The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić was hosted on the “Morning Topic” show on N1 television.
The Protector of Citizens asked the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance to check if the Research center Petnica collected personal information of the students of their programs in compliance with the law, for the purpose of protecting the interests and rights of children. This morning I am talking to Ombudsman Zoran Pašalić on this initiative based on which the Commissioner initiated the procedure as well as on the requests issued by the Protector of Citizens to the Ministry of Education with regards to this case as well as with the case of the report “Forgotten Children of Serbia”. Good morning, thank you for being here. The procedures and your requests were issued both to the Ministry of Education and the Research Center Petnica itself. What did you ask for and what type of information do you expect?
- We asked for the information first from the Commissioner for the Information of Public Importance, that is a chronological order, then from the Ministry of Education, we also asked for the information from “Petnica” even though “Petnica” is an association and therefore is not in the scope of control of the Protector of Citizens. And what was not published in the media, that is that we also asked for it from the Ministry of Finance and the Treasury of the Republic of Serbia. The last-mentioned instance, specifically, refers to the funds which were sent to the association of the Research Center Petnica in the last 10 years by budgetary and extrabudgetary beneficiaries.
Who is in charge? You are saying that as a citizen association the Research Center Petnica is not subject to the control of the Ministry of Education, aren’t you?
- I made a parallel with other so to say forms of organization, such as limited liability companies dealing with education, scientific papers or education of children that it absolutely is not in the scope of competence of the Ministry of Education and it would have to be. Especially now when we talk about the Research Center Petnica, the reason is that elementary or high schools are some interphase between the choice and desire of students to go to “Petnica”, they collect the data, they justify the classes with their stamp.
They issue recommendations.
- They issue recommendations, then the opinion of the school pedagogue or psychologist is required so there is a connection between the official educational institution and the association of the Research Center Petnica and therefore I believe that the Ministry of Education is obliged to perform some oversight there. Legally, it is not obliged, but I believe it must be changed.
What type of information do you expect, how can these pieces of information help in solving of the situation in which our society is now, and which took place in Petnica, I am referring to sexual harassment and abuse of students?
- Specifically, the occasion was 25th June, we learned from the media about the sexual harassment of students of the Research Center Petnica, but we are interested in how these forms of organization at all, I really don’t know how to call them otherwise, dealing with education operate in terms of many factors – connection with official institutions and official institutes and eventually with the competent ministry.
How can the information you get help in this particular situation?
- It can help because then we will suggest some amendments to the law referring to the education, so to say colloquially, so that really pursuant to the law and bylaws the oversight of these forms of organization dealing with education of our children could be performed.
How can we protect the victims in this entire situation?
- As for the victims, specifically the ones we are talking about, on the sexual harassment, that is the matter of the prosecutors’ office and courts. The Protector of Citizens as an institution cannot within the scope of its competences deal with the protection, except for the constant warning that these issues are reported, that there are constant complaints so that the public could get familiar. But I have insisted, and I will always insist on that – it should not be in a sensationalistic manner.
- It is very, very dangerous for the state of these persons, the children who suffered that. I emphasized on multiple occasions that it is maybe even worse than what these children went through. In fact, I have a very serious reason to say that. I discussed with a minor who suffered a severe rape and who told me “face to face” – that it was more difficult for her that she was subjected to sensationalistic reports, shows, news articles than the fact that it happened to her.
How does everything look like to you in the context of “Petnica”, has any awareness, if we can put it like that, been raised in terms of protection?
- We will see. For now it did not reach the proportions of sensationalism some previous events did. Probably it was my appeal, not just mine, but of many others, were fruitful so it was simply put to the level which really protects the persons who suffered all that.
The actions of persons in charge in “Petnica” and what they said in public, the resignation of the director, do you see it as the right way to make a deviation in order to provide for the research of what happened?
- That is a personal gesture, so to say. I believe that the very event which took place for several years, almost 10 years at the Research Center Petnica, may be connected indirectly, but direct connections are to really see what the form of organization that is and how it could be allowed that something like that happened at all. To put the blame of just one person would not be fair.
Do you think that there are several responsible persons?
- I am convinced that there are several responsible persons, because it is not just one person who makes the calls, there are several persons in the series who are responsible.
Do you think that the suspect should stay at the position of a teacher or not decide in general on the operation of the center?
- As far as I am informed, the suspect is no longer at “Petnica”. And now, what will ensue with regards to the sexual harassment, it is the matter of prosecutors’ office or court, but the very organization, the very correlation between official educational institutions which are in touch with the Research Center “Petnica” as an association, as I stated, and which is anyway reflected in what we asked to be provided as information, all the way to the Ministry of Education, must me very, very thoroughly inspected, to see where the omissions are and what can be done to prevent something like that from happening in future.
You asked the Commissioner for the Information of Public Importance to determine in what manner and whether the personal data of children in the course of application processing are protected, correct?
- Firstly, if such data can be requested at all. I don’t know if you have seen the form, but I believe you have it right now in your hands, is that the form?
These were named, isn’t that right...
- OK, you have the form.
...organization, photography, cell phone number, home phone number, material status…
- …parents. Then the data with the inmates the child lives with, there are many data for which the Commissioner will determine if they can be asked for at all and under which conditions.
Let’s talk about this other topic, too, that is equally important, to say the least – “Forgotten Children”. The report was published, the Minister Kisić Tepavčević said that it is about the visits that took place during previous years. However, the question is, how to change this situation? It is not the first time we hear occasionally, and if not before, that is, if not later, then the last time in 2008 even the NBC was there and did a story on the condition at homes for children with mental disabilities, which were shocking photos that reached the public, how to make a progress there?
- There is a tendency to relocate all the children accommodated at such institutions to their primary families, and if they don’t have them – to their relatives and if they don’t have relatives – to foster families in order to create more humane conditions for the lives of these children. That is the intention which is not easy to realize. I will tell you why. When you say forgotten and neglected children, I had contacts with these children on several occasions. Verbal ones with the ones with whom verbal communication can be established or the type of contact which says much more, and that is the non-verbal communication where you see what these children need and that is – they need a contact based on emotions and empathy. Whether the primary family as parents or cousins or fosters in the lack of primary family provide that, it is a very serious matter. Because, in certain country, this practice was initiated but after that, however, there were certain corrections.
- For the reason which is exactly that – the negligence. I will give you a situation in which I was during the visits to such institutions, where two boys without parents or relatives or at least they relatives didn’t show up to see them, and there is the obligation of the social welfare centers according to their place of residence to visit them occasionally. Then they were talking about when someone came to visit them most recently. And these are the intervals of several years. They you ask the ones who have relatives and they just simply say that their relatives did not visit them recently. It opens an issue which is not taken into consideration here at all, and that is – frequently the children are taken their business capability, legal and business and someone else handles their property, that is the issue opened by the Protector of Citizens several years ago. And it is what we will insist on. Because, this topic doesn’t just open the issue of negligence of children and poor conditions of their staying at these institutions, I personally visited several of these institutions, I cannot say…
Many people responded to what you said in a recent interview that you saw children sitting at the premises that smelled like feces, in the conditions which certainly are not suitable for growing up and normal life.
- I saw and confirmed that there are such cases where children who are really in the conditions which are absolutely not the conditions which can be at the level of the most hygienic but those which are, so to say, common in some other situations. But also, I must say that I saw those who are employees of these institutions who invest maximum efforts to put things in order but there is not enough of them in comparison to the number of residents. Moreover, the fluctuation of employees at such institutions is huge. People start working, stay there for a relatively short period of time, if they can find another job in Serbia or abroad or have some other forms of providing for their existence, people leave.
Does that indicate for us to the responsibility of the system, competent ministry, different organization system?
- This should be done first – to see exactly, but exactly to determine the number, firstly, whether all this children accommodated at these institutions should be there. I pointed that out on several occasions. I met children who didn’t belong there, who were sent there just so that someone could, to put it colloquially, get them off their back. Then, to determine who of those children could return to their, I will use that expression, primary family. There are other forms for organization of their lives, these are mini communities where, when I stayed at some of these communities I saw that the communication with these children is such that they are mostly pleased or most of them are pleased with it. Then there is the designation of the required number of employees, not just the required number but also the qualifications of persons working with these children. From those in charge of the hygiene maintenance to the ones who communicate with them in terms of qualifications who provide them with some social content of staying. Or, not just social, but labor as well. I know that there were attempts at some homes to organize some sort of activities, which is really the most pleasant way to animate these children.
Fine. Here we are talking, it seems to me, at this point, about sporadic initiatives, however, which in the best-case scenario give some result.
- You are right, sporadic initiatives, yes.
A small number, and we are also talking about those who have physical and mental capability and communication and some progress, connections, and so on, right?
- There are of those, of course.
In these recordings and in the report as well, I believe there are persons and children mentioned who are with such limitations bodily and mentally that we cannot tell them the way we perceive and design… future.
- If we look at these children, then the question to ask is – if these children are at home, who will accept those children? It wouldn’t be nice of me to say everything I saw and heard about the relationship of these children with their relatives and very frequently parents, where these children are simple moved away from the public eye to such institution. What is the worst – they get forgotten. There are parts of Serbia where children with special needs are moved away from the public eye, someone moves them to the place where they live with their parents, others send them to such homes. And it greatly obstructs what is the ultimate goal, and that is to close all the homes, to relocate children where their natural environment is. Because it is really…
To realize humane life conditions?
- Not just humane, but also humane and social conditions and to see what these children, who can, what they can do in life and to help them so that one day they could be independent as much as possible. This, the examples you said, are the most drastic examples.
How many cases of that are there, are there any data about how many children in this manner …?
- Evidently there are data, I cannot tell you these data really.
Do you have the right to ask for them?
- I have the right.
- And we will ask for them, for sure. The time is now, I was at the institutions where children, because they are so handicapped, practically just lie and have no communication with the environment whatsoever. The care of these children is what we find the most important.
And at this point it seems like they are abandoned.
- I am not defending anyone, I saw these children lying on the mattresses which are not decubitus mattresses, and they didn’t have decubitus because they are exactly the persons taking care of them worked a very difficult job and very conscientiously performed that job. But I saw also the other side I mentioned, which is frequently quoted, and it is that I saw the ones who didn’t have their clothes changed or anyone to help them bathe and were not bathed, so to say. I saw both sides.
How to encourage the first one, they are...
- The system, only the system. I always said that.
How problematic is that now, very frequently we can hear from the stories about the issues of this type, which are life, human, which should move us – we are a poor country, we don’t have for contributions, we cannot do more for culture, environmental protection is expensive, the system of social welfare institutions which should be specialized, investment in the education and qualifications of people, the increase of the number of these people, it all requires some investments which we, as a state cannot provide. Can that be an answer at all?
- That is not the response. At these institutions, when there were some, not exactly capital investments, there were frequently humane people to help, there are funds always, but it is about the system of organization and approach to these children by those who should take care. It requires a great empathy so that you could, in contact with children who are absolutely powerless, be capable of spending eight hours, frequently even longer, providing them with adequate assistance day after day, for years.
We heard what the Minister said, she said that this special team will be formed. How fast is it possible now to simply confirm the state and take some specific steps?
- It is absolutely possible, it is possible because, in my opinion, it is the task that may be very quickly determined, done or completed by visiting all these homes and really conduct a serious supervision of the condition of these homes.
- What is important is that the greatest number of visits we performed were unannounced visits. And that is again, pardon my colloquial expression, for someone not to jazz up the situation. Sometimes it was upon reports, most frequently anonymous, and on other occasions we went upon our own initiative. Who should do it? The one who is in this system and has this part of job should do it. But it doesn’t exclude all the others who are in that system. It is not only one ministry, there are several ministries. What I said before, that is taking of the business capability of these children. That should be inspected, too. Moreover, it is, that is, was talked about sexual harassment. It is not just the coercive sexual relation, you have voluntary sexual relations which should be controlled, I don’t want to go into the topic of the mental state of these children, individual children and what are the repercussions to their relations. Therefore, it is necessary to have the ministry dealing with health included there. All this chain, all this system may round up the story in a good direction. Relatively, relatively fast.
That is what I am asking you and because, here at the beginning, that is during the last year you said that at the beginning of the state of emergency the needs of children with developmental difficulties were not recognized, there we had numerous appeals of parents to autistic children and other. How now, simply, do you think that, for instance, the request you issued then which changed the situation here somewhat later, influenced that we actually have some sort of systemic relation. Here we constantly talk about that we have forgotten children with difficulties who grow to be young people and whose life problems just get bigger, is it, this is the example too…
- I will give you an example. Last year we issued 25 recommendations, 10 of them were acted upon, 13 are being monitored because they are related to longer periods of time. Two of them were absolutely not acted upon. These recommendations we issued were not the will of me or anyone else from the institution, but they were founded by a serious analysis of the state in such type of institutions. Therefore, everyone who accepts the suggestion is welcome, who doesn’t and does not understand why that suggestion, can always come to the institution of the Protector of Citizens to get an explanation and be shown why we are asking for that. Long before this was published and reached sensationalistic proportions, again, when there are children involved, it gets a special story. I am not saying that this sensationalism emerged either from one or another or some third group, but maybe indication to such problem could move something for the better.
And perhaps it is exactly necessary to keep the attention at a high level.
- You see, for countless times, when I was talking about these problems, I said that only when something really bad happens, then this problem gets focused on, and it is not a problem which occurred yesterday, it lasts for a long time.
These are the problems of many decades. Do you think something changes with years? So, we have the Minister who said that we hadn’t had complaints or reports about the treatment of children, but also you say that many of these children actually do not have anyone to take care about them.
- That is the problem. The problem is constantly talking about these children not to be forgotten, not to be children who are simply removed, that is the right expression. Sometimes even by their closest ones. Not to mention the example from the most recent practice when the child couldn’t have been taken to the home because it is prohibited by law to send to homes children under the age of three. And what would happen, what would happen to a child unwanted by the parents if it hadn’t been sent to the home? Where would it be and who would take care of that child? I do not promote homes, I promote what we said in the beginning and it is one humane problem solving. That is why it should really be talked about, not just when a situation is sensationalistic, but every day, and literally to talk to the citizens of Serbia that somewhere around us there are these children. They did nothing to be put in this situation. It might sound pathetic, but…
And they are really not to blame for their...
- When I appeal to all citizens, the ones who were at least once in the situation to see these children, they will not conclude other than what I have just said.
When can we talk again about this topic and hope for some progress?
- Well, the first topic we will probably talk about most recently is the association the Research Center Petnica, once we receive all the information. These data are asked for now, there are several others.
Not later than in fifteen days.
- That is correct, there are several others, let’s say directions where we will be heading. As for the forgotten children, we contacted the ministry, the competent ministry and we will be monitoring the activities and operation of this ministry. We said that in the situations where we can help with our experience, both non-governmental organizations and executive authorities are welcome to ask us for help.
Thank you for your time this morning for our program. The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić was with us at the “Morning topic”.