The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić was hosted in the program of Radio Belgrade 1.

Our first topic is about the report “Forgotten Children of Serbia” which was recently published by the Initiative for the rights of persons with mental disabilities, which shook the domestic public these days. The research, among other things, stated that children with mental disabilities stay at inhuman environment and that they are closed often without medical or any other care. Today we talk to our guest in the studio, Zoran Pašalić about the conditions they live in, who and how takes care of them, if the homes where they are accommodated are regularly controlled. He is the Protector of Citizens of Serbia. Good afternoon and thank you for being here with us. These days we could all see the outcome after the publishing of the report “Forgotten Children of Serbia”. In Serbia it is again talked about the topic of homes for children and now we can perhaps mention what happened in the meantime. There are different opinions. Some say that this attitude is exaggerated and somewhat unfavorable, others say it is true. The Minister paid unannounced visits these days to several homes for children and now there is a certain direction in which this topic develops. Our first question for you is how do you see this entire situation and what has been initiated in the public with regards to this story?

- I am glad that it has been initiated in the public but I always observe it not to be a topic for a week or two, but to be under a constant focus of the public and those who should take care about what the conditions in these homes are, what is the position of these children accommodated at these homes. The expression “forgotten children of Serbia” may really be used because before this they were insufficiently in the public focus. I don’t like the fact that such tragic or bad situation, which cannot bring satisfaction to anyone, is talked about in such sensationalistic manner but it definitely needs to be paid attention to. I am talking from my experience, both personal and of the institution I am the head of, because this topic is in our constant focus, we have an entire sector, the National Preventive Mechanism dealing with the position of persons staying at the institutions of closed type and I know this topic very well and I know what are the needs of these children, what are their problems and how these problems can be solved.

What is your comment to the evaluations that the entire story is exaggerated and that it was unfavorably evaluated? You had the chance to visit such homes?

- I wouldn’t comment on that. I can say what I saw or my colleagues from the institution of the Protector of Citizens saw. We saw the situations which are really bad, that is the only correct expression, but we also saw some really good situations. And these good situations, good circumstances under which these children live are related to great efforts of the persons working there. What I can take as a general stance is that the number of employees at these institutions must be increased, because I saw with my own eyes that sometimes the employees, mostly women, take care of 20-30 children each, so it is really impossible during the working hours of one day and even longer hours to provide them with care in an adequate manner.

The research, that is the visit of homes took place in 2019. Have you been informed about it since then until now? Is there an obligation, I think it is an important question, of an individual, organization or institution to inform competent authorities, health care institutions, police and the ministry if they come across cases of negligence and abuse?

- As far as the institution of the Protector of Citizens is concerned, we acted either upon our won initiative when we identified and indicated to some shortcomings, only in last year there were 25 recommendations, or upon the reports of parents who were dissatisfied or hurt by the situation of their children.

What would you say, what is actually the greatest problem? We have now heard one of them, that perhaps the number of professional staff is insufficient. You visited and visit frequently these institutions. What is your perception of potential solution to this situation?

- The first thing is to determine the exact number of the children for whom it is necessary to be here. Not everyone should be… it is advocated in Europe the system which is originally accepted then rejected and it is to close all these homes and simply to put children to their biological and primary families. I came across children at these homes who were forgotten in the exact meaning of this word, removed from the everyone’s sight. What is said “I couldn’t care less”. But I also saw the situation in which the parents devoted full attention to the child, tried to help where the help was needed, even self-organized to provide these children with what they are entitled to, which is a normal and dignified life. That is the first problem, to determine the exact number of children. Then, according to this number to determine the number of employees. And then to see who of those children who wouldn’t go to their primary families could be organized in smaller groups, which is what I saw at certain homes. These are the children who are capable of taking care of themselves or who can reach the level of being capable of taking care of themselves. They are gathered in smaller groups, get isolated in these smaller groups outside homes, the home certainly controls their lives in terms of all their activities, their nutrition and accommodation. What I noticed is that these children are very satisfied with such manner of organization. Finally, to invest maximum efforts for the children who must stay at homes to be provided with adequate care and help. Why am I saying this? Because you have immovable children there, who absolutely don’t have an adequate communication with the external worked and they really deserve much, much better treatment. When I mentioned several times negative examples, I meant exactly about these children. It is a very difficult situation – you see a child who must be moved several times during the day by the person in charge to take care about that child so as to avoid decubitus and in the situation when they don’t have an adequate equipment in terms of decubitus mattresses, not to talk about personal hygiene, nutrition and other.

The potential solution to this situation is being discussed, as well as the relocation of all these residents of these homes who could be relocated to either primary or foster family, and for all these cases you mentioned now, could some form of hospital treatment be a solution? Do you think that the situation could be solved in this manner? There were such attempts in some other countries.

- The situation is quite the opposite. Those who are for hospital treatment are accommodated at these homes and what we insisted on is the increased medical supervision. One very, very broad topic is opened where one ministry cannot solve this problem. In this report the topic I find important is not discussed and it is that many of these children if they do not have parents, they have relatives, who frequently manage their property and at the same time these children do not have any satisfaction, not even in the form of visits of these close relatives. It is a very significant topic – taking of business capability and then everything resulting from such situation. Then, if you take into consideration that many children were simply relocated by the decision of their closed ones to such homes, then the question is how to return them? How and in what manner to convince them to take them back to their families? Then, which foster families would take the child that requires 24 hours of care?

All that aggravates such intentions. What is the insight...

- Pardon me, if I may interrupt you. Here, the most recent example which was before the institution of the Protector of Citizens, when it comes to the child with Down syndrome, two years of age, who was not accepted by his parents and even though the law prohibits the accommodation of children under the age of three at the home, there was no other choice.

That is exactly what I wanted to ask you, what is the insight into how interested parents and close relatives are in such situations when the children are accommodated at some institution?

- A general standpoint cannot be taken. You have exceptional parents and cousins who really care, but I must say that they are few.

A conclusion emerges now that they are indeed, conditionally speaking, abandoned by everyone. It would be interesting to hear and what do you think, could it be said that in our law there are clearly defined obligations of such homes. Therefore, can on the legal level, I almost repeat now one question, problems be solved if there are any. The law is not applied so perhaps children are tied or… Is there at all any clear principle based on which the actions are taken?

- Not only the law is applied there, but also the bylaws regulating in detail, the operation and the work at such institutions or institutes. The problem is not about the law, just like none of the problems is about the law or bylaws, but the implementation of all that. This detail you mention, that children are tied, it had a bigger impact on me than that they are left on their own most of the day. It is that lack of staff. Then their progress, and many of them can be brought in the situation to take care of themselves by serious, diligent work. That is the greatest impression.

That requires great work.

- Great work and what is important, when I talked to these children, when I discussed where conversation was possible, I even had that type of non-verbal communication, those children are very emotional. When you move to the manner they want, they really nicely show that and then when you asked them, the ones you have verbal communication with, what they would like most, they always say – greater contact to the external word in terms of having visits, having someone to organize their life in the manner how we all live in normal conditions, this covid situation now excluded.

What are your competences in this case when there is new report like this one, when you learn…

- They are included in the Law on the Protector of Citizens, but I hope that by the end of July a new law will be in the Assembly procedure which provides much greater authorizations. We made it based on the experiences we had in this long-term operation. That is when we notice a shortcoming we ask for the correction of that shortcoming first and appeal first to the ones who caused that shortcoming all the way to the top, that is the competent ministry. As I said, during the last year there were 25 recommendations. Out of these 25, 10 were acted upon, 13 are long-term measures so they haven’t been completed yet, but in two situations there were absolutely no actions at all. They ask me frequently if I am satisfied with that? I am absolutely dissatisfied because when we make a recommendation, it is based on evidence and what we ask must absolutely be done, and sometimes we do not have an adequate person to talk to and then it is a long and arduous work.

We heard partially or perhaps to give you time to finish also the story about how you see the solutions to the problems. You said, we should start in a logical manner from that and see what the number of children is, what is their condition, who of the children can be relocated. What would be the final outcome in your opinion?

- The final outcome would be to bring down the number of children to the number of those who cannot be helped in any other manner than institutionally.

And only these children to be...

- Only those. And then to focus on them. And certainly, I have to say to those children who are with their families or at foster families or with their relatives because the persons taking care of them seek and really deserve an adequate assistance. What does it mean? In means that during the day, week, month they should be provided with institutional assistance in order to, pardon my expression, catch some breath because it is not simple at all…

Yes, cooperation with them or assistance...

- The financial assistance in every aspect. And what is also very important is the communication among families with such children and society with the aim of organization of some manifestation which make their lives more joyful and nicer. Some would say that the protector now talks about that, and we have really bad situation when it comes to the hygiene. It is not really like that. Sometimes this detail is much more important because the first thing depends on technical and organizational conditions and the other detail depends on how much empathy you have for these children.

Let’s also mention the case in which in some way you also participate, that is Petnica. You addressed the Ministry of Education, asked for additional explanations, discussed it with the Commissioner for the Protection of Data and Information of Public Importance. What types of checks did you ask for and what is it exactly about when it comes to your participation in this case?

- The case “Petnica” culminated on 25th June by the cases of sexual harassment of the students of this research center, which then opened many questions. What was very disturbing for the public was the detail that Petnica is an association, that Petnica is not under the jurisdiction (in the educational system) of the Ministry of Education or institutions which would have to deal with the organization of education… It is frequently forgotten, it is about education and upbringing of our children,. What we asked and will ask is that the operation of the Research Center Petnica be inspected from all aspects. If schools send and issue recommendations for students who want to attend these courses or the research work in Petnica center, the question is how the Ministry of Education does not have the authority it has for school operation. If schools need to provide recommendation by the pedagogue or psychologist, if they justify the absence of children from regular classes by going to Petnica and many other questions, it is really important to see the entire control system, too. I wouldn’t like to be misunderstood. We sent appeals to the ministry also with regards to Mr. Aleksić, and a school which was registered as a limited liability company, and whose description of activities includes education of children, but also was not under the authority of the Ministry of Education. We insist and will insist on all those institutions which have in their name or activity education being under constant control, constant inspection of who works there, what is the operational method and many other questions. For instance, one question we asked the Treasury on the first of this month, it was how direct or indirect budgetary beneficiaries financed Petnica. We first thought it was the Ministry of Education, but if didn’t, was it the local self-government, if it didn’t – who did? Because, you have there the most talented children who must be under serious control of those who take care about our future. Don’t take this as a cliché. It is really like that because when it comes to the inclusive education, we do not talk about children with special needs, but also about exceptionally talented children who would have to find their place adequately in the society. Otherwise, we would have what could happen, what the Protector of Citizens put the special emphasis on. And that is that someone works with the most talented children practically, I would put it most mildly, that they are worked with and we as a society do not know anything about that.

Thank you for the conversation. We had with us on the program the Protector of Citizens of Serbia Zoran Pašalić.