Resources needed for prevention and basic child welfare services - the Ombudsman’s statement on the practice of placing children in child protection care primarily for financial reasons

No favorable changes have taken place since the earlier investigations: one out of three children who are placed in child protection care continues to be removed from their families for financial reasons. Ombudsman László Székely thinks that this alarming measure, which violates the rights of the child, could be replaced by prevention, the strengthening of basic child welfare services and temporary placement, as well as the accompanying social policy measures. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights turned to the Minister of Human Capacities with his recommendations.

The Commissioner launched a comprehensive ex officio inquiry in order to find out how the guarantees provided in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the children’s rights  defined in the Child Protection Act, the principles of proportionality and graduality are enforced in the official procedures related to the placement of children in child protection care. The inquiry extended to the capital city, Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén, Nógrád, Pest and Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg counties. It had already been concluded by earlier inquiries by the Ombudsman and it was also confirmed by the Central Statistical Office and the professional non-governmental organizations that one out of three children placed in child protection care is removed from their families for financial reasons. This happens in spite of the fact that pursuant to the provisions of the Child Protection Act, a child shall not be placed in child protection care on account of endangerment which is exclusively due to financial reasons. Ombudsman László Székely concluded that this practice is incompatible with the obligations set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and it gravely violates the rights of the affected vulnerable children to being raised in a family and receiving protection and care.

It was also pointed out by the inquiry that in cases where it is possible to extend the scope of in kind and financial assistance as defined in the Social Welfare Act and where those who provide child welfare services can also help the families in need, fewer children have to be placed in child protection care for financial reasons. However, the child protection experts who responded to the Ombudsman’s inquiry also pointed it out that such placements into child protection care cannot be prevented only by financial assistance: the willingness of the families to cooperate and the support provided by the local authorities are also of key significance. Furthermore, those experts who provide basic child welfare services regard it as important for the adult family members to receive support in mastering marketable professions, to create jobs and for families to receive advice on essential life skills.

According to the Child Protection Act, placement in temporary care may be requested by the parent, or the child can be placed in care with the parent’s consent. In the framework of temporary care, the child may stay with a substitute parent or in a temporary children’s home for a maximum of 12 months. Ombudsman László Székely established that no meaningful progress had been made and no positive changes had taken place after his previous inquiries in the area of temporary care provided to children. It is true that it is required by the Child Protection Act that temporary care should primarily be provided by substitute parents butit was mentioned as a serious mistake by the experts answering the questions of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights that there is an extraordinarily low number of such substitute parents who could provide temporary care, as compared to the number of children in need. The lack of social housing owned by the local authorities poses further problems. There is a rule in place for such cases as well: at the request of the parent who has become homeless, the child and his or her parent can be placed in a temporary family shelter together. Everyday experience, however, shows that it raises concerns that there is a scarcity of realistic solutions, there is an uneven geographical distribution of places available in such institutions, these shelters are overcrowded, and there are very long waiting times.

From the above, the Ombudsman concluded that the placement of children into child protection care solely or primarily for financial reasons cannot be prevented only by using the means available to basic child welfare services or by increasing financial aids. The problem cannot be solved by just increasing the number of places in temporary care and their geographical distribution adjusted to the needs either. It is through harmonized social policy measures that the requirement of a procedure that represents the best interest of the child, and the right to being raised in one’s own family can be enforced, and it is only in such a way that the requirement that no children should be removed from their families due to financial endangerment can be fulfilled.

The Commissioner asked the Minister of Human Capacities to assess the deficiencies related to these institutions county by county, based on the findings of the report. Then measures should be taken to increase the number of substitute parents providing temporary care and the number of places in temporary family shelters, in order to apply a more accessible solution adjusted to the needs of the area concerned. In addition to this, it is important that the basic child welfare services should provide sufficient support to the families concerned, thus possibly preventing the placing of children in child protection care solely or primarily due to financial endangerment. Finally, Ombudsman László Székely asked the ministry in charge to consider the possibility of setting up such a professional working group which will be able to determine how this issue could be prevented or remedied by using the tools of social policy.