Protected Children, Regulated Mothers: A Conversation with Eszter Varsa

By M. BunaFebruary 6, 2022

Protected Children, Regulated Mothers: A Conversation with Eszter Varsa
ESZTER VARSA, a social historian with a PhD in Comparative Gender Studies from Central European University in Budapest, is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the European Research Council project ZARAH: Women’s Labour Activism in Eastern Europe and Transnationally, From the Age of Empires to the Late 20th Century at Central European University in Vienna. In 2020, she was Romani Rose Fellow at the Research Centre on Antigypsyism at Heidelberg University. Varsa’s fields of research interest include the Roma in 20th-century Eastern Europe, reproductive politics, health and hygiene, and the history of child protection. 

In her recent book, Protected Children, Regulated Mothers: Gender and the “Gypsy Question” in State Care in Postwar Hungary, 1949–1956 (CEU Press, 2021), Varsa examines child protection in Stalinist Hungary, where the prewar foster-care system was increasingly replaced by institutionalization in residential homes. Varsa argues that, rather than being merely a tool of political repression and totalitarian control, state care in postwar Hungary also reinforced wider social and cultural patterns, including those aimed at the assimilation of minorities. As state-socialist child protection went beyond safeguarding children to regulate their parents, particularly single mothers, it also advanced a centuries-long national project of pursuing a solution to the “Gypsy question” — namely the perceived “work-shyness” of the Roma.

Boys playing “snúr,” Hungary, 1948 (Fortepan, Donated by Magyar Rendőr)

Children having a morning snack at a care institution, 1951 (Fortepan, Donated by Gyula Hámori)


M. BUNA: The issue of childhood in the broader social and political contexts of Eastern, Southeastern, and East Central Europe continues to be an insufficiently researched topic, while childhood in state-socialist/Stalinist Europe is even more so. Which official childhood narrative do you try to counteract in Protected Children, Regulated Mothers?

ESZTER VARSA: The childhood narrative I am addressing and trying to counteract concerns the politicization of childhood under state socialism. A dominant historical understanding of state socialism, and particularly of Stalinism, has been that of political repression. In the field of child protection, the residential-home-based system of state care and large children’s homes, especially during the “dark years” of Stalinism, had a very negative image among professionals. In Hungary, and internationally, researchers have largely put the blame for the harms to institutionalized children on communism, and the practical failures of the political system between the 1950s and the 1980s. The video recordings of abandoned children suffering from hospitalization symptoms in dilapidated rural homes in Romania that filled the world media following the fall of the Ceaușescu regime in 1989 have done a lot to popularize this idea. Deinstitutionalization became strongly linked with discourses and processes of democratization in post-state socialism. The transformation of the national child protection systems was supported by international organizations such as UNICEF and the European Social Network, as well as the World Bank. In their reports about Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, representatives of these agencies associated collective education and large children’s homes with the abridgment of the rights of the child. In a similar move, they also reduced child protection measures introduced in the Stalinist period since these were seen as serving the purposes of a “greater surveillance of the family and easier child removal from the home.” The cases of children placed in state care between the late 1940s and the mid-1950s in Hungary examined in my book provide a different perspective on this period. They demonstrate that the effects of the war were very much present in the early 1950s, in the number of sick and undernourished children, and of those who had lost a parent, in the war or shortly afterward, as a result of poor health conditions.

One of the central arguments of my book is that the array of problems teachers and educators faced in the 1950s were not predominantly connected to the Stalinist politics of the Rákosi regime in Hungary. Instead, the sources revealed diverse social and economic conditions that led to children being identified as abandoned or endangered. In the majority of cases, families were experiencing employment, housing, or other financially defined difficulties, or were struggling with health problems or the consequences of war-related loss and death. A few children ended up in state care due to their parents’ politically motivated arrests, but they were a minority. Literature has also pointed to the forcefully assimilationist policies directed at the Roma as well as their growing poverty, visible from the mid-1980s onward. Because a significant number of Romani children were placed in institutional care in state-socialist countries, the institutionalization of Romani children has been established as one of the legacies of the period. The history of child protection in Hungary shows that, contrary to this assumption, child protection has had a much longer history with the so-called “Gypsy question.” In the field of child protection, placement in state care was a measure geared toward the assimilation of those considered “Gypsy” that had emerged repeatedly at local and national levels since the 18th century in Europe, including in the territories of the Habsburg Empire and later the Hungarian nation-state. The placement of Romani children in state care was not a socialist invention but part of a historical continuity in the connection between child protection and the “solution to the Gypsy question.” Political support for a residential-care-based form of child protection following the end of the 1940s, and an increase in the number of children’s homes, enabled the realization of this long-existing idea.

State-socialist Hungary identified the Roma as a social layer with a perceived “work-shyness,” not as an ethnic minority. How did this assimilationist rationale influence the construction of a “proper childhood” that led to the overrepresentation of Romani children in institutional care?

The evaluation of good and bad parenting was gender-differentiated and affected Romani and non-Romani parents differently. The intersectional analysis of child protection practices points to the existence of prejudices concerning the “work-shyness” of parents whom caseworkers identified as “Gypsies.” This meant that, when mothers were accused of bad parenting because of not having a job, Romani mothers were likely to be accused of work-shyness as well. Similarly, while caseworkers pressured lone mothers to get married, Romani women who married “in the Gypsy way” were likely to face negative evaluation from child protection authorities concerning their lifestyle and sexual morality. Romani mothers were held responsible for raising productive members of state-socialist society. Representatives of the child protection system regarded the proper shaping of Romani mothers’ parenting habits as a significant step toward the disappearance of work-shyness among the Roma, and thus their successful assimilation into Hungarian society.

You are careful, but also right, to point out that the removal of children from marginalized ethnic minorities into residential institutions and boarding schools in order to acculturate them, a process most evident in white-supremacist, settler-colonial societies, was not a uniquely Hungarian or even East European reality but part of a larger, often violent undertaking aimed at “uplifting” people from savagery to civilization through education for productive work. Were there any attributes specific to Hungarian state actors’ attempts to exercise control over the Roma by placing their children in temporary state care? 

An attribute specific to the way child-protection caseworkers approach those considered “Gypsies” was an assumption about their work-shyness. Children’s case files showed that prejudice against “Gypsies” as work-shy persisted in child-protection work across the political divide of the late 1940s. This affected child-protection casework as well as children’s institutionalization. It manifested not only in skepticism regarding Romani women’s sincerity about finding employment but also in the belief among local actors that Romani children’s institutionalization would help eliminate work-shyness among the Roma. Furthermore, children’s homes had a mission of racial/ethnic assimilation in relation to the Roma. Authorities in state-socialist Hungary inherited a centuries-long idea and practice in which Romani children’s removal from their families was seen as a means to assimilate all Roma into Hungarian society. Children’s homes were to inscribe habits of work into their inhabitants and thereby contribute to the elimination of “work-shyness” among the Roma. When talking about their Romani students in the 1950s, former teachers and caregivers emphasized that part of the goal of assimilation was the equal treatment of Romani children with other children of non-Romani origin in state care. While one of the most criticized issues concerning Romani children’s institutionalization in the state-socialist period was the erasure of Romani ethnic identity by this assimilationist drive, it is still important to consider that former teachers’ and caregivers’ recollections were likely to have been influenced by the present-day equality discourses that condemn discrimination against ethnic minorities.

As your book makes clear, “placement in state care, however, was not equal to child care.” How was child protection supposed to balance the responsibilities for reproductive work but also impose paid employment for Romani mothers?

The lack of childcare services in Hungary in the early 1950s created a tension between women’s responsibilities for both paid work and care work, a situation in which the institution of child protection fulfilled a central role. At a time when an increasing number of women were entering paid work in the framework of state-socialist industrialization but when the socialization of care work was inadequate, these institutions substituted for missing public childcare services. Participation in productive work was counted among the expectations women faced in state-socialist societies. Child-protection caseworkers active in facilitating the employment of mothers viewed children as hindering women from fulfilling this expectation. They subsequently mobilized the already existing network of children’s homes and child-protection institutions to enable women’s entrance to paid work, as well as to pressure them to do so. State care involved the regulation not only of the children but also of their parents, especially their mothers.

Child-protection caseworkers used the institution of child protection to force rather than simply facilitate mothers’ employment. Women’s lack of employment contributed to care workers’ negative evaluation of their mothering, a situation that lone mothers faced frequently. The cases in which parents were denied the return of their children from state care show even more clearly how caseworkers were able to use child protection to force parents to enter regular paid work. But caseworkers’ evaluation of Romani mothers was not guided only by child protection policies. It was also based on information provided by neighbors, schoolteachers, police, doctors, and the activists of the local social-policy committee, while also being influenced by the prejudice about the work-shyness of Roma that led to their characterization as incompetent mothers even when they tried to reconcile paid work with raising children.

Child protection was also used to regulate female citizens’ sexuality, with a particular focus on young single women and lone mothers thought to transgress the acceptable limits of sexual morality and good motherhood, limits deriving from patriarchal discourses. What were the consequences for Hungarian mothers based on their belonging to the majority versus the minority group?

Caseworkers used a variety of means to regulate the sexual behavior of lone mothers and single young women. Their claims that lone mothers prioritized their sexual pleasure and thereby endangered their children, that they were incapable of raising their children properly, or that single young women transgressed the acceptable limits of sexual morality, tapped into discourses that defined certain forms of womanhood as deviant. Declaring the children of lone mothers morally endangered and placing them in state care were forms of disciplinary practice aimed at promoting an ideal female citizen who was a productive member of socialist society. Sexuality outside the framework of marriage and the nuclear family posed the danger of women refusing to participate in the productive work that was considered essential to build communism and rejecting their traditional roles as wives and mothers in the family.

There was ambivalence, however, when it came to gender equality: while authorities encouraged, and even enforced, mothers’ entrance to paid work as productive and independent individuals, expectations in terms of these women’s sexuality retained an emphasis on marriage as a desired unit of society. The transnational history of the regulation of sexuality presents several instances and contexts in which such practices served to preserve racial and ethnic boundaries. While in the United States, for example, controlling white and African American women’s sexual behavior aimed to maintain the racial status quo, the sexual regulation of Romani women in state-socialist Hungary aimed at their assimilation. Accordingly, Romani mothers were responsible for raising children to become productive citizens of the People’s Republic. This meant that caseworkers paid special attention to the mothering habits of Roma in order to make sure that they controlled young Romani women’s sexuality. When Romani mothers allowed their daughters to “focus on their womanhood,” and thereby allowed them to “go astray,” they were in fact allowing a form of work avoidance. Influencing the parental behavior of Romani mothers was thus important to control young Romani women’s sexuality and reduce their “work-shyness.”

Images depicting happy children working collectively for a brighter socialist future are among the most common visual representations in state-socialist Europe. In addition to the family, school was the institution that enforced children’s participation in productive work. In what ways did residential care differ from regular schools in terms of education for work?

Despite the fact that Hungarian pedagogical journals in the early 1950s were filled with articles on the importance of involving children in so-called education for work, these discussions hardly affected educational practice in primary schools during this period. Education of children in residential care, however, differed from the regular school education of non-institutionalized children. Although this difference might be puzzling in light of the importance of productive work in the context of state-socialist catch-up industrialization, the comparative history of residential care, reformatory institutions, and reform pedagogies for children in the 19th and 20th centuries reveals that these educational programs, unlike those practiced at regular schools, had historically entailed rigorous training for work. While in regular primary-school education, the idea of introducing physical work into the curriculum first appeared following the onset of state socialism in East Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, including Hungary, reformatories and progressive reform pedagogies had combined physical work activities with processes of learning since the late 18th century in Europe. These two historically different social-educational fields led to education for work becoming part of residential care curricula. A mixture of reformatory and reform pedagogy in the educational profile of residential institutions assured the continuity of education for work in their everyday practice under state socialism.


M. Buna is a freelance writer.

LARB Contributor

M. Buna is a freelance writer.


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