chosen out only if the development of the children’s ethnic identity is ensured, in the vast majority of the Hungarian children’s homes there is not enough attention paid to the regular organization of Roma cultural programs.
The Hungarian professional child care system could also be heavily criticized as costly and inefficient. A recent comparative study on child protection systems in post-soviet countries arrived at the conclusion that in all examined countries the costs of the separation of families were significantly higher than keeping them united. The expenses of maintaining a children’s home proved to be exceedingly expensive in comparison to all other types of professional care institutions. A child growing up in a foster family could be one fifth cheaper for the state, with subsidies for these families being offered in non-monetary forms, such as social housing rent subsidy, could drive the efforts even lower, to one eighth of the original cost.
These numbers are even more saddening if we look at the findings of studies on the integration level in children in state care. A 2012 study found that the vast majority of youngsters couldn’t cope with fulfilling their role as an adult after they have left the child protection system. What’s worse, these persons remain dependent on the constant support of the welfare system. If not so, they are increasingly exposed to become a long-term unemployed or a low-paid wage-worker.
Reflecting on the high maintaining costs and the low-efficiency of the child protection system, reforms has been constantly undertaken in the past two decades. However, these changes were mostly the by-products of budget-limiting solutions, neglecting any arguments put forward by experts. Currently, the Hungarian child care system appears to tend toward state centralization. Fundamental reforms will be introduced by next January, yet precise details are still under development and are unknown to the public, as well as to experts themselves. Be that as it may, the goals of the planned changes appear to be promising: to simplify the bureaucratic administration process of adoption, to make it easier and more appealing to become professional foster parents and to place every under 12 years old child to foster families.
However, as long as the vast majority of child protection experts ignore discriminatory practices of the institutional care system and as long as policy-makers and politicians are completely unwilling to comprehend and improve the opportunities of Romani children in abject poverty, things are unlikely to change in any significant manner. More precisely, if reforms are not supported with a more comprehensive welfare assistance which includes subsidies for families in bad living conditions, whatever changes may come will be insufficient, resulting in the professional care system still not being able to reduce the growing gap between children and only leading to the perpetuation of existing social inequalities.
Written by Bálint Németh
Neményi M., Messing V., 2007. Gyermekvédelem és esélyegyenlőség. Kapocs 6. 1. sz. 2-19.
ERRC.2007. Dis-interest of the Child: Romani Children in the Hungarian Child Protection. Available: http://www.errc.org/cms/upload/media/02/8F/m0000028F.pdf
ERCC. 2011. Life Sentence: Romani Children in State Care in Hungary. Available: http://www.errc.org/cms/upload/file/life-sentence-romani-children-in-state-care-in-hungary-20-june-2011.pdf
 Herczog M., Neményi M. 2007. Roma gyermekek a gyermekvédelemben. Család,gyermek, ifjúság, 16. 6. sz. 6-12.
 ERRC. 2007, ERCC. 2011.
Carter D., 2005. Family Matters: A study of institutional childcare in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Every Child, London. Elérhető: http://p-ced.com/reference/Family_Matters_summary.pdf
Csurgó B., Hodosán R., Rácz A., Szombathelyi Sz., 2012. Gyermekvédelemben nevelkedtek társadalmi integrációs esélyei. Gyermek és ifjúságvédelmi tanulmányok. Rubeus Egyesület. Elérhető: http://oszkdk.oszk.hu/storage/00/00/50/14/dd/1/24426_gyermek_es_ifjusagvedelmi_tanulmanyok_elso_kotet.pdf