In an own-initiative investigation instigated further to media reports on the attempted removal of children from the village near Blace who lived with their paternal grandmother, the Protector of Citizens determined that the competent authorities failed to provide the children with adequate and timely protection from all forms of violence, abuse and neglect and failed to prevent violation of their rights.
In this investigation of controlling the competent bodies’ work legality and regularity with a view to protecting children’s rights and best interests, the Protector of Citizens established that Blace Social Welfare Center, Stojan Novaković Elementary School, the Ministry of Family Welfare and Demography, and the Ministry of the Interior made omissions, and issued a Recommendation to rectify them.
The competent authorities’ omissions are primarily contained in their failure to take all measures and activities to remove the children from the family which was found threatening, thus making the family situation in which the children were even more complex, as well as in their failure to protect children from media exposure and abuse for the material and personal gain of various individuals, the Protector of Citizens determined.
The children aged 10 and 15 are still living with their paternal grandmother, who has got a disease since October 2020; they have not attended school regularly and have been running the errands that are not congruent to their age (cooking, cleaning the house, helping the paternal grandmother to maintain personal hygiene, handle dangerous tools, mow the grass with a strimmer and use tiller), the Protector of Citizens determined on the grounds of the documentation submitted by the monitored bodies.
This family was on SWC Blace records in 2017, when the paternal grandmother reported the children’s mother for domestic violence against the child for the first time, but SWC dismissed the report as unfounded, which was subsequently confirmed by the then competent Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy in the oversight procedure. At the time when the paternal grandmother filed a report against the children’s mother, the father had already left the family and started a new common law marriage in another town having two more children. The mother, together with the children, left the house in which she had lived with her mother-in-law and moved to her mother’s house, and she was exercising sole parental responsibility via the decision of the Kuršumlija Basic Court from April 2018.
In early 2019, although they were not living in the same household, the paternal grandmother filed the report once again against the mother for domestic violence against children that was also dismissed as unfounded by SWC and by the competent Ministry in the subsequent oversight. In September that same year, the mother died, and the father took over the children returning them to his mother’s home with whom he agreed to take care of the children.
One year later, first major problems arose, when the children's grandmother became ill, as she could no longer abide by the agreement with the children's father to take care of them. After that, the paternal grandmother informed SWC Blace from the hospital that the children were alone in the house, and the Center, through field monitoring, determined that the neighbors had been taking care of them and it failed to take further activities to protect the interests of children, the Protector of Citizens determined.
Upon returning from the hospital, in early 2021, the paternal grandmother permitted the making of a video featuring children’s hard life, without the father’s consent, who prohibited any media exposure. However, the footage was posted on social networks, leading to frequent conflicts between the father and his mother, culminating in her eventual reporting him for domestic violence against children, after which he was issued a restraining order and from that day on the children have been completely under the guardianship of the paternal grandmother who is a person with disabilities.
In this investigation, the Protector of Citizens identified numerous omissions in the work of SWC Blace, which did not take timely measures to protect children from parental neglect, especially since it had immediate knowledge about it, paired with the children’s school reporting the suspected neglect. SWC Blace, the Protector of Citizens determined, did not initiate and carry out the procedure for removing the children from the father's family immediately after it assessed that the children were endangered in his household due to the father's inadequate care. In the Recommendation for rectifying the omission, the Protector of Citizens requests the Center to act in a timely and legal manner and to continuously take measures within its competence in order to protect the rights and best interests of children, primarily the right to protection from violence, abuse and neglect.
As determined by the Protector of Citizens, the Ministry of Family Welfare and Demography made an omission in its work because it issued, after the incident from 5 March 2021, an instruction to SWC Blace to abort all activities related to the removal of children from the family in which they are endangered and because it waited two months to decide on the appeal against the decision of SWC Blace on placing children under temporary guardianship dated March 2021, thus preventing adequate and timely provision of measures to protect protection the children from violence, abuse and neglect. In the Recommendation for rectifying the omissions, the Protector of Citizens states that it is necessary for this Ministry to act in a timely manner, as soon as possible, as a second instance body, especially in situations when the decision of this body is of special importance for effective protection of children's rights.
As determined by the Protector of Citizens, “Stojan Novaković" Elementary School made omissions in its work as it did not file a motion for initiating misdemeanor proceedings against the children’s father over their irregular presence at classes, which violated the child's right to primary education. In the recommendation for rectifying the omission, the Protector of Citizens states that in its future work this school will enable the full realization of the child's right to education by taking legal measures against the parents in a timely manner.
The Protector of Citizens also determined that the Ministry of the Interior made an omission in its work as it did not provide the legally specified assistance to SWC Blace in the implementation of the procedure of removing the children from the family on 5 March 2021 years and because it pronounced emergency measure prohibiting contact and access to children for the protection from domestic violence and extended emergency measures to the only parent.
According to the Recommendation for rectifying the omissions, the Ministry of the Interior should issue a notification to all police administrations with clear instructions on the need for police officers to act in emergency situations, i.e. without the expiration of the deadline of 5 working days foreseen in regular situations.
The Protector of Citizens has set 15 days deadline to all monitored authorities in this case, within which they are to notify the Institution about their acting upon the issued recommendations.