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The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić was the guest of the central news show of TV Tanjug.

In the report “Forgotten Children of Serbia” it is stated that the children are tied, neglected, put in cages and girls and women suffer sexual abuse. The Minister of Labor and Social Welfare, Darija Kisić Tepavčević, says that commissions of the Ministry, Protector of Citizens and European Council published the surveillance which does not show what the non-governmental organizations claim. On this occasion we talk tonight to the Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić. Welcome to Tanjug television. You said that you were not surprised by this report. What did your surveillance show?

- We did the surveillance for at least ten years back in such institutions, it is a part of our regular activities. What we identified, we issued recommendations to competent ministries for that in order to correct those shortcomings. Last year we issued 25 recommendations related to what should be improved at such institutions, 10 recommendations were acted upon, 2 were not, and 13 recommendations are in progress because these are problems that require long-term solutions.

What are these problems?

- These are the problems which were presented partially also in the report we are all familiar with and they are also special problems we noticed and that we believe go significantly deeper into the solving of this issue.

Does it mean when we say that children are tied, neglected, put in cages, that girls and women suffer sexual abuse. Is that what we are talking about?

- We are talking about what we saw on the spot, especially when we paid so called unannounced visits and what we heard from the home residents themselves, less from those working in these homes and one part of these visits was upon the reports of parents.

That is what I wanted to ask you. You heard what the residents said, were there reports, parents reported, right?

- Yes, but most of the findings are when you talk to the home residents and when you ask them what would they want, I am talking about those wo have this type of communication so that you can conclude from that communication that it was really their problem and that was a real problem and what you can see on the spot, especially during unannounced visits, talks a lot about the conditions at such institutions.

How many times so far have you paid unannounced visits, the surveillance in any institution of social welfare?

- Only in 2020 we had restrictions due to Covid-19 situation. Otherwise, this number is between 20 and 30 visits every year. I personally went to almost all institutions of this type and, as I said, I was in contact with primarily those who live at these homes and with whom the communication may be established and I learned a lot about the conditions at homes, but also what is very important, and that is the position of these children in society in general. It means – what is happening outside these homes. It is their status in their primary families, by their parents, relatives and all those who are legally obliged to take care of them.

Could we talk about that for a while, what is exactly what you identified in those unannounced visits?

- In these unannounced visits we primarily identified, and I always need to point out that, that the number of employees at these institutions is insufficient. At one of these institutions I came across one person, it was a female employee, taking care during the day of 20 to 30 residents, who were in great part incapable of taking care of themselves as far as the personal hygiene is concerned. Do you know what this may include, that is really impossible physically and definitely indirectly and mentally to accept such job and perform it in the manner how it is supposed to be performed. Because of that the fluctuation of the staff is high, people cannot stay long. The only ones who can persist are the ones who have to, who cannot find another job or do not have another source of existence. That is the first thing I noticed in the conversation with the staff. Surely, these conversations were very confidential, and I heard from them what I wanted to be told honestly and it is a realistic condition in these institutions.

In what manner are people who will be working at these institutions selected?

- Don’t think about the selection of people, these are not the people who are bad, these are not the people who are a priori violent as you could or as the public could conclude. Among them there are exceptionally, exceptionally qualified people and people with a high level of empathy towards these persons. Certainly, there are exceptions and people who abuse the position of these children. What I primarily noticed is the work exploitation, where these children, the children who are physically capable, are taken when there are some seasonal works to perform those works. The one who takes them gets some sort of compensation and the children are given a symbolic, not even the compensation but the reward.

Let’s go back just once more to employees. Who is to blame for the lack of employees at social welfare institutions?

- The one who should ....

Is it the state to blame?

- You cannot say colloquially that it is the state. The one who designs the number of employees, and these are competent ministries which deal with that, so not just one ministry. Let’s say, when you mentioned sexual abuse, there are relations among children who live at these homes, I refer to boys and girls here. We insisted on multiple occasions that each of these homes should have at least one gynecologist to perform regular examinations, especially according to the number of residents. So it is not just the problem of just one ministry. It is the systemic problem which can be solved by reviewing primarily if everyone accommodated at such homes really should be there. We had situations in which someone was literally moved to such institution without fulfilling the conditions for staying at such institution for several reasons, I wouldn’t name them now. That is the first thing. So the actual number of residents at such homes. Then, the actual number and the actual need for employees. That means not just the ones dealing with their personal hygiene, their accommodation and nutrition, but those of special professions and expertise. The third, if there is an option, I cannot say it is ideal, to separate those children to separate communities which are in communication with the home, but where they are provided with the opportunity to be self-organized under the strict control of the home, where these children would feel far better that in home conditions. Moreover, the same importance is on the relationship with parents, if any, and relatives, when there are no parents or social welfare centers from the town these children come, the number of visits, the number of communications, the general interest in the destiny of these children. We were convinced, me personally, that in some cases there was abuse with regards to taking of business capability so someone else handles the property of these children and practically they don’t have any other contact with these children, and they are left to the state to take care of them. The question that should be asked now is whether this is really the only solution? These are some basic questions which, when taken into serious consideration and when the analysis is performed, but not the analysis which would last for months or years, can be done in several following months and really show the actual situation. Because this report, it is just a part of an image with these examples which are the most drastic and which drew the public attention because of that.

Then who told the president that the report was actually not true and that everything was alright?

- That is not a question for me, I cannot know who said that to the president and who presented that stand in communication with the president at all. Don’t be mad with me, I cannot answer that question.

How can anyone from the competent ministry say that everything is alright at all?

- I don’t know what the Ministry told the president, I know that the Ministry said that during our controls it was confirmed that there are systemic solutions which were observed. You see, that should be explained to the public. When we control, we firstly control whether something is done in accordance with, let me call it colloquially, some normatives. It means what the accommodation of these children is like, what the life conditions are, what the nutrition is, how they are treated, if they have health protection, if they have all these conditions. Surely, as it can be read from our reports, we never said everything is alright. We emphasized somewhere what should be changed and in what direction it should go and somewhere where we really found a situation, because you cannot take that at all homes the situation is disastrous – it isn’t, that perhaps some improvements may be solved immediately and be made immediately.

Do you think that the president of Serbia really should go and personally confirm that? He even announced he would do that.

- Don’t ask me that. There are two reasons, first I don’t oversee or have constitutional right to oversee the actions of the Serbian president, Constitutional Court president…

Of course, we find it clear, but I want to hear your opinion. Do you think that it is necessary in this situation?

- It is designated by those who regulate his working hours and his obligations, definitely not me.

Thank you for this response, but...

- Tell me, are you dissatisfied with the answer?

I would like to hear your opinion, where is the problem here? We have the competent ministry which says that in principle everything is more or less alright, and that report which is not that disputable…Then we have the report which states some really serious things which shocked the public. Do you really think that we don’t have a problem here?

- I never said we didn’t have a problem, I emphasized this problem on several occasions. I am just saying that this problem is complex and that we cannot perceive it just from one angle. When I say from one angle, it is just to take only the most drastic condition in certain homes. Because I could talk to you about what I personally saw at homes, what is catastrophically bad and what is good. When I say good, I refer to the persons who work very diligently, when I say bad, I refer to poor conditions, the behavior of individual employees at such homes and what is very important, which I constantly repeat, it is the conduct of those outside the homes who should deal with these children.

Alright, what else should be done in order to ensure better conditions of residence at homes? You mentioned the lack of people first of all, what else can be done?

- That is exactly what I told you, to put really into the realistic framework what in comparison to the number of children is needed to be done in terms of the number of employees. Secondly – to provide additional trainings for the people who work, if needed, but definitely also to provide them with certain motivation so that they could do that job and that there is no fluctuation. What is important is to include parents in solving of such problems, there are instances where parents self-organized, outside homes I mean, and found solutions to such situations. On others you have a complete lack of interest of parents where they leave the child at the home and simply forget about him or her. These children suffer a lot because of that. I talked to many of them and what I noticed is that this visit of a close person, even of the Protector of Citizens whom they see as someone close to them after several talks, that means a lot to them. And you can imagine then what is the relationship when it is about someone closer to them.

Evidently. I have to ask you, the indictment against Miroslav Aleksić was confirmed today. You visited him in prison. What did he say?

- I visited the Central Prison, more precisely the detention unit in Belgrade where, among others, I talked to Mr. Aleksić. I also discussed with other detainees and I talked to him about the conditions in which he spends his time in detention. It refers to the same conditions other detainees have and in the case of Mr. Aleksić, considering his age and health condition, it refers to the necessary health care when someone with health problems is detained. As for the topic which was in the focus of public attention, I do not talk about that because it is the matter of court, the prosecutor’s office and court designate the details about it and the evidence proceedings and all activities, not to name them all now which will be conducted in the proceedings, so it was not our topic.

We will follow that proceedings too. Finally, I would like to ask you about the information you have regarding Petnica. What have you learned?

- We have some findings and every day these findings are getting deeper, so to say. Petnica has been a paradigm of one institution dealing with the education of the most talented children. It turned out that the situation is not that great. Therefore, from our side we will go into details to see how Petnica has operated and who had the obligation and if they had it, why it was not implemented. And that is the operation oversight. I must say, I don’t know how much the viewers are familiar with that, Petnica is an association, registered with the BRA as an association in 1982 and it is not within our scope of educational institutions. I wouldn’t like this comparison to be misunderstood, but it is approximately at the equal level as the acting school of Mr. Aleksić in the organizational sense, not to get misunderstood. And whether, as far as other elements such as the form of financing, programs, consent of certain institutions which are obliged to provide consent as soon as the point of connection is found are concerned, and we will publish that very soon to the public, then the entire case must be studied to the details, indeed.

Finally, tell me briefly what is that the Protector of Citizens can do in order to protect the rights of victims of sexual abuse?

- The Protector of Citizens can do only one thing and that is to encourage those who are, not victims of sexual abuse but of any type of abuse here we mentioned Petnica, acts, I wouldn’t name now everything that may be included here, to make them feel free to report it to competent authorities and what is equally important, and it is what I ask all the media, I always asked them in these situations, especially those the most drastic ones in which young girls were raped, minors, is not to make a sensation out of it. And I will use the opportunity to say, if you can give me just a minute more...

Please.

- …to say it. In the conversation with those who suffered drastic sexual abuse, I was told by those persons that it was more difficult for them that they were for months, pardon the colloquial expression, dragged across the media than what they went through with the violator. I stand behind my words, I will not mention the names of persons for the sake of their protection and the situations which were also in the focus of the public but I was under a great impression of it and I always appealed to the media not to make a sensation out of it because in this manner they hurt the person who is already hurt.

Thank you for being our guest, we will follow what is happening in future, too and we hope there will be less of such occurrences and that we will prevent, not solve problems.

- We are working on acting in a preventive manner, but mostly, and I feel sorry about that, we can only act when something bad already happens.

And why is that so? What is the problem?

- It is because everyone must take their part of responsibility. None of the problems is solved by one ministry, one institution, but only the connection of such institutions with the aim of solving one problem may solve the problem.

Do you think that there is no good connection among institutions?

- I can absolutely say that it is not good.

Even though it was worked on two, three years ago, we have the law which connected to the network...

- Not two, three years ago...

Four years.

- For three years, it has been worked on for a long time, but you are saying through the law...

But in 2017, is that so?

- I am talking through initiatives, through attempts. It was never about the law, but the people who should implement that, that is the essence. It means that if we have a problem, then we don’t have vanity on the other hand where someone would say that it is not my problem or I am the best person to solve that problem, but everyone act with the goal of solving that problem. I can state a series of examples in which the problem was understood as a personal promotion, someone else’s problem, as a personal promotion, I repeat, and not with the goal to solve the problem.

We will definitely talk about this more. Thank you for being a guest at our television.