Introduction and background information
1. Selection process
The main purposes of the focus group discussions were to obtain information about the everyday lives of children with mental disabilites and psychological and/or behavioural problems, and to learn about possible violations of children’s rights.
Selected participants, comprising an equal number of boys and girls, were required to meet the following criteria:
- Placed either with a foster family or in an institution
- Aged between 5–18 years
- Diagnosed with developmental and/or mental and/or behavioral disorders.
Each focus group consisted of between four and six persons. Coordinators were asked to inform participants about the purpose of the meetings. Six meetings were organised.
2. Focus group meetings
The focus group meetings were held at four different locations in Budapest and at two other provincial locations, described below:
a) A section of a special children’s home where infants, young children, disabled children and teenage mothers with their children are accommodated.
b) The Budapest Capital City Child Protection Agency’s visitation room, where children usually meet to maintain contact with their relatives.
c) A home for children with minor mental disabilities.
d) A private school for disadvantaged children, established in 1990 and run by a foundation. The main criterion for admittance is economic and/or social vulnerability. The school has 12 grades and two vocational grades, and the foundation also runs a children’s home.
e) A children’s home in the countryside which provides residential care for children with learning difficulties and children with multiple mental development problems. The facility also provides permanent professional assistance through access to child psychiatrists and psychologists.
f) A Roma settlement with 400 inhabitants in which Maltese Charity Services has been operating a development programme from 2007.
3. Group composition and nature of discussion
a) The maternity unit currently provides care for four girls between the ages of 15 and 17, each with children under one year of age. Three of the girls have regular contact with the father of their child, while two are planning to get married, reunite with their families, and plan for a common future.
None of these girls has finished the 8th grade, and some are as many as three or four years behind their peers in terms of schooling.
All of them agreed to take part in the discussion, but one left after the introduction phase of the conversation because her prospective husband had arrived.
The remaining three girls sat next to each other on the same couch, where they could keep an eye on each other, as well as on the deputy head of unit, who was seated in a chair two metres in front of them and a little to one side. Each remained for the entire conversation. We offered to relax the proceedings at some point by taking a short walk in the garden, but the girls declined the invitation.
b) The Budapest Capital City Regional Child Protection Agency provided another meeting with children suffering from various disabilities, namely: two siblings (a deaf four-year-old and a healthy five-year-old living with severly abusive parents before being placed in a foster home), a slightly handicapped 14-year-old girl not attending school, a 16-year-old girl with Down syndrome, a deaf nine-year-old boy with other birth defects as well, and a 15-year-old boy who suffered a stroke at birth. Also attending the session was a healthy 17-year-old boy.
The children sat next to little tables of their choice; they were calm and open, occasonally walking across the room, while drawing and snacking throughout. The four foster parents accompanying them (hereafter, the Foster Parents’ Group) talked to each other in the same room, though separated by bookshelves. From time to time they went out to walk in the garden, but nobody intervened during the proceedings.
c) Twelve young residents of the home for disabled children (hereafter, the “Csalogány” Group) decided to spend the afternoon with us. The meeting took place in the facility’s 25-sqm playroom. Two girls, both having turned 18 in August, came from an exterior group home. Five girls and five boys with minor mental disabilities, aged between 13 and 17 years, also came to the meeting. The children were unaware of the content or purpose of the forthcoming discussion, and did not ask questions about it. Most of them were cheerful and lively when they arrived. The group remained together during the meeting, and most of them were constantly moving about.
d) The school meeting brought together 10 children, five of them living with their own families and the other five living in a foundation-run children’s home. Two other socially disadvantaged and emotionally neglected children were at the school to help with preparations for the new school year (e.g. setting out equipment and putting up decorations) and joined the discussion group at the request of one of the directors. The full group comprised seven girls and five boys: five children were between the ages of 10 and 12, five were between 13 and 15, and two were 18 years old.
e) A discussion about children’s rights took place at the provincial children’s home, with a nine-year-old girl and six boys, aged 16–18, taking part voluntarily (hereinafter, the ‘Boys’ Group’). Most of the children came to this child-friendly institution, situated near Lake Balaton, either from abusive, seriously neglectful families or from the streets and in very bad condition; two of the boys came from other children’s homes. (The Balaton facility has had success in successfully treating psychiatric and psychological disorders.) All of the children living in the home have been there for two years or more. The director of the institution showed us every room and allowed us to select the most suitable room. He had also set out some welcoming food and left us alone to conduct the proceedings.
f) Contrary to a prior agreement with the charity’s local coordinator, nobody was waiting for us when we arrived at the Roma settlement. Children were playing amongst crumbling and completely neglected houses, and only joined us in the hope of getting sweets and gifts that we had brought with us. A growing number of children appeared quickly to the former hangar, which now functions as a community centre. We selected five boys and five girls between the ages of 10 and 12 (hereinafter, Roma Settlement Group).
4. Preparing the children
With the exception of the provincial children’s home, information about the topics of the focus group discussions was not given beforehand to participating children and youth. This was partly a shortcoming of the organisation process itself, but also has to do with the fact that most professionals and foster parents involved in this study knew nothing about the subject of children’s rights. From our point of view, people in this country are either entirely unaware of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Rights, or have heard of it but deem it irrelevant or of no consequence regarding their daily lives. ‘Common wisdom’ argues that children’s rights must take a back seat to the requirement that children fulfil their duties.
On the other hand, some children from the countryside home were familiar with the concept of children’s rights. One boy, a delegate from the institution in the national student parliament, was able to cite specific rights—to education and to expression—and was the only participant amongst the five groups able to do so.
The school provides a good, practical environment for healthy development, but does not necessarily instil in the children a more intangible awareness and understanding of children’s rights.
As is the case with the vast majority of Hungary’s adult population, Hungarian foster parents are not provided with any background knowedge concerning the Convention on the Rights of the Child, nor of relevant national legislation. Research shows that such knowledge in Hungary is significantly below the European Union average.
Employees of the maternity home and the home for disabled children were adamant in claiming that they constantly bear in mind the children’s best interests so long as the government ensures career stability and adequate working conditions. Thus, when working conditions are good, the enforcement of children’s rights is ‘virtually guaranteed’.
Preparing the Roma children for this discussion was impossible because of the randomness of the assembly and selection of the children involved.
5. Programme and methodology
In performing work for earlier European Union projects, we experienced difficulties in working with mentally disabled children; this time around we brought crayons, A3-sized paper for drawing, food, drinks and gifts, as well as prepared games and activities—such as the children's rights card game, which you can find in the Annex. We decided to introduce any games or activities on the basis of participant ability, overall mood and spontaneous interest.
Participating children and their guardians/caregivers/teachers agreed in every instance, whether immediately or after some hesitation, to produce photos and voice recordings of the children for research purposes. It was agreed from the outset that these would not be published, though we hope to be granted permission to do so at a later date.
With the exception of the conversation in the maternity home, all of the meetings were pleasant exchanges, though generally shorter in duration than expected. The foster care exchange lasted the planned maximum of three hours. Up to three members of the mentally disabled group wished to continue, though the caregivers limited the group session to two hours. The school group disbanded after two-and-a-half hours due to impatience, while the Boys’ Group lasted the same amount of time. The Roma Settlement Group, coaxed along with sweets and gifts, held together for about an hour-and-a-half before it was agreed to split up.
The teenage girls at the maternity home met with us only reluctantly and at the behest of the institutional authorities. Aside from their physical presence, they contributed little beyond a few awkwardly expressed remarks and opinions that had little to do with the topic at hand.
The School Group was the only one in which it was possible to actually play together. This group was also able to work together in small groups, as were the residents of the children’s home in the countryside.
The ill and/or disabled children living with foster parents, as well as those from the home for disabled children, required individual attention. Children from the Roma settlement sometimes responded to what others in their group had to say.
The children’s rights card set proved, in various ways, to be an appropriate tool for aiding discussion. The colourful, plastic 13x19cm cards—tangible, textured, able to be rotated—attracted the interest of all children regardless gender, age and ability.
Children able to work in smaller groups (those with social, behavioural and/or psychological problems) read the cards themselves, discussed them in groups, and then arranged the cards according to the rights depicted. Most of the children laughed about fake children’s rights included in the card set, which was good for stimulating awareness and concentration simultaneously.
We worked one-on-one with those children with various mental disabilities, depending on personality and skill level. They either read the cards themselves or listened as they were read aloud one by one. Sometimes they understood; other times not. They found the fake children’s rights either funny or annoying.
Already taking into account the varying ages and abilities of the participants, the variety of moods involved in the proceedings accounted for even greater degrees of difference. The unpredictable nature of the proceedings influenced levels of attention and intensity of interest in the topic. In the Foster Parents’ Group, for example, the girl wih Down syndrome occasionally lost interest because of a pre-planned afternoon meeting with her mother. Members of the Boys’ Group were preoccupied with thoughts of how their friends and classmates would succeed in retaking exams; this occasionally broke up conversation and shifted attention away from children’s rights. Some amongst the mentally disabled group were enjoying the sudden freedom and informal nature of the proceedings; but while tolerating our questions, they did not reply to them. Finally, members of the school group were distracted by classmates busy with school decorations.
6. Introduction of group work and useful experiences
After we introduced our purpose to the assembled School Group, we began a movement game played with beanbags that requires concentration and coordination. The game, however, did not particularly arouse the children’s interest, engaging only couple of the children while the rest merely tolerated the situation. The next activity was called “helium stick”, which, based on our previous experiences, appeals without exception to children of all ages. The purpose of the exercise is to lower a light, plastic stick—resting on the participants’ forefingers—through cooperation and by listening to each other. Pairs solved this task in a short amount of time, but without the friendly disagreement and laughter that usually occurs. The group game proved difficult and the children did not enjoy it.
As some children had indicated during the introduction that they were familiar with children’s rights, we asked with which rights they were familiar: nobody answered.
We passed around the set of cards to group members and asked them first to identity those cards which depicted fake children’s rights, and then to select the four most important actual children’s rights. The 10 children were divided into three groups: ‘silent’, ‘talkative’ and ‘thinking’. They groups first discussed the fake, funny statements, and then exchanged cards before selecting their four most important rights as follows:
- The right to not be maltreated or abused
- The right to equal treatment
- The right to health care
- The right to education
When we asked each of the 10 children about what they thought about the four most important rights, we received several different answers:
A1: Instead of equality, the right to play should be included, because kids are there to play. Equality isn’t really a right—because we are equal.
A2: Freedom of expression is more important, because if there is a discussion you have to say your opinion, which is just as important as the adults’.
Q: Do adults usually ask for your opinion?
A2: They don’t really ask.
Q: Are you asked for your opinions in school?
A2: About learning.
Q: Do they ask something like, for example, whether the math teacher teaches well or not?
A3: The right to information should be included.
The children then began arguing. Some were very serious about the issue of children’s rights, while others made wisecracks, like: “Every child has the right to have breakfast in bed.” It was in this context that we discussed the difference between a right and an opportunity. There was then the following exchange:
Q: What does this mean: ‘No child should be maltreated’? (No answer. They sit quietly.) Have any of you ever been hurt by somebody? (Several children indicate ‘yes’.)
A: You shouldn’t treat badly a child who, let’s say, behaves badly.
A2: It also means that you shouldn’t show favour to one child but not to another. If there are three children, for example, but something is given to only two of them.
Q: What’s another example of bad treatment?
A2: If a child hits, beats or threatens another child.
A3: If a child uses bad language to another child.
A4: Every child is beaten. One slap is nothing, isn’t it? It’s not the end of the world.
Q: How do children maltreat each other?
A5: They argue, fight.
Q: Argument is maltreatment?
A: No, but sometimes it becomes worse than that—like if someone says something bad about someone’s mother. (The children start thinking some more, when someone suddently reads out: “Every child has the right to visit the moon each year.”)
Q: What about: ‘Every child has the right to health care’?
A: Well, yes, if somebody breaks your nose, they take you to hospital.
Q: Does your school have a doctor?
A: (General agreement.) Yes, and a local doctor as well.
Q: Do you know any child who needed medical care and did not receive it?
A2: Yes. One boy cracked his head and they were unable to help him, so he was taken to hospital.
A3: Once, I cut my hand on New Year’s Eve and we traveled for hours until we found a proper hospital, because the Heim Pál [hospital] was not open and other hospitals were closed as well. There wasn’t another hospital with anybody on duty.
Q: The next child’s right you selected is the right to education. Why is this important?
A: In order to be educated.
A2: Some children are born fools, and if you don’t teach them they’ll grow up to become insane adults as well.
A3: Like they dropped you on your head... (The children start horsing around.)
Q: Well, why might it be important for ‘normal’ children have the right to education?
A3: To know lots of things.
A4: It’s important because you can learn your favourite subject. (They all start to name their favourite subjects.)
A5: Even adults study. One of our teachers has five degrees, and he’s still studying.
A few children started to draw, while others were talking or commenting on the drawings. Then they started eating, drinking, and asking about gifts and the time of day. Four children left the room, but stayed nearby in order to not miss the gifts.
The relatively privileged children of the School Group feel safe and secure in their home and learning environments, but the focus group discussion occurred during summer break, and the unstructured setting meant that the participants were unprepared and weakly motivated. Thus the discussion was less effective than we had hoped.
We should recall that the Boys’ Group did include a nine-year-old girl, but she and another 15-year-old boy (passionate and knowledgable about fishing), while remaining nearby, did not participate in the discussion. Another 16-year-old boy (A5) moved around constantly and listened in on the discussions: he didn’t answer any questions directly, but did finally voice his opinions on topics that he found relevant. The others tried to their best behave as gentlemen. All of them were kind and polite—even accommodating—but there was lots of moving about. As if on a revolving stage, they changed their seats almost continuously, sometimes stood up and then sat down. They entered into and broke off from conversation as they saw fit.
Q: Have you heard about children’s rights?
A: (Most children.) Yes.
Q: Where did you heard about them?
A: Here, in the children’s home.
A2: In the student parliament.
Q: In which student parliament?
A2: I have been in Budapest, in the student parliament of children’s homes.
A3: They always tell us here as well what are our rights and duties.
Q: Which do you think is more important: rights or duties?
A3: Both at the same time, because if we do not fulfil our duties, then we do not have rights.
A4: Obligations are somewhat more important.
A2: Rights do not depend on anything.
A dispute followed about the relation between rights and duties, but after a while three boys turned their attention to the children’s rights cards placed on the table, while others began to draw. The former discussed card statements of the cards, but could not agree on the four rights most important to them. They were able to agree on two of them:
- All children are equal
- The right to health care
Other boys insisted on others as most important. One of them chose:
- The right to education
- The right for minority children to enjoy their own culture
The other stressed the importance of the following:
- No child shall be maltreated or abused
- The right for disabled children to receive special care
Holding a card in his hand, the third boy explained that ‘play’ is an opportunity and not a right, because it depends on behaviour. We asked the others if they agreed or not, and this launched the following discussion:
Q: What do you think about play not being a right, but an opportunity?
A: There is no obligation to play.
A: You have to enjoy yourself and stuff like that—well, okay, you don’t have to, but it’s good.
Q: Why might it be important to define ‘play’ as a right and to put it in writing? (No answer.) Are there any children who aren’t allowed to play?
A: (In unison.) No.
A3: If I’m in the mood I play. If I’m not, I don’t play.
Q: What do you think is the point of identifying and establishing special children’s rights? To whom is this concern primarily addressed?
A2: To children.
A3: And also to adults, because there are children’s rights and there are adults’ rights.
A: To policemen as well. Just because we’re playing loudly doesn’t mean they should yell at us and scold us.
(Here the conversation is diverted: one boy calls attention to something he has drawn. There’s some discussion about the drawings, but we later returne to the topic at hand.)
Q: You chose a card that says: “Disabled children have the right to special care.” I wonder why you thought this one is really important.
(No answer, but another—the fourth boy—joined the conversation)
A4: I put them in order. The first is: “Disabled children have the right to special care.”
Q: Why, from your point of view, is this one the most important?
A4: They’re locked away from the world, so I would rather give them everything first. In this way they can enjoy themeselves and not care about what happened to them earlier. To not to be sad all day long: I would give them this little happiness. And the next one is “all children are equal.” Whether they’re a boy, a girl, brown, yellow, purple—everyone is human. They breathe, have two legs, two arms, eat, drink.
Q: The next one is: “Children from minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture.”
A4: This one is good because—I don’t know—if we Roma came here from a big guitar band, we wouldn’t be allowed to play and practice—although there’s a conservatory here. If I want to learn the Roma language here, I can go to find a school where they teach it.
Q: Do you speak any other languages?
A4: I speak some English.
Q: I was thinking about one of the Roma languages.
A4: There are Lovári and Beás, which I don’t speak, but I understand them well.
Q: This right concerns giving an opportunity to children to practice their own culture, but you don’t know the language of your own. Why is this?
A4: I don’t know. I want to learn it sometime, but not now. I would like to study my vocation first.
Q: Every child has the right to freedom of speech. Why is this important?
A2: This one is not only for children, but important for all people. We’ve been able to come here and speak, ask questions, answer questions, move around.
Q: Has an adult ever told you that it’s not important what a child says?
A3: I’ve heard about this, but I haven’t experienced it.
A4: I haven’t experienced this in our environment.
A2: Children have the same rights because they’re human as well, but children haven’t got the same experinces as adults. Still... An adult phrases things differently than a child.
Q: Let’s see the last one that you’ve chosen. ‘Children in conflict with the law have the right to special treatment.’ Why did you choose this?
A4: Just because.
Q: Since it has come up, I’ll tell you that it applies to those children who have been locked up or interrogated. And, whether guilty or not, they can’t be placed in a detention facility with adult criminals.
A5: I’ve done a lot of stupid things.
Q: Which grade are you going into?
A5: The 8th grade, because I failed once—not because I wasn’t able to learn, but because I haven’t attended school.
Q: And now you attend regularly?
Q: What will happen after 8th grade?
A5: I’m going to be a cook or a bricklayer. I’m wondering which one to choose.
Q: What are the pros and cons of one or the other, because they’re not related vocations at all.
A5: I think I’ll be a bricklayer.
(The boys who just finished retaking their exams now enter the room and talk about the experience. The conversation about children’s rights comes to an end.)
Because of their age, acceptance, inclusiveness, self-sufficiency and strengthened sense of responsibility in an institutional environment, the Boys’ Group discussed things in more detail and was more observant than the other groups of children.
Participants from both the School Group and Boys’ Group took time to reflect on questions and paid at least slight attention to the opinions of others. General lack of agreement was the result of impatience, distraction or lack of persuasive skills. Relationships appeared to disintegrate quite easily in the small groups, which has mostly to do with the young people’s need for self-assertion.
The Roma Settlement Group members were clearly attracted by the sweets and gifts. They sat down in a row of school chairs in the hope of getting presents. They were at ease and informal, and mostly talked continuously at the same time. There was some horseplay, but also some verbal and physical bullying. Some jokes were often insulting, but there seemed to be no lingering resentment. The children regularly slapped each other’s shoulders or heads. Laughing and tumbling about, these children were unable to maintain focus. The excerpted conversation below was interrupted frequently.
Q: Joking apart, I would like to ask what you need when you wake up in the morning to be as happy as you are now.
A: We take a bath, brush our teeth, have breakfast,
A2: Have lunch, have snacks, have dinner.
Q: What were you doing when we arrived?
A3: We’re playing.
A2: We’re playing cards.
Q: Do you know games other than card games?
A2: We’re playing rummy.
Q: Rummy’s a card game as well.
A4: We like to swing.
A5: To play Uno.
Q: Is it important for children to play?
A: (All together.) Yes!
Q: If someone falls ill, what happens to them?
A: (Most children.) They should be taken to the doctor.
Q: Is it important to bring sick people to the doctor?
A: (Most children answering at the same time.) Yes, to the hospital!
A6: If they don’t go to the hospital, they’ll die.
Q: I see that this is where you usually study. Is studying important for you?
A boy named Marió, or M: It’s important, to be clever.
Q: Márió said it’s important for you to study. Do the others agree?
A: (In unison.) Yes.
Q: Is it true for all children that it’s important to eat, play, study and be taken to hospital if they’re ill?
A: (Most children.) Yes, yes, of course.
Q: Is this true for children who behave badly?
A: (Most children.) No.
Q: Why not?
(There is shouting and random chatter. Some get to their feet.)
A3: If someone’s bad, they have to stand in the corner of the room.
(They poke, push, slap each other on the shoulder.)
Q: One children’s right is that ‘no child shall be maltreated’. Do you think this applies to you?
A2: Yes. (Laughter.)
Q: Does it mean anything if you slap his head?
Q: Then what is the point of hurting him?
A2: To make him to obey.
Q: What this right really means is that adults must not hurt children, and that children should not hurt each other.
Q: You’re so smart. Who agrees with Marió?
A: (Most children.) Me, me.
Q: Besides slapping, what other ways of hurting others do you know?
A: (Most children.) Kicking, pinching, biting, scratching…
Q: This is what is called ‘physical abuse’. Are there other ways to hurt people?
A4: If someone falls down, they start being aggressive...
Q: I heard these already, but Marió said something smart.
A: With words.
Q: That’s it. This also includes using bad language with each other. (The children are silent, as they realise that sometimes they are rude to each other.)
Q: Another right says that ‘all children are equal’. What do you think about that?
A: It means that they’re dutiful, behaving.
Q: Have you ever experienced children being treated differently?
(They don’t understand.)
Q: Who has siblings?
A: I have five.
A2: I have seven.
A4: I have 10!
A5: I would have the same, but two are dead.
A3: One of my brothers also died.
Q: If parents love all of their children in the same way, they don’t make distinctions between them. Has it ever happened in your school that distinctions are made between children?
A3: Yes, when they decide who will be on weekly duty.
Q: It’s different when you’re given a task. This time you might be on duty, and next time it will be someone else.
Q: Why do you like to go to school?
M: I would like to know a lot.
A2: I like to read and write.
A4: I like to do maths.
A5: I like football.
Q: I’m asking you to start thinking about why you’re enjoying yourselves? What do you do? Where are you when you enjoy yourself?
A2: I feel good about myself at the school.
A3: When I’m playing cards.
A4: When I’m reading.
Q: What are you reading now?
(He does not reply, but one of the girls says she saw him reading the day before.)
A5: If I’m playing football.
(They grow loud and begin interrupting each other.)
Q: Now I would like to know when you feel sad.
A: When I’m beaten.
A2: When there’s a vigil [for a dead person].
(They lose attention and begin talking about other things.)
Q: When you’re in trouble and need help, to whom do you go?
A: (One after the other.) My grandmother, mother, father…
Q: And if you don’t ask a relative?
A: (Most children.) From my siblings, from my brother.
(They start playing with coins, and everyone starts to count how much they have.)
Q: How do you know what is allowed and what isn’t allowed?
A: You can’t talk dirty.
Q: How do you know that?
A3: Who told me?
A3: My parents.
(There is a lot of bustle. One of the children wants to read, another wants to play cards, and others start to draw.)
The fact that the children living in the run-down houses lining dirt roads of a Roma settlement have problems expressing themselves cannot be explained by age alone. Most their parents and relatives are unemployed and unable to provide much guidance. The children have limited life experience and mostly one-dimensional contact with other members of the residential community. All of these factors curb youthful development. (Presumably, Maltese Charity Service efforts are are helping, but there is little basis for broader comparison.)
The Foster Parents’ Group was very diverse in terms of age composition and abilities. All of the participants were friendly from the beginning, and they began to trust and like us more and more as time went by. Children in this group, appearing one after the other, prepared their drawings quickly and cheerfully. We had one-on-one conversations with each of them, which varied in duration. Without striving for completeness, we quote below the most interesting and instructive exchanges. The first is with a 14-year-old boy who suffered a stroke at birth and has had several subsequent operations to correct motion disorders. He has slightly autistic behavioural symptoms and lives in a foster family with nine other children. We used the children’s rights game as a discussion aid, which interested the interviewee.
Q: What do you think about disabled children having the right to special protection?
A: I totally agree.
Q: And what about all children having the right to freedom of expression?
A: This one isn’t that important, but… (He starts to think about it, but does not finish the sentence.)
Q: Which rights are most important for you?
A: It’s important for all children to have the right to defend themselves. For example, if somebody tries to blame you for something you didn’t do—like stealing something from the teacher’s desk—then you should have the right to protect yourself and to expose the lie. (He then looks over the children’s rights cards one by one.)
A: All children are equal. Boys, for example, are treated equally, but differently from girls.
Q: This right also means that girls and boys should have the same opportunities. Do you agree?
A: Not in everything.
Q: In which ways are they inequal?
A: Boys are stronger. I heard that in the Olympics the boys compete separately.
Q: What do you think about every child having the right to health care?
A: Well, this is important, because if you get ill, you should be healed. But it’s also important for adults.
Q: To know about children’s rights is also important because the adults who take care of children should know what they have to ensure for their children.
A: I’m already 14 years old.
Q: But you are not an adult, and in many cases a parent or guardian should represent you.
A: I should also know what I don’t have rights to do.
Q: What in particular are you thinking about?
A: I don’t think I have the right to torture someone, or something like that.
Q: There is a children’s right to not be maltreated by anybody.
(He takes a look at the pictograms and says: “Oh, my God! It’s a murder!”)
A: Neither words, nor acts?
Q: Think about how you feel when somebody tells you something that hurts you terribly.
A: That’s different. Things generally escalate into anger or fights. There was a girl at school who told me this and that, abusive things—said that I’m not able to change, won’t be able to change. I finally had enought of it and told her I wouldn’t talk with her anymore. She must have felt something because she stopped.
Q: Do you think the girl thought about how bad that was for you?
A: I rather think, yes. She wouldn’t have done it otherwise. Only crazy people do things without thinking.
Q: Children have the right to information. What does this right mean to you?
A: This one isn’t so important. I once read some information that buses will change routes on 15th June, but there were a lot of other words I didn’t understand. I turned to my mother to ask what means what and she said: “Oh, that’s just information.” (He spits.)
Q: No child should be maltreated.
A: Sometimes you deserve it. Then you usually get slapped or spanked.
Q: What if I tell you that no one should physically hurt any child.
A: Even with spanking?
Q: Spanking is also prohibited. Do you think a child can learn from spanking?
A: They usually spank little kids. They do it if the child misbehaves. Imagine if there were no discipline. Pencils would drop to the ground, papers would fly. It wouldn’t be anything like this here.
Q: Right now there’s relative order (there was a great deal of noise) because the kids are occupied with drawing—not because anybody is scolding them.
A: In our family, someone got slapped and told not to do something again—and he hasn’t done it again.
Q: Is there any difference between a child who stops doing something because he’s afraid of a slap, and a child who doesn’t do someting because he knows it’s wrong?
A: No, it isn’t the same. But if they warn him beforehand, then what?
Q: I’m sure there’s a reason for ignoring or disobeying a warning. Has something like this happened to you?
A: Yes, it’s happened. I remember.
Q: Can you tell me why you did it?
A: Usually I have these reasons that, I don’t know… There’s a rule at home that in the morning you should work, but I’d rather listen to music.
Q: Is it possible to talk this over with your mother so that you might listen to music whil working? Work is sometimes better that way.
A: Aaaa! I listen to music in other ways. But, after all, you might be right.
Q: Do you like to go to school?
A: Who wouldn’t want to go to such a good school?
Q: Which school is this?
A: The primary school in Korong Street for disabled children. It’s better known as Mexikói Road 6.
Q: What do you like doing at the school?
A: I like learning most. Some lesssons I don’t like, but…
Q: What you don’t like?
A: Some of the lessons aren’t very exciting, and I don’t really like some of the teachers. Then there’s maths, which is hard for everyone, isn’t it?
Q: Wich are your favourites?
A: Life skills, typing, literature, discussion class with the form teacher.
A: I would like to say that I know when I am rude.
Q: If you know it, that’s good, because you have a clear picture about what sort of things not to do. Can you tell me something you should give up?
A: Cursing, for example, but that’s hard to give up. Revenge is another one.
Q: What is the point of revenge?
A: Nothing—just relief. It satisfies some people. I prefer to make peace, but there are some people you can’t make peace with. There’s that girl I told you about—should I tell her name? My revenge was to be happy when she got an unsatisfactory mark. And I was happy when she was put down for not drawing well enough. I’ve made peace with her by now, but she was once a sworn enemy.
These interview fragments draw attention to several things, for example:
- Handling of evidence: if the respondent agrees, he or she is not paying attention, and simply does not wish to waste any words in discussion (1).
- Individual interpretation of words and concepts, and their qualification on the basis of formal factors (5), which is a common source of misunderstanding.
- Sensitivity to small differencies, which sometimes remain hidden in small groups.
- The need to adapt the pictograms for children with mental disabilities (4).
- Children tolerate physical abuse. (6)
The conversation didn’t go smoothly. There were frequent interruptions, as the children either had something urgent to say, were impatient, or simply craved attention.
One four-year-old with hearing difficulty was fully engaged with the games, but it was not possible to establish eye conact with him. His five-year-old brother answered our questions about his favorite games, but was clearly in some distress. We believe that it was a mistake to have selected these boys, due to their unresolved traumas.
A nine-year-old member of the group with excellent results at school, despite multiple developmental disorders, spoke continually about his plans, desires and fantasy roles. His kindness, cheerful self-assertiveness and increasingly detailed and exciting stories won acceptance and attention from the others. Interested in drawing, he was talkative but ignored every question adressed to him.
Half of the group members with moderate disabilities lacked sufficient mental capacity to participate in the conversation about children’s rights. Those children who are unable to communicate verbally and cannot be taught to read also find it hard to express themselves through drawings. The following excerpts illustrate a diverse range of ability and comprehension of our interview questions.
Attila, who is 13 years old but appears to be around eight, has drawn a rainbow.
Q: How did it come into your mind to draw a rainbow?
A: I don’t know.
Q: When we asked you to draw something you like, why did a rainbow come to mind?
A: Just because.
Q: How old are you?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Do you go to school?
A: Yes, I do.
Q: What do you like about going to school?
A: There are pens and fishes.
Q: Do you help with feeding the fishes?
A: Yes, I do.
(He is interested in the dictaphone. I explain what it’s used for.)
Q: What was good during summer holiday?
A: Lake Balaton. We went to Balatonkenese.
A: What did you do there?
Q: And? (No answer.) Swimming was best?
A: (He answers strongly and clearly.) Yes.
Q: School will begin soon.
Q: Do you think it’s a good thing that children should go to school?
Q: Besides the fishes, is there anything else you like about your school?
Q: What do you like to study?
A: I don’t know. Letters.
Q: So you like to write.
Q: And to read?
Q: What was the last thing you read that was really good?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Does anybody read you tales?
Q: Do you sing in the choir?
Q: What’s you favourite song?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Your favorite game?
(He stands up and walks away.)
A muscular 16-year-old boy, 165cm tall, wanted to get involved in the conversation, and spoke repeatedly and exclusively about a televised talent competition. Instead of drawing, he wrote on several sheets of paper the names of the contestants, as well as that of a popular schoolmate.
Q: Do you know why we are here?
Q: We would like to speak with you about children’s rights. Do you know that there are children’s rights?
Q: It has to do with fulfilling children’s needs in order to make them feel good and have fun with what they’re doing, so that they’ll become cool adults. One children’s right is the opportunity to go to school and to learn. Do you think this is important?
Q: Do you like school?
A: I like it, but I don’t looking forward to it.
Q: And why is that?
A: I like it, but I don’t looking forward to it. (Pause.) To study, to study...
Q: You like it and you don’t like it at the same time. Which subjects do you like?
A: Singing, counting, measuring.
Q: And what in school don’t you like?
A: Well, for example... for example…
Q: Is it important to you to be able to write, read and count?
Q: They teach these things at school.
A: Oh, oh! If there were no schools, I could go anywhere and wherever I want.
Q: What do you think about children having the right to play? Is this important?
A: Well, not so much.
Q: Then, I would like to know if there is anyone around here whom you trust?
A: Let’s say, Bego. (One of his girl mates.)
Q: If you have some trouble does she help you?
Q: If you have a problem, to whom can you turn to help solve it?
A: Good question.
(Somebody says something and distracts him. We then read together the names of The X Factor contestants that he has written on his papers.)
Our next interviewee was a small, frail 18-year-old girl who appeared to be about five years younger. At the beginning she was shy and answered questions haltingly, but later with more confidence.
She has drawn four stick figures.
Q: Tell me about your picture.
A: We live together in an external group home.
Q: You live together and you are also friends?
A: Yes. We live together, and we go to school together,
Q: Do you go to this school?
Q: Do you think it’s good to attend school?
A: It’s a good thing. We learn good qualities there.
Q: Tell me one good quality.
A: Well, it’s good to get gifts.
Q: Which grade were you in?
A: I was in 11th grade at vocational school, and I’m going to finish it now so I can leave school.
Q: What do you learn at the vocational school?
Q: Which vocation do you learn?
A: I’m studying to be a shelf stocker. I’m going to do the exam in July.
Q: But you’re a small, thin girl. Isn’t that hard for you?
A: A little bit, but it’s my favourite. I really like to do it.
Q: Have you been working this summer as well?
A: No, there’s a break during the summer. It starts again from September.
Q: Do you have to practice during the school year?
Q: Where do you work?
A: At the CBA [a grocery store chain].
Q: Did you choose this vocation?
A: No, our teacher chose it. First they asked us what we wanted, which is our favourite job, and this one got the most votes.
Q: Who voted besides you?
A: My fellow classmates.
Q: And did you accept the result? Do you think it will be good for you?
Q: Are you familiar with the existence of children’s rights?
Q: Children’s rights are necessary to help children live a healthy and happy life. I if you like school because, for example, children have a right to an education. Children also have the right to play.
(The other children are very loud, and we ask them to quiet down.)
Q: So, children have the right to play. Do you think this is important?
Q: Sometimes you go to visit a doctor. Does the doctor ever examine you?
A: There’s a sickroom here at the school, and the doctor is usually there—to measure how tall we are and weigh us.
Q: If you are sick, does he tell you what’s wrong and what you should do?
Q: And do you understand what he says?
Q: If I show you the children’s rights cards can we talk about them?
(A little boy turns to us and asks what’s in my hands. When I answer that they are children’s rights cards, he replies sarcastically: “Oh, my God!”
Q: Do you want to read them, or do you want me to read them to you?
A: (She reads.) No child should be maltreated.
Q: Do you think this is an important right?
A: Yes. (The 16-year-old boy interjects: “I’m going to be maltreated soon.”)
Q: What does “No child should be maltreated” mean? (While she’s thinking, the boy interrupts again and repeats what he has just said.)
Q: Let’s see another one. For example: ‘Children have the right to freedom of expression.’ It is understandable like that? (She is indecisive, hesitant, not sure if she understands or not.) It means that if you think something about somebody or something, you can voice your opinion, whether it’s something good or bad or problematic—anything that’s on your mind. For example, I asked you about the shelf stocking job to find out if this is really what you want to be, or if you were just asked to do that. At the group home do you usually tell what you want to do?
A: Not really.
Q: Why is that?
A: They don’t usally speak with us. We usually ask the adults what we’ll be doing today, and they tell us what’s going to happen. If nothing is planned, we ask them if we can do whatever we want.
Q: Do they usually allow you to do that?
A: Yes, they do.
Q: What do you like to do if you have free time?
A: I like beading, to make roses, tulips, pansies. I like the Uno card game, board games, I like to draw.
Q: Great. Another children’s right is the right to have information. Do you think this is an important right, or something that’s not really important? (The girl says nothing.) Is it understandable? Everything that happens to you or around you might be important for you, but you should also know about what isn’t important or is not a problem. Your opinions are more valid when you know more about the things around you. Is this important for you? Is this important for you?
Q: Do you receive enough information? Do you know what will happen to you, what you can do...things like that?
A: I receive information. For example, we were in court recently to figure out where I will go after I finish school, about what I want to do next. The judge and the teachers told me what to expect, and told me to be prepared.
Q: Will you leave the group home after you finish school?
A: Whether I stay and finish school depends on how long it takes [the court] to reach a decision.
Q: Why is there a question of your being able to finish school or not?
A: Because I can stay if I would like to study another vocation.
Q: How old are you?
A: I just had my 18th birthday, on the 8th of August. That’s why we had to go to court, because the record had to be signed.
Q: In order to continue your stay in the group home. Do you have contact with your mother and father?
A: I go home every weekend to visit my mother. I rarely see my father.
Q: Do you have silbings?
Q: Do they live with your mother?
A: No, my little brother is in care, at the Vasvári Children’s home. The bigger one has his own home. He has family, and has a child.
Q: So you are an aunt already.
A: Yes. (Smiles.)
Q: Does your mother support your learning another vocation?
A: I don’t know about this. I haven’t heard about it yet.
Q: What do you usually do when you meet your mother? What do you do together?
A: We talk and play. I help her with what she wants.
Q: Do you help her because you are a cute, grown-up girl, or because she needs it?
A: I usually help everybody on my own, with the washing up—with everything.
Q: Just like in the group home. Are you the oldest one there?
A: No. My roomate is 19.
Q: Let’s go on. Another right is that ‘all children are equal’. Do you think it’s true? (Pause.) Is this important? (The girl says nothing.) Is this a hard one?
A: A little bit.
Q: We can move on if you like, but if you prefer to think about it, I can wait.
A: Does this ‘equal’ mean ‘almost the same’?
Q: Then there’s this children’s right: ‘Disabled children have the right to special care.”
(She is silent.)
Q: Is this understandable?
Q: The children here have different capabilities. In the group home where you live, are there healthy children and handicapped children as well?
A: I don’t know it in this way.
Q: If you have problems, or something is bothering you, to whom do you turn?
A: To grown-ups.
Q: Is there someone you especially trust? Whom do you like to talk you if you’re in pain or distressed? A friend, perhaps?
A: I mostly tell things to my female friend.
Q: Is she able to help, or it is enough if she just listens to you?
A: It’s enough to listen.
Q: And if you need help?
A: Then I go to the adults.
Q: No matter to which one?
Q: Is this because they all help you in the same way?
A: Mostly, I go to the ones who know me well, the people I spend the most time with at the group home.
Q: Do you have a favourite caregiver? You don’t need to mention a name.
A: Yes, I have.
Q: When are you in a really good mood?
A: When we go to concerts, and when we go to such nice programmes.
Q: Which programmes do you like?
A: The handicraft programmes always cheer me up, or when we talk or watch a funny movie.
Q: Do you have favourite movies?
A: Well, I do.
Q: Can you tell me one?
A: I have a lot.
Q: Do you watch on DVDs or on the television?
A: Both on television and DVDs.
Q: Thank you for the conversation.
(At the end, this little grown-up girl hugged and held me for a long time.)
This last conversation underlines the particularly dependent and vulnerable situation of mentally handicapped children, and serves to strengthen our earlier opinion: adults, guardians, caregivers and parents each require sufficient practice and knowledge of children’s rights if they are to be enforced and given real meaning. Professional competence and kindness, however important, are no substitutes for expanded knowledge and methodological and conceptual innovation. Regarding children with special needs, the most important thing is to look beyond their physical needs and compulsory provision of services if we are to help them improve to the best of their abilities.
We summarise below our findings from these meetings with mentally disabled children in the hope of improving the efficiency of future methods:
- With the involvement of psychologists, it is necessary to develop and introduce tools that are sensitive to age, mental ability and intellectual state in order to enhance conversation levels with children.
- Where children with mental disabilities are concerned, we believe that one-on-one interviews are more effective than focus group discussions.
- It is important that the concept of children’s rights is explained and the teaching tools are introduced to the groups prior to the interview phase. The variety of children’s reactions and levels of cooperation can help point the way forward for future work and make our efforts more effective.
- For meetings with children with mental disabilities, we recommend a greater number of short sessions, rather than a few long sessions.
- During small-group work sessions, children with similar abilities should be given the opportunity to engage in one-on-one conversation.
19 September 2012, Budapest