June 2nd, 2022. nlc.hu
For many years, women have been murdered in Hungary on a weekly basis, and there are also many cases where the victims are children. The perpetrators are usually husbands, fathers, life partners. Domestic violence escalating to murder has been a hot topic in Hungary for long, and though in 2019 Minister of Justice Judit Varga made a promise to reform the system, apart from setting up some victim support centers and implementing the new divorce law (regarding which women’s organizations have expressed their worries) no systemic changes have taken place.
While decision-makers sit idly, horrifying cases come to light one after the other. The common motif in them is that the male perpetrators have been proven to be abusers, and in many cases, they killed the children during unsupervised visitation.
This is what happened in the town of Aszód.
Last Thursday, the bodies of two girls, 14 and 16, were found in an apartment in a block of flats in Aszód. Their murderer was their father, who afterwards tried to kill himself too. A public statement by Nem tehetsz róla, tehetsz ellene (“You can’t help it but you can do against it”) Foundation unveils that after the girls’ disappearance, their mother asked for help from several authorities, including the police and the child protection authority, but did not get any – although a few weeks earlier, a 41-year-old father had killed his underage child during visitation and then committed suicide. The tragedy of Aszód basically followed the same scenario.
The two girls arrived at their father’s place for visitation on Friday, May 20th. Probably he killed them the same day. The two bodies were only found a week after the presumed day of the murder, although the mother had told the police earlier that her children had not returned from visitation. However, the police did not take her seriously when she filed a report. As the police did not provide any substantial help, the mother turned to the child protection authority, but they did not do anything either, though the younger girl was under protection due to the father’s former violent behavior.
After some time, the girls’ data were posted onto police.hu, but first with their faces blurred out, and the search did not continue as it should have. The police went to the house where the children were presumably already dead, but did not consider it justified to break in. “They say the police knocked on the door twice during the week, but then they left”, a neighbor told RTL news. hvg.hu has recently asked the authorities whether they had looked for the children at their father’s place earlier. The Communication Service of the National Police Headquarters responded that “the primary measures were taken after the report. Based on the information we had at the time, there was no circumstance that would have justified forcible entry into the apartment. From what we know now, the victims were no longer alive at that point. (…) Current knowledge indicates that the primary measures were in line with the regulations.” A circumstance that may have justified other measures: as it turned out, the woman had filed four reports against her ex-husband since 2019. RTL News claims that he was indeed convicted three times for actual bodily harm. She had asked twice for a restraining order, but the first time the court did not consider it justified, and the second time the father and the mother made an agreement in court, so there was no need for a restraining order.
Finally, the desperate woman turned to Nem tehetsz róla, tehetsz ellene Foundation, saying that there were several police cases pending against the father, and she was sure her daughters were in grave danger. By that time, both girls had been dead for about 3-4 days. The mother went to the Gyöngyös Prosecutor’s Office and made a complaint against the police for neglect.
The tragedy in Aszód is not a unique case
The website Mérce keeps a list of the victims of violence against women and children. Of these, the following cases are known to the public to have happened during visitation:
- May 7th, 2022: A 41-year-old father living in Hetes killed his underage child he had over for visitation, then he killed himself. The circumstances of the murder are still unclear.
- September 12th, 2021, Dunakeszi
A 54-year-old man, with a hunting gun he had a permit for shot his ex-partner, their son and the woman’s mother, then he killed himself. Zoltán B. was bringing his 7-year-old son back from visitation to the child’s mother, who had moved to her mother’s place after the man had psychologically terrorized, harassed and threatened her. Not long before the murder, the woman had turned to a lawyer to ask about legal possibilities to keep the man away, but she died before being able to file the request to the authorities.
December 15th, 2019, Győr: Two children were murdered by their father, in the presence of their 6-year-old sister. The perpetrator, G. H., had been convicted to 5 years in prison in 2016 for hitting his sleeping wife on the head with a hammer, but due to good conduct he had been released from prison at the end of 2019. After killing his children, he committed suicide.
These are just some of the cases when a close family member killed a woman and/or a child. (We have asked the National Police Headquarters for precise data and these will be added as an update.)
A common thread going through all these brutal cases is the systemic error that parents who have been proven to be abusers – or are accused of abuse in an ongoing court case – are given unsupervised contact and visitation rights. Judit Wirth from NANE said in an interview in 2019 that one reason for these verdicts could be the fact that judges (and people working in the justice system in general) are not professionally trained to recognize abuse and lack the necessary knowledge and competences for this. The same is true for judicial experts, though they are the ones who judge the suitability of parents in certain court cases.
Last year, NANE, Patent Association and the Hungarian Women’s Lobby published a joint statement criticizing the lack of professional training for judges (this was when the 2021 Divorce Act came into force). “In our experience, at present Hungary lacks the institutional conditions for judges who make decisions in family lawsuits to be able to identify and assess domestic violence, notice and recognize its effect on children and differentiate between the abusive and the safe parent. Therefore, the bill that is about to voted in Parliament leaves it to mostly incompetent courts to notice abuse, and thus does not protect the victims of domestic violence, rather the opposite”, they wrote.
The dreary results of the 2016 court monitoring project justify their claim. This report exposes shocking attitudes on the part of judges, which experts claim cannot be changed through sensitizing discussions; the only solution would be structured professional training. The voluntary observers were present at the court hearings of 52 civil and criminal lawsuits, as well as non-lawsuit hearings which touched upon the topic of intimate partner violence or family violence (e.g., divorce trials, child custody lawsuits, harassment, domestic violence or endangering a minor).
Another recurring problem, which women’s rights organizations have been pointing out for years, is that in child custody cases, courts tend to ignore whether the father had committed any kind of violence against the mother. The starting point of the whole system is that it is the child’s best interest to be in touch with their father. As one of the volunteers of the project noted in a specific case:
“The judge started the trial by saying that events that had occurred before 2014 (injury reports, police files etc.) were not relevant here and would not be considered.”
The document of 14 months of observation contains many similar attitudes on the part of judges. It was not unusual for them to call abuse “bickering” or “squabble”, something that can be resolved by saying sorry. Thus, the results of the project demonstrated already in 2016 that there would be a need for structured professional training; however, no substantial change has taken place over the years.
This is why judges sometimes make such incomprehensible decisions as giving the abuser child custody, unsupervised visitation rights or joint custody with the other parent. We cannot emphasize enough that the latter are a huge risk factor for women leaving abusive relationships and their children, as this is when most murders take place. Abuse does not usually stop with the victim leaving the relationship and her abuser; it tends to continue for years. Aggressors reach out to their victims, harass them, and most abusers take revenge on the victim for daring to break up with them.
Sometimes by killing the child they had together.
Former victims of abuse are in a Catch 22. They cannot sabotage the court’s judgement, even if the children – understandably – would not like to meet their abusive fathers. In the Hungarian system, the custodial parent is responsible for contact, they are blamed if it fails. So if a mother regularly hinders the father from meeting his child because she is worried about the child’s safety or the child themselves do not want to go, the guardianship authority may start a lawsuit in the father’s name, and even the judge can file a police report against the mother for endangering a minor and hindering contact. Repeated failure to ensure contact may lead to the mother losing her custody rights. However, if she does let the abusive father take the child as the court verdict prescribes, tragedies like the Aszód murder may happen.
Fatalities during visitation are symptoms of serious systemic errors. They signal that the victim protection system is not functioning properly. This in spite of the fact that women’s organizations and victims-turned-activists have made several recommendations to decision-makers over the years, and have been urging the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, which obliges governments to make financial efforts from public funding on eliminating domestic violence: conduct research, finance large-scale awareness-raising programs and campaigns. The Hungarian government, however, has refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention for ideological reasons, though that would likely support efforts to give timely help and real protection to victims of abuse.