A few weeks ago, Julie Broome, Ariadne member and Director of Programmes at the Sigrid Rausing Trust visited a village in Hungary where a number of Roma families live. This is her account of what she found:
Barbara is a petite woman with a strong handshake and a warm smile. As she ushers us into her living room and makes us comfortable with offers of coffee and cakes, it is difficult to believe that Barbara has had four children removed from her care by the local Hungarian authorities. And even more difficult to understand that the basis of that decision was the poor living standards that she and her husband allegedly provided. But that is the case not only for Barbara but for at least 11 Roma families living in this small village in Hungary.
On a recent visit with staff members of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union’s Roma programme, we sat with three couples who have had their children removed by the local child protective services. The youngest child of each family – and in one case the youngest two children – was removed at birth; the families were not even permitted to take the children home from the hospital. Those women who attended all of their pre-natal health visits were told that everything was fine and were only informed of the order to remove (in some cases made months in advance) when they went to the hospital to deliver. One young woman who missed one health check was informed seven months into her pregnancy that because she missed the check – thereby proving herself irresponsible – she would have to surrender her baby at birth. She was given no recourse or benchmarks to meet in order to prevent this outcome.
These women live in an ethnically mixed village comprising Hungarians and Roma, located in northeast Hungary and with a total population of about 2,000 people. There is little in the way of local employment opportunities, and the solution of the local authorities has been to create public works projects, which pay a barely liveable wage for temporary work on non-essential projects, such as cleaning the roadside. As one of the only sources of income, there is steep competition for places on these projects, though they may only provide employment for a couple of months per year. Unemployment in the village is high, and the standard of living among all residents – regardless of ethnicity – is low. However, it is only the Roma whose children are being removed as a result.
As we sat in Barbara’s living room, looking around at the carpeted floor, the sofa, and the armoire with a large collection of small plastic animals, perfect for entertaining children, we asked about the checks that social services have made at the house. We were told that the inspector makes unannounced (or shortly announced) visits, often on a Sunday evening, or even on Christmas, and that reasons proffered in the past for not passing the inspection include dust on top of the armoire, a lack of toothbrushes for the children (who were not in residence at the time), or a shortage of towels (based only on what was on display at the time). The women also described humiliating encounters with health professionals who insist that the women are not permitted to get pregnant again.
The children themselves are placed in foster families, usually with other Roma families, in other towns in the same region. Parents and children are able to meet for one hour per month in supervised visits at a community centre. Parents are occasionally granted permission to have the children at home for one week during school holidays. These provide an opportunity for the family to be together, but it is also confusing for the children, who want to know when they can come home permanently. Some of them get upset or even sick when it is time for them to go back to their foster homes.
As there have been no allegations of abuse against most of the families affected by this policy, and no evidence of real neglect, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this treatment is discriminatory. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) agrees and has been assisting some of the families to try to regain custody of their children. Barbara’s case is currently pending before the European Court of Human Rights, and the HCLU is filing a domestic civil case against the local child protection services for discrimination. It will be a long journey to fight these decisions through the court, but there seems little other hope for these families to get their children back in the face of policies that punish parents for being poor and being Roma.