Hungary wants more children. But is it protecting them and their mothers?

Why We Wrote This

What does it mean to value families? Hungary’s government has promoted bigger families and more kids. But can those children, and their mothers, count on a reality that matches the rhetoric?

Dorottya Czuk
A domestic violence survivor stands with her new partner and child in Budapest, Hungary. Even though this marks a happier chapter, her children from an earlier relationship are with their father, who she says is abusive and prevents her from exercising visitation rights.

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Hungary’s government is pushing for larger families to tackle the country’s shrinking population. But when the members of those families experience domestic abuse or violence, the government’s interest in getting involved seems to disappear.

Byzantine bureaucracy, failures to recognize abusive situations, and miscarriages of justice are common in Hungary, according to women’s rights and child protection experts. Outdated data and research on these issues reflect a state that cares more about making families bigger than safer. “The protection of women is completely missing from the government’s action plan,” says Anna Betlen of the Hungarian Women’s Lobby. Key government agencies declined to comment on the issue to the Monitor.

Complicating matters is the broader government crackdown on civil society. “There is a witch hunt against civil society associations and NGOs, and among that women’s rights NGOs,” says Júlia Spronz, a lawyer helping domestic violence survivors. “They don’t let us near the state officers. We used to train police officers, we used to train children protection officers, we used to train judges. [Now] we can’t do that because of this witch hunting. That is a political decision.”

There were many warning signs for Ibolya that Endre, her former partner, was planning to take away their twin baby daughters.

They started before Endre (a pseudonym) moved out, an event triggered when he insisted on bathing the girls by himself, behind a locked door. Afterward, though Ibolya and Endre agreed he would get to see the children twice a week, on the twins’ first visit with their father he refused to return them until Ibolya called the police. Problematic encounters ensued.

One sunny day in March, when Ibolya met him at a public park with the twins, he kidnapped and kept them. But when she went to the authorities for help, Ibolya had little success.

Police recommended she report the case to a civil court and argue that he was endangering the children by removing them from their secure home. On paper, the court has eight days to issue an emergency decree and could have stipulated that the children should be returned to their mother. Four months have passed without any kind of decision.

She likewise appealed to a child protection office. “I was told many times that they are either not competent or have no time to deal with my case or that the whole situation is fine as it is,” says Ibolya, who did not want her last name to be used. The twins were separated from her while still nursing, and she wants to have custody, visitation rights, and alimony obligations settled quickly to avoid further trauma for them.

Her story is one of many cases that have been overlooked or mishandled in a country where the government is pushing for larger families but lacks the political will to tackle issues of family violence and abuse head on.

“They have no idea what domestic violence means or how to recognize an abusive father or person,” Ibolya says of her experiences with the Hungarian authorities. “They only care about blood and bruises or signs of sexual abuse. Not once in the last months of my nightmare have I been asked if I had been abused or hurt verbally or physically.”

Promoting family, but not protecting it

“It always takes a lot of time to get these children back because the system doesn’t work properly or quick enough,” says Júlia Spronz, a lawyer at Patent, a legal aid organization helping domestic violence survivors like Ibolya. “The system reacts very slowly and in a lot of the cases wrongly. ... Victim blaming and minimization is very much common in the application of the law.”

Byzantine bureaucracy, failures to recognize abusive situations, and miscarriages of justice are common in Hungary, according to women’s rights and child protection experts. Outdated data and research on these issues reflect a state that cares more about making families bigger than safer. Hungary has signed the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty on fighting violence against women, but has not ratified it. The political climate suggests it won’t soon.

Complicating matters is the broader government crackdown on civil society. “There is a witch-hunt against civil society associations and NGOs, and among that women’s rights NGOs,” says Ms. Spronz. “They don’t let us near the state officers. We used to train police officers, we used to train children protection officers, we used to train judges. [Now] we can’t do that because of this witch-hunting. That is a political decision.”

“The protection of women is completely missing from the government’s action plan,” says Anna Betlen of the Hungarian Women’s Lobby. She says women are discriminated against by the courts and the investigative system. Key government agencies declined to comment on the issue to the Monitor.

Ms. Betlen is a women’s rights activist who works pro bono with a focus on domestic violence. Lack of shelters, she says, is a major problem, although new ones have opened in rural areas. The Hungarian Women’s Lobby estimates at least 400,000 women are endangered by domestic violence. At a minimum, 1,400 new places are needed to offer protection to women who do need to leave home. Existing shelters have the capacity to accommodate a few dozen for short stints.

The last publicly available tally on domestic violence from Budapest Police headquarters dates from 2010. A review of court and police data carried out in 2012 by women’s rights advocates concluded that least at least three women are killed each month by their partners in Hungary. The data is so partial and outdated that experts are unable to pin down a trend line other than saying that cases appear to be rising.

The NANE Women’s Rights Association highlighted in its submission to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency the widespread practice of “forced visitation” – the granting of visitation rights to abusive fathers. The Hungarian Red Cross – thanks to EU funding – was able to run a program providing long-term support for 41 economically disadvantaged survivors of domestic violence between January 2016 and December 2017. It was discontinued due to lack of funding.

“A female community was formed here,” says Zsuzsanna Dávid, the program’s manager. “We saw them develop, open up, and gradually re-find themselves. Many of them are the only breadwinners in their family so they work a lot and they have to take care of their children at the same time.”

‘They don’t know how to assess abuse cases’

Domestic violence cases may go unreported if the man is the breadwinner, note the experts. Walking away would plunge the woman and her children into poverty. When the woman shoulders the breadwinning role then she lacks the time to seek help. And even if they do seek help, little is available. Welfare institutions are under-resourced and lack relevant expertise.

One domestic violence survivor told the The Monitor that a court granted her former husband custody over their children although a psychologist flagged that they showed signs of sexual abuse – a claim supported by the records of a child psychiatrist. She used to steal moments with them by visiting them outside their school or church, although in theory she had the right to see them three times per week, as well as every other weekend.

After many reports to different offices and launching an emergency legal case where she stated that her children continued to be endangered by the father, the judge just restricted her access. She is only allowed to meet her children every two weeks for two hours, accompanied by a child service official. She says this isn’t enough time to bond. “My children’s lives are being ruined day by day and no one cares.”

“Many child abuse and domestic violence cases are not recognized by the authorities,” explains Mária Herczog, the chair and program director of the Family Child Youth Association in Hungary, which trains welfare workers and carries out research in this field. “Social services and police are often trying to turn down those who are seeking help. ... They don’t know how to assess abuse cases.”

There are several reasons for that, she says. Chief among them is lack of resources and training. Investigations are complicated and time consuming. In cases of domestic violence and child abuse it is often difficult to prove what exactly happened. Sometimes, well-intentioned social workers might discourage an investigation to avoid re-victimizing by an insensitive system.

“Every social worker in Hungary has got a caseload of around 100,” she says. “Sometimes even more. And because of the lack of backup services, our social workers in most cases have nowhere to refer those who are suffering.”

Another factor is people are not always aware that they could and should get help. Public debates and media attention are limited. One high-profile Hungarian politician is known to be a perpetrator of domestic violence and faced no consequences; he was even re-elected.

Dr. Herczog believes efforts to address domestic violence should focus on men too.

“Not all perpetrators are hopeless wild animals or psychopaths,” she says. “Putting men in prison, making them homeless and hopeless, doesn’t really resolve anything. And most of the women don’t want these men to leave, they want them to change their behavior.”

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