Removed from the Family: A Child Welfare Story from Hungary

Why does Hungary's Guardianship Authority remove children from a family that intends to take care of them? The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union has followed up on one outrageous case.

A child is born in mid-November 2013 so quickly that his 17-year-old mother feels almost no pain and the ambulance arrives fifteen minutes late. When the ambulance does arrive, the normal course of events does not follow: Hungary’s child protection service, the Guardianship Authority, is alerted and intervenes, even though the situation is not unusual.

When childbirth occurs in the home, as it did in this case, the government assesses the suitability of the environment for receiving a child, and on this occasion the authorities determined that the family members present (mother, father and maternal grandmother) were not prepared to receive the baby. The newborn and his 18-month-old brother were taken from their parents by the Guardianship Authority and placed in a children’s home.

The reasons given for removing the brother were manifold, including premature abandonment of formula feeding by the mother (as if there’s an exact rule on this), lack of water supply in the house, no toys and missing medical checkups. The decision to remove the newborn was probably made because it was delivered too fast and the mother repeatedly left the hospital during the three days of aftercare.

In June 2014, seven months after their institutionalization, both children were taken and transferred into foster families.

 According to the act on the rights of the child and guardianship services, child welfare services constitute a special kind of personal social care protecting the interests of the child that serves the promotion of the physical and mental health of the child, his or her being raised in a family, the elimination of vulnerability, as well as the return of the child to the family in case of having been removed from it earlier. When the parent or legal guardian is unable or unwilling to eradicate the child's vulnerability by having voluntary recourse to basic provisions, however, it can be reasonably established that the development of the child in a family environment could be ensured with outside help, and the Guardianship Authority takes the child into protection.

The family, represented by lawyers from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, appealed the first court's verdict that removal of the children had been handled properly, and when the appellate court upheld this ruling, brought the case to the second instance appellate court. A year or so later, in November 2014, the second appellate court ruled that the authorities had failed to sufficiently make clear the facts and events of the boys’ removal and to define exactly the responsibilities involved – in other words, they had not carried out the essential steps of law enforcement. The authorities were ordered to repeat the proceedings. However, to date (February 2015), the court has not sent this decision to the Guardianship Authority, which therefore is still unable to initiate a repeat of the proceedings. Sixteen months have now passed since the removal of the children, which the HCLU considers unlawful.

It would seem obvious to ponder the absurdity of the reasoning behind the removal of the children from the family: Does it make sense to remove the children as a consequence of the rapid home birth, when the ambulance had been notified and did arrive, albeit 15 minutes too late? Is it possible that the home birth was reported as a reprisal for the irresponsible attitude on the part of the mother and the grandmother during an ultrasound at the county hospital just the previous day? Can it be stated that the family was unprepared to receive the baby when, according to a survey of the home, "there was a cot, a pram, a bathtub and a wardrobe for the baby and an infant carrier"?

Is the Guardianship Authority authorized to remove the older brother due to the mother’s attitude and their alarm over a lack of toys and his feeding regimen? Should these acts mean the children must spend 16 months living in a care center? Should a rapid birth be followed by repeated public proceedings? To what extremes has the child welfare system been driven?

What if this case had never been brought to our attention? Perhaps, without all this human rights faultfinding, the persistent pleas of the family to the authorities would have resulted in the children being released to go home. Such a course of events is quite improbable. But then, does taking legal action make any sense if the child welfare system is incapable of implementing any corrections? The Guardianship Authority, which is obliged to execute the court’s decision with urgency, has yet to receive it almost three months since it was announced. As I write this, the court's decision is probably resting at the court's administrative bureau (while, surprisingly, it was sent to HCLU in December).

Now the telephone rings. The grandmother wants to know if I have any information. I tell her that I recently spoke with the Guardianship Authority and they still don't have the decision, and they can't repeat the proceedings without this document. She sighs in resignation.

Here I am, stuck again, contemplating what to write about another case. After all, a blog spot cannot just consist of questions, and two posts of this kind would be extreme indeed. At the same time, when a newborn is kept by a hospital without a warrant, then transferred from the hospital two weeks after birth without the parents being informed of their child's destination - well, here it will be difficult even to ask questions.

Mihály Simon 

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