The Protector of Citizens was the guest in the “New morning” show on Pink Television.

The report “Forgotten Children of Serbia”, which was recently published by the initiative for the rights of persons with disabilities in recent days appalled and shocked the Serbian public. The report is based on the findings collected during 2019 at the social welfare institutions in Serbia, and these findings that children and the young without parental care spend days in metal beds, with atrophied muscles and in pains, neglected by everyone who are supposed to take care about them. How children accommodated at social institutions live is the topic we discuss with the Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić. Good morning and thank you. This is a difficult topic, of course, and for all of us we can say disastrous. This is the defeat of the society. What are your comments to this report “Forgotten Children of Serbia”?

- Don’t say that – the defeat of the society. I believe that the things should be perceived realistically. You may be familiar or not, but within the Protector of Citizens there is the National Preventive Mechanism, one special department dealing exactly with this topic and they are in constant visits, constant oversight, their reports are issued periodically and certainly included in one annual report which is submitted to the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia. What you said, the defeat of the society, is not the defeat of the society if it is being worked on and if the conditions are improved and in order to improve the conditions it is necessary that everyone gets involved, not just to leave it to these institutions.

Do you know why it is the defeat of the society? If the children with mental disabilities who need care, if they were in such conditions, where are the parents to say – wait, my child lives without basic conditions? It was talked about that many of the children are not even visited. You were there, what did you come across?

- The first question to be asked there is whether all these children should be there, is it the only possible solution. In Serbia, and everywhere else in Europe, there is the advocacy to relocate them from such homes to families, whether primary biological family or foster families, that is the question now. Firstly, if all the children accommodated there are the ones who cannot take care of themselves and require someone else’s care, I have seen those. These are devastating scenes, it is what I stated. When I saw them in beds, lying, immovable, without any form of communication with their environment. And left to those who are obliged to take care of them. It all now depends on how every one of employees individually approaches to them. I have seen those who really, to put it colloquially, work their fingers to the bone, but I also saw very neglected children. What is important…

…The situation is not the same everywhere.

- All this should not have a general evaluation, but what I advocated and what I am asking, it is to go from home to home and see what is needed, before that to make a list of homes, the number of children, the number of employees, which evidently, I can confirm that with 100 percent certainty is insufficient and conditions in certain homes which are bad. Really bad! And then, it must be handled and firstly it is to see who of those children, may be accommodated with their families and then the children who cannot be accommodated with their families, whether according to their physical and mental condition they can be relocated to what I saw at some homes, and these are small communities near homes where several of them, mostly grown-up children with certain mental difficulties, but not such that they could not be capacitated for a relatively independent life, to function in such group. Without full guardian, normally with the supervision of the home and the supervision of the employees of the homes.

You actually saw that in unannounced visits?

- In unannounced visits I also saw that children can be in the situation where they cannot establish communication because they are isolated, isolated as explained by some employees because they were aggressive towards me, they didn’t show everything, I am not an expert to evaluate that, but I think that it is not the solution to isolate these children entirely.

Do these children have regular meals, do they have clothes, footwear, what is the accommodation, some of these homes were renovated, some were not, isn’t that right, probably the situation is not the same everywhere?

- it is not the same everywhere and now that you ask me about nutrition and clothes, I think that is the least of a problem at homes. A greater problem at homes is the work with these children, the communication between these children and the ones who are supposed to take primary care of them, and these are their closest ones, then with the employees of these homes and certainly what is not of less importance is the type of socialization through the communication of people outside the home and with these children at homes, I spoke to some of them, with the ones with whom it is possible to establish verbal communication and when I asked them what they needed, they said that they needed someone to come to visit them, to entertain them to organize something for them that would resemble a life they all seek and which they need.

These are the children of different age, their educational needs are different. How is that realized, the process of education? How is that going?

- This question is asked very frequently. And thank you for asking this question. These are mostly children whose status which is mentally and physically, let’s say, compromised is such that the education is put aside, there where it is possible it is certainly organized but it is important that these children, wherever it is possible, be brought to the state which is similar or the same as some normal life so that they can become independent. There is the question to be asked which I always asked when they are talked about and it is – whether this is the moment when a sensation initiated this topic and it will be interesting for some time. What will happen afterwards, or should it be reported about these children on a daily basis, visit those homes, these are not nice sights, let me tell you right now, but to insist on that every day.

Yes, but let me tell you this is now that you mentioned this report, that it was made in 2019, the researchers entered eight institutions as we understood, three institutions for children with developmental disabilities and five for children without parental care and it seems to me that of those with developmental disabilities only one met all the conditions. Why did they wait for 2021 to publish this report? Why wasn’t the public alarmed right on the spot?

- You have to ask them that.

I find it completely unrealistic. Finally, it is not within the scope of the competence of the Protector of Citizens, but still…

- Yes, it is within our scope of activities, we constantly visit these institutions as you call them, I personally visit them, I am in communication whenever I can. This is the thing, I repeat, you shouldn’t focus on just one visit or on one event, one research but to have a constant focus. Why? What hurts these children most, the ones I communicated with is that they don’t have their closest ones there. To come, to visit them, to help them, to simply have this connection better. This report doesn’t mention what I always highlighted, and that is – if there are no parents, where are the cousins? And what opens a serious topic, and that is, many of these children have some property, they were taken away their business capability due to their mental status, so some of their relatives disposes with their property, and these people do not visit them. What is that about now? That is why I said to one media outlet that it is not a matter of just one ministry, but there are the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Family Care, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Health.

That is, an entire package of problems which should be perceived in this manner, but we have to ask you one more thing. We had one devastating story, when it comes to a unique institution, which is Petnica.

- Yes, the Research Center Petnica near Valjevo.

Yes, what was talked about was sexual harassment, serious topics referring to, let’s say the abuse of the position and everything else that accompanies these events. One teacher in a den of his forced girls to take their clothes off, gave them alcohol, took photos of them, others covered that, some of them even destroyed those photos and data. How to understand the responsible persons from this institution and their lack of response, why didn’t they report that, knowing what was happening?

- The public was not familiar with that until we disclosed it, and it is that the form of organization of the Research Center Petnica is the form of organization which is registered at the Business Registers Agency as an association. That means, the three of us here meet the conditions for one association and that is three identity cards. It functions since 1982 and it was not in the focus of those who should be taking care of that. We asked the Ministry of Education if it is in charge of overseeing it, the Ministry of Education says that it doesn’t have a formal control. I agree, not formally, but if children who go to Petnica receive recommendations from their schools, recommendations from their teachers, pedagogues, psychologists, if schools justify their absence from school, that means that the school officially with their signature and stamp, whoever justifies that, if there is a certain connection, then it is an entire system of education which is left or is not under direct control. We should make a comparison to all those forms of organization such as limited liability companies, associations, dealing with education of our children, if they are under control, under whose control and in what manner and what else can be identified there. We didn’t send the request for information just to the Ministry of Education, but also to the Commissioner, we are asking for the information of the children, if they are subject to the rules prescribed by the Law on the Personal Data Protection, such as the material status of parents, if they have insurance or not, all sorts of questions and what is the most important – who provides the funds and how. Is it budgetary financing? I am waiting for the answer, this question was sent to the Treasury on 1st July. Once we get the entire picture, we will issue a report which will completely be based on confirmed facts and those who are in charge of the control of education of our children and upbringing, this upbringing is always forgotten, they should decide what is to be done next.

The courts and prosecutor’s office?

- That is as far as the sexual harassment is concerned, what is the consequence if we all can conclude that someone failed to conduct a proper control, if one man is allowed to do what he does, then the question is who is controlled there.

The question is for Petnica itself, that is, their management, managing board, director and I don’t know who else.

- We didn’t get answers. You see, we asked them everything about their operation and organization and oversight, because there is one protocol from 2019, I think it is the last one according to which all these institutions dealing with, this is not an institution, this is an association, let’s not make that mistake, are ordered to have an organized control over any type of harassment, not just sexual, but all types of the harassment of students. Petnica also had to have that. If it didn’t have it, then the question is why nobody checked that.

These children are minor or just became adults, but mostly they are minor.

- These children are nearly adults or just became adults, as it is said.

Yes, and let’s take a look at the situation now that the responsible person says that they knew it in 2017+2018 but we didn’t disclose it to maintain the reputation of Petnica? What is that about? They kept these events secret. They said: we solved that because children never went alone to his class, only with companion.

- Petnica is not the only one, that is what the public doesn’t know. You have the regional research centers which operate very well, I can name 10, focused on that, because it is 1982. Petnica was most frequently in the media, others were not that present, didn’t have good advertisement and now they are in focus, but this is not about Petnica or them at all, but everyone who regardless of their form of organization work in the field of children education. Under whose control that is, you send your child to a private school, you send your child to Petnica, you want to know if the one who provides education meets the conditions, if this is the person who can be in the communication at all, I won’t mention now other cases of 5,6, 7 months ago which resulted in court proceedings or will result in court proceedings. I don’t know what should be repeated in order to just conduct a control process of all of them.

Well said. Thank you and see you again.