Hungarian orphanages survive on donations

With just €2.27 in food provisions for five meals a day, Hungarian orphanages have to rely on private and corporate donations to provide children with even a very basic level of subsistence.

Foto: Creative Commons/ Ahron de Leeuw

110 years ago, Hungary passed its first general act on child protection, which gave the state responsibility for children in need of care. Prior to the act’s passage, child protection had mostly meant state custody over abandoned children. Today, child protection is a broader term that goes beyond the question of custody, and includes responsibility for abandoned children and children needing further or special care.

The title of this article might be a little deceiving, in that today in Hungary there are no longer any “orphanages”. The official term used is “child homes”, and orphans are only one category who belong to this kind of social care. However, in everyday parlance orphanages and child homes are used as synonyms.

Child Homes Not Just for Orphans

The institutional system of child protection is based on two pillars. The first is basic child welfare care, supporting children living in families. The second is child protection special care, which aims to support children removed from the family. The number of children in special care has been hovering around 17,000 for years.

It is interesting that according to statistics from the period of 2008-2011, only every fourth child in permanent care was there due to the death of the parents, although the institutional system was established mainly for this purpose many decades ago.

One reason for this might be the existence of a new type of family model in Hungarian society these days. There are many more cohabiting parents, and the connection between parents and children is much looser. There are fewer marriages, and raising a child is much more financially demanding than in earlier times. In cases where the parents are alive, the child can still be taken into a child home – for example, when the parent agrees to give the child away for some reason (the parent is severely ill, the child is disabled, or the family suffers from financial problems), or when the court decides to remove the child from the parent’s supervision (when the parent has severely neglected the child or intentionally committed a crime against the child). However surprising it might sound, today the most frequent cause of permanent care is that the parent did not keep in contact with the child.

Of the 3223 children taken into temporary care in 2011, in 162 cases it was the minor him or herself who asked for the care. In 384 cases it was the parent. 70% of the children had to be removed from the family due to parental neglect, which may refer to either physical or mental neglect. The traces of the latter are not visible, but could result in severe mental problems and affect the minor well into adult life.

Forced to Beg

The maintenance and provision of care in child care homes in Hungary falls under the supervision of the Social Department of the Ministry of Human Resources. The proportion of homes operated by nonprofit organizations is no more than around 3%. The role of church institutions has increased from barely half a percent in 2007 to over 8% in 2011. The rest are run by the state.

These homes provide a very low level of subsistence to the children living there. The per capita subsidy provided by the state is the equivalent of €2.27 calculated for five (!) meals a day. Observers find it nigh impossible to believe that healthy nourishment can realistically be provided at this cost, given that Hungary’s food price levels are at 83% of EU average. In addition, €33 are paid to cover the clothing of the children each three months, as well as €33 in forints per month for purchasing other social services (travel, pharmaceuticals, leisure activities, theatre, cinema, etc.).

Regrettably, these sums are too low to cover the needs of a 12-year-old child or a 17-year-old teenager, not to mention the requirements of a healthy diet. According to one teacher working in a child home, if they were not receiving regular food donations, the situation in the institutions would be impossible, even though the teacher’s institution has no debt. Overhead costs of childcare homes are paid by county child home centres and their supervisory body, the Ministry. One of the biggest problems of child homes is that they have very little space and equipment is scarce. Another is the availability and respect of professionals and teachers.

The children are given a small sum as pocket money every month, depending on the age of the child and his or her orphan status, which is paid from the family allowance. The rest is deposited and earns interest until the child reaches 18 years of age, and then handed over in one lump sum to enable them to start their life, to find a rented flat, to find a job. They have very little chance to pursue higher education studies. The pocket money allowance for non-orphans younger than 14 years of age is €12 per person per month, and €17 per person per month for those over 14. The sum is a little higher for orphans, as they receive a higher family allowance.

The optimal solution would be for the state to guarantee a higher subsidy to these institutions in order to enable the children to grow up in a happier, more family-like atmosphere. Although the family and parents cannot be replaced, better circumstances in the homes could significantly contribute to the better socialization of future generations of children. The teacher interviewed believes that the key to improving the situation in child homes is to eliminate the child care system in its current form and operate it on a smaller scale, and to establish a wider foster parent network.

Adrienn Tarró

Adrienn Tarró

is a PhD student at the Department of Regional Economics and Regional Development of the Faculty of Economics at the University of West Hungary.