Summary of the children’s rights conference “Children in danger – children’s rights in focus”, held on November 16, 2017
The participants were welcomed by the conference’s moderator, Fanni Murányi, staff member of the Children’s Rights Unit of the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (OCFR).
The event was opened by Miklós Garamvári, Secretary General of the OCFR, who also greeted the professional counterparties and the participants. He emphasized that special attention should be paid to children, the protection of their rights is a common denominator for all. He pointed out that this year’s children’s rights conference would focus on the vulnerability of children. The Ombudsman’s recent reports confirm that acute vulnerability may turn into a daily reality in several life situations, and anybody, the child of any family may find themselves in a vulnerable position. There are children living with severe disabilities who do not have or face great difficulties in having access to appropriate early intervention, kindergarten and/or school education. There are also children in difficult financial situation and children who were previously in childcare institutions who are at risk of physical and psychological abuse, prostitution, and sexual exploitation. A child may be at risk even if, in the wake of a divorce, he/she is unlawfully taken abroad by one of the parents. Extreme poverty and deprivation may also have a devastating effect on children. Therefore, it is of key importance what support and assistance mechanisms are available to children and families, how such support and assistance services may be further developed.
In her welcoming address, Antónia Mészáros, Executive Director of UNICEF National Committee Hungary, spoke about the main topics of the events held on the previous four International Children’s Rights Days, and outlined their newest program, entitled “Gyerekhang” [Voice of a Child], within the framework of which they announced a competition for children between the ages of 7-18. Applicants could choose between two topics, “The world we live in” and “The world I would like to live in as an adult”, in four categories: drawing, photo, video, and text. She emphasized that all children are vulnerable, that is why they need to be protected; however, those growing up separated from their families are even more at risk of, among others, child prostitution. She also mentioned that UNICEF National Committee Hungary is launching the Gyerekhang campaign because children cannot stand up for themselves, we often fail to hear their voice. They would like to change this through the campaign.
In his short address to the participants, David Maenaut, Delegate of the Flemish Government in Hungary, emphasized the importance of protecting the best interest of the child and welcomed the jointly organized conference. He briefly introduced the action plan, developed and supported by the Flemish Government, aimed at the better enforcement of human rights. He indicated that, as far as legal support, legal knowledge, and equal opportunity are concerned, the action plan is focusing on the enforcement of the rights of the child.
In his keynote presentation, Attila Lápossy, Head of the Children’s Rights Unit of the OCFR, stated that, regarding the rights of the child, special attention was being paid, during this year as well, to the state of the rights of children belonging to vulnerable groups, in particular children with special educational needs. He presented specific inquiries launched on the basis of complaints and reports monitoring systemic, practical, as well as regulatory problems that had been published by the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights on the state of the school education and kindergarten development of children living with disabilities, and their access to those services.
He pointed out that three strategic, comprehensive children’s rights inquiries had been launched ex officio; two of their subjects, i.e., the guardianship authority’s practice to separate children from their families primarily on the account of financial reasons, and the children’s rights aspects of parental child abduction would be discussed during the afternoon workshop. Therefore, in the remaining part of his presentation, he spoke about the methodology, findings, and focal points of the investigation still being conducted in the field of preventing child prostitution and protecting vulnerable children. He pointed out that, as there already had been an inquiry conducted in this field by the Ombudsman in 2011, this investigation concentrated on the implementation of the recommendations formulated as a result of and the changes having occurred since the previous investigation. He mentioned that states, including Hungary, are bound by international conventions to protect the children and fight against child prostitution. While, according to the experts, those concerned should be taken care of by the child protection institutions, Hungarian law provides that children between the ages of 14–18 caught in engaging in prostitution may even be imprisoned. He pointed out that prevailing Hungarian law treats those children not as victims but as perpetrators, while, according to the Lanzarote Convention, prostitution can never be a voluntary choice in the case of children – it should be considered to be the result of some form of coercion.
Csilla Lantai, Deputy Head of the Child Protection and Guardianship Department of the Office of the Minister of State for Social Affairs and Inclusion of the Ministry of Human Capacities (MoHC), spoke about the government’s objectives, measures, results, and the challenges in the field of protecting children, in particular those living with disabilities or exposed to prostitution and violence. In her presentation, she introduced a program called “Fecske” [Swallow], aimed at supporting children living with disabilities. She explained that, so far, the program had been launched in five counties and Budapest; the long-term objective is to achieve nationwide coverage. The program should become an integral part of the current care system. They are planning to establish a disability adviser network in order to provide personalized assistance. They are aiming at developing support services, which means normative funding and fixed asset development. They would like to facilitate the provision of daycare to children living with disabilities through capacity enhancement. She also noted that children under 12 years of age who are in state or specialized care, as well as children living with disabilities, may be placed only with foster parents; however, the foster care system is currently not suitable for providing specialized care to children with multiple disabilities. The Ministry attaches importance to the proper preparation of foster parents; they organize free training sessions using EU subsidies.
In connection with tackling and preventing child prostitution, the presenter gave a detailed account of the studies conducted, based on questionnaires filled by child protection guardians, by a professional Working Group, established, upon the MoHC’s initiative, by the General Directorate of Social Affairs and Child Protection. According to its findings, 342 children brought up in the child protection system are affected to some extent by prostitution. Based on the studies, it can be established that such children have a distinct life course, they are plagued by serious emotional insecurity – they have to be given more assistance in establishing emotional security. It is an unfortunate trend that most of the affected children suffered occasional or continuous sexual abuse in their early childhood. Experience shows that usually there is someone close to them under whose influence they get in such situations. The Working Group concluded that such children often fail to see themselves as victims. However, it should not prevent us from changing this attitude of criminalization often manifesting itself in the competent authorities’ practices. The Deputy Head of Department promised to share with the children’s homes and foster parents the good practices uncovered by the studies conducted in connection with tackling and preventing child prostitution.
In her presentation, she also touched upon referral mechanisms. She pointed out that confidential handling of the whistle-blowers’ data was an important development, they had introduced a training mechanism to help identify victims, and several legal regulations had been amended in order to enhance the children’s sense of security. Childminder services may not be rejected, siblings must be handled together when separating them from their families, obligatory parental cooperation may be required, and teachers are exempt from the obligation of confidentiality if they discover any evidence of abuse. Pursuant to the amendments effective as of January 1, 2018, child protection guardians and children’s rights representatives may talk to the children privately, and the professional competence of the heads of the institutions shall be examined separately. In connection with what happened in the children’s home in Bicske, a separate child victim support team is to be set up as a service that can be mobilized anywhere and anytime. She also mentioned that the professional competence of foster parents would be more thoroughly checked. Lastly, she touched upon the child protection aspects of the latest amendment of the Criminal Code, according to which anyone who commits a serious crime against a child shall be banned, by the decision of the court, from working with children.
In her presentation, Nel Broothaerts, Head of Department of Prevention and Education at Child Focus, spoke about the establishment, the professional activities and programs of Child Focus, the European Center for Missing and Sexually Exploited Children, operating in Belgium. The institution was established back in 1997 to fight against child prostitution, child trafficking, and child pornography, to assist missing and sexually exploited children; it was directly prompted by a shocking series of pedophile criminal acts (the so-called “Dutroux case”) that had shaken the whole of Belgium: children had been kidnapped, sexually abused, and murdered in several cities of the country. The social outrage provoked by the authorities’ impotence and the significant latency resulted in the establishment of several institutions and the launching of numerous initiatives aimed at improving the situation of vulnerable, i.e., missing, physically abused or harassed children, refugee children or children on the move. It is of prime importance that children and families are properly informed. She pointed out that they operate a ‘round-the-clock call center that can provide personalized assistance to those who turn to them. She also noted that they are actively present in the media and on the internet, and they had launched several campaigns and awareness-raising initiatives. She emphasized that they maintain very good relations with the Belgian Police and the authorities, and they also regularly notify the Government.
Following a short coffee break, the program continued with the presentation of Katalin Tausz, advocacy director of UNICEF National Committee Hungary. The presenter used a statistical chart to demonstrate that currently there are more than 20 thousand children in the child protection system. Among them, in 2016, 3,315 children belonged to the age group of 0–3 years, which was the highest number since 1990. According to the chart on child abuse, psychological abuse accounts for 66 % of all cases, most of which occur within the family. In connection with child-raising and the situation of families, she presented a chart according to which the relative poverty rate is 14.5 %; however, in families where single children are raised by single parents, this rate is almost three times higher: 37.5 %. This rate stands at 25.2 % even in families where two parents raise three or more children. Later on, she presented some drawings, texts, and videos that had been created within the frameworks of UNICEF’s Gyerekhang Program.
During her presentation, Barbara Judit Czeizel, general manager of the Early Intervention Center Budapest, Ministerial Commissioner for early intervention of the MoHC, gave a professional overview of the process leading from early development of children to the intersectoral implementation of family-oriented early intervention. She pointed out that, as of January 1, 2017, the term “early development” was given a new definition: now we speak of early intervention instead. Intervention covers the following areas: healthcare, public education, social and family care. Various specialists play an active part therein: childminders, pediatricians, psychologists, mental health professionals, social workers, teachers. She stressed that all these specialist have to cooperate with each other in order to make intervention a success, i.e., trans-disciplinary teamwork and inter-disciplinary approach are needed simultaneously. She also pointed out that Hungary is sadly in the lead with the highest number of premature births: every tenth child is born prematurely, which often leads to the onset of serious partial disabilities. If children do not get the necessary development within the basic care system, later on it may be practically impossible to help them. She explained that improvement depends on the child’s initial state and age; parental participation in the therapeutic process and cooperation with families in difficult situations are equally important. An important task is to modernize and harmonize the institutional framework, to facilitate the efficient flow of information between various sectors. She explained that their institution had developed a project aimed at helping the families concerned to get the necessary, complex care as early as possible, and at regulating the procedure (unified protocols and guidelines). As an additional objective, she pointed out the provision of improved access, adequate training, supervision, dialog between parent and specialist, and the establishment of parent support groups.
After the lunch break, the children’s rights conference continued its work in two parallel workshops. The workshop organized and moderated by UNICEF National Committee Hungary discussed how to enforce in practice the rights of children living with disabilities. Three short presentations were held: Andrea Perlusz, teacher at the Bárczi Gusztáv Faculty of Special Education of the Eötvös Loránd University, spoke about the rights of children living with disabilities in the context of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. After that, Dominika Milanovich, project officer of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, showed the participants how to improve the legal awareness of children living with disabilities with the help of the card game MONDO. Sharing some examples, good and bad practices, she gave an overview of the domestic state of disability management. The last presenter, Csaba Kovács, PhD student of the Eötvös Loránd University, using his own life as an example, spoke about the rights of children living with disabilities facing serious challenges in the field of education.
The other afternoon workshop, organized by the OCFR, focused on two major ongoing investigations conducted by the Ombudsman. The first topic was the separation of children from their families on account of their endangerment due to primarily financial reasons. As keynote speaker, Zsuzsanna Győrffy, staff member of the Children’s Rights Unit of the OCFR, head of the Ombudsman’s investigation, summarized the 2016 data and facts learned in the course of the general investigation, the answers given to the inquiries, the lessons learned from the county-level professional consultations, and the findings of the earlier investigations. She pointed out that, the prevailing statutory prohibition notwithstanding, in the Hungarian child protection system there are still numerous cases when children are separated from their families and introduced to specialized care because of their endangerment due to primarily financial reasons; earlier ratios had not changed, only formal justification had become different. In her expert comments, Mária Herczog, Chair of the Family, Child, Youth Association, presented the anomalies of the current Hungarian practices and the reasons thereof, paying special attention to international and European legal obligations and practices, and the studies conducted in this field.
The OCFR workshop’s second topic was the findings of the Ombudsman’s ongoing investigation into the issue of parental child abduction and the availability and implementation of cross-border mediation. Fanni Murányi, head of the investigation, held a conversation with Éva Kerpel, cross-border family mediator, professional leader of the Hintalovon [On a rocking horse] Children’s Rights Foundation. After reviewing the concept of parental child abduction, Fanni Murányi explained that the compilation of a comprehensive report on parental child abduction cases had been prompted by the insufficient awareness of the parents concerned and the competent experts, the ambiguous regulatory situation, and the ever-growing number of complaints lodged with the Office. She mentioned that increasing international mobility also facilitates the development of cross-border family mediation. Éva Kerpel gave an account of the inter-disciplinary activities of a cross-border family mediator, the opportunities to promote this service, the lack of a unified special training system, as well as the possibilities provided by mediation.