On April 18, 2017, Pablo Gorondi, Budapest correspondent for the Associated Press, reported that the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC), after visiting Topház Otthon (Top House Home) in Göd, 30 km from Budapest, a state-run institution for people with mental and physical disabilities, called for the closure of the institution. They uncovered signs of ill-treatment and malnutrition in the run-down facilities of the institution that houses 220 children and adults. Steven Allen, the group’s campaign director, said that “the conditions, abusive practice and evidence of violence … are the result of systematic failings in law, policy and regulation and a lack of effective and independent monitoring.” The report also pointed out that, according to the Central Statistical Office, there are some 25,000 people in Hungary with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues who have been placed in state institutions. The Hungarian government estimates that it would take 19 years to move these people to smaller homes. In addition to Gorondi, Nick Thorpe of BBC also filed a report about the “shocking conditions” found in the “home,” although he attached the opinion of an official of the Office of the Commissioner for Equal Rights who claims that “Topház is an extreme case.”
Of course, we have no idea whether this is really true since gaining access to these facilities is extremely difficult. Instead of going into the details of the terrible conditions found in all the wards MDAC visited, I will concentrate on the difficulties MDAC encountered in trying to gain access to Topház. Given the reluctance of the officials in charge of these facilities, they must be well aware of the conditions inside the walls of these institutions. Otherwise they wouldn’t prevent monitoring teams from entering the premises. Moreover, it is unlikely that Topház is an extreme case because investigative journalists over the years have called attention to similar problems at other facilities.
From the descriptions I read, the problems are systemic. One problem is that these institutions are regarded as “warehouses away from the public gaze,” as MDAC’s report aptly described their function. The mentally disabled are put there to be out of sight until they die. And they die with great frequency. When the associates of MDAC arrived, there was a black flag flying alongside the Hungarian national colors. What happens to those who die without a family to pay for a funeral I have no idea, but I was struck by the story a local told the reporter of Magyar Nemzet who visited the town after the release of MDAC’s report–that one of the employees of the institution became so attached to a patient that she herself took care of the funeral arrangements.
The facility, an old mansion, is ill-suited to its present function, and one doubts that any renovation has taken place since 1978 either inside or outside. Apparently, the size of the staff is totally inadequate, which results in confining people to their beds with all the adverse effects of such confinement. Psychiatric counseling is not available on site. The patients’ dental hygiene is deplorable. One could go on and on. All in all, the Hungarian state simply doesn’t spend enough money to maintain decent facilities for the mentally disabled.
The poverty of these institutions raises a vexing question. Topház and other similar institutions have received financing from European structural and investment funds administered by the Hungarian government. MDAC recommended that the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) open an audit and investigation into a breach of fundamental rights in the use of European funding. Considering the amount of corruption in Hungary, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the money that was supposed to be used to improve the facilities and the lives of their residents ended up in the pockets of those handling the funds.
Back in 2014 Index received permission to visit Topház where they found close to idyllic conditions. The patients were taken for excursions in the nearby forests, and physical therapists were working with some of them. The dining room was spotless and the children well dressed. Today they realize that the “show” was most likely organized for their benefit. With the exception of a few prearranged visits, Topház as well as all other facilities are closed to outsiders. For example, MDCA began their quest to receive permission to visit the premises on June 26, 2016. At that point, the director of Topház “expressed openness to collaborate” but two days later withdrew the invitation. It seems that the Directorate-General for Social Care and Child Protection (Szociális és Gyermekvédelmi Főigazgatóság/SZGYF) forbade him to allow MDAC’s visit.
After the initial denial MDAC wrote to the director of SZGYF seven times between July 1 and September 9, 2016. Then, on October 20, MDAC wrote to Károly Czibere, undersecretary for social affairs and social inclusion in the ministry of human resources, asking for a personal meeting. They received no answer. So, on November 3, MDAC wrote to Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry, with copies to the Hungarian ombudsman and the Fidesz MP who chairs the parliamentary committee on persons with disabilities. This letter was also sent to a number of MPs in the hope that one of them would be willing to accompany the staff of MDAC to Topház since MPs have free access to such facilities. In theory, at least.
Bernadett Szél (LMP) agreed to go along, but when the group arrived in Göd, the deputy director of SZGYF, accompanied by the new director and the head nurse of the facility, were at the gate. They refused to let the monitoring team in. After Szél made a telephone call to the deputy undersecretary for social policy, the MP was allowed in for a short time while the monitoring team waited for her outside the gate.
In February 2017 permission was at last granted. After several preliminary visits, the MDAC team spent a whole day, April 18, 2017, inside the facility with “minimal supervision.”
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the horror story. Although the ministry of human resources, after reading MDAC’s report, suspended the director of the facility and promised that the facility would be closed as soon as possible, Zoltán Balog didn’t think the case needed his special attention. MDAC’s request to meet with him was denied. He sent Károly Czibere, undersecretary for social affairs and inclusion, to meet them–of all places–in front of the parliament building. He declined MDAC’s request to live stream the meeting, but he did promise access to the other facilities. However, “Mr. Czibere stressed that there would be ‘conditions’ to such access.”
The official state propaganda machine, Magyar Idők, chimed in on the incident. The first article, published yesterday, did say that the ministry of human resources had admitted “extremely bad conditions” in the facility, but the author felt compelled to point out that MDAC had been founded in 2002 by–drum roll–George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The paper also reported that several relatives of the patients had “rejected the accusations” in social media, and the paper managed to find a mother who spends three days a week at the facility. She testified that the employees of the facility have the best interests of the children in mind and there is not the slightest sign of neglect. So, reads the headline, “Is this a new smear campaign against our homeland?”
Magyar Idők’s second article, published today, was even more accusatory. This time the journalist said that MDAC’s visit was illegal and complained that the monitoring group should have gotten in touch with the ombudsman instead of snooping around the facility and “releasing information and pictures to The New York Times.” (In fact, the NYT simply republished the AP report I referenced at the beginning of this post.) In order to minimize the gravity of the situation, the author spent about half the article on a 1998 report of the ombudsman which pointed out that even at that time “the number of staff members is inadequate; the children don’t receive toys; there are too many beds with high railings; and the patients are overmedicated.” Finally, he repeated the claim that since one of the supporters of MDAC is Soros’s Open Society Foundation, “it is possible that—even if the charges are well founded—the goal is the disparagement of Hungary.”
This case is living testament to the necessity of having NGOs like MDAC, without which we would have known absolutely nothing about the dreadful conditions in Topház. As it is, the Hungarian government did its best to prevent us from ever learning about the true state of affairs in one of the state-run facilities for the mentally disabled.