Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić was a guest on the "Marker" show of Television Insider.
When the system fails, society also fails, or vice versa. Anyhow, because of this, one child expiates, without the possibility to choose parents, with equally bad luck when it comes to the neighborhood in the municipality, city and state in which s/he lives. How is it possible for an eight-year-old girl in Belgrade to be invisible to the system? The Ministry of Interior is in the hunt for Uroš Pašajlić, whom the prosecution suspects of domestic violence, illegal deprivation of liberty of his daughter and unmarried wife. After the unmarried wife of Uroš Pašajlić reported that he was abusing her, it was learned that his eight-year-old daughter was detained in the apartment and is now being cared for in the hospital. It is not known what happened to the child who did not attend preschool or was not enrolled in a school in the past few years. The City Center for Social Work told Marker that after the girl was born, they acted on the report from the maternity hospital when there were already doubts about the parents' ability to take care of the child. The baby was then placed in a social welfare institution, after which the procedure for deprivation of parental rights was initiated. However, in 2018, the First Basic Court in Belgrade made a decision to assign the girl to the father for custody, but not independently, and the mother had the right to see the child, but not to raise and take care of her. In 2020, the Zvezdara department was informed by the police that they had information that a child could be heard crying in the apartment. The father, acting on the police report, responded a little later to an interview with the staff of the Center for Social Work, who assessed that the child had no signs of neglect. After that, there were no more reports to the Center for Social Work in this case. In its response to “Marker”, the City Center for Social Work does not state whether the competent center has monitored the father's care of the girl since 2020. Ministry of Interior did not answer the question of “Marker”. In its press release, it is stated that it is in the hunt for the suspect's father and asks citizens to inform the police if they recognize him. How is a child invisible to the system for years and why is the environment silent? Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. The Protector of Citizens initiated the procedure to control the legality and regularity of the work of six competent authorities and requested information and court decisions from the First Basic Court in Belgrade. The guest of “Marker” is Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens. Mr. Pašalić, good evening, thank you for speaking for Marker. We were told that you initiated the procedure and requested information from the competent services. How is it possible that an eight-year-old child was almost invisible to the authorities for years? We were also informed that she neither attended preschool, nor school, etc.
- We will see that when we get answers from all those we have contacted. The procedure is urgent. The longest deadline for an answer is 15 days, i.e. up to 15 days, with the fact that we will do our best to get the answers sooner. There are six authorities in question, and it is the First Basic Court to which we turn to with an act of cooperation for the information we need, considering that, as you know, we cannot control the courts, and especially we cannot get involved in their decisions.
Which are those six services? Let us go in order.
- Six bodies.
- Primarily, it is the Ministry of Family Care and Demography, then it is the Ministry of Interior, then it is at the municipal level, i.e. at the city level and then at the municipal level, their bodies, which control the work of the departments of social work centers such as Palilula and Zvezdara because the girl was originally under the jurisdiction of Palilula municipality because she lived there and later in Zvezdara. Then we turn to the competent authorities of the local self-government that has certain obligations, and there is certainly someone who would have to have certain information in case the child ever visited the territorially competent Health Center.
And what about the Ministry of Education? It did not initiate a procedure to determine how the child did not attend school, eight-year schooling is mandatory in this country.
- You see, when a child gets old enough for school, the local self-government informs the competent school as well as the parents that the child must be enrolled in school because primary school is compulsory, and then the competent school in which the child territorially need, i.e. must be enrolled, gives feedback to the local self-government whether the child is enrolled. The same applies if the child is absent from school, is enrolled but does not come to school for two or five days, then the Center for Social Work is notified by the local self-government in order to determine why the child does not come to school.
Now you are talking about the Center for Social Work, why have the officials of the competent Center for Social Work not visited the family since 2020, as we were told, especially if it was already known that the father was a drug addict?
- It is not 2020, it is 2015 when the child was born, but they stopped visiting them in 2020. What is important is to determine everyone's share of responsibility from the moment the child was born according to the knowledge that the child was born in the family, and the information we received from the media. We will determine exactly what it is, and I have said more than once - we work only on the basis of proven facts - whether there is and what kind of family it is, until the moment when the child is found in the condition in which it was found.
What about the mother? The First Basic Court in Belgrade announces that she has been allowed to have, as they say, partial guardianship, i.e. she can see her, but she must not bring her up or influence her development in any way.
- It is not just the mother.
We are talking about the biological mother.
- The assumption is that the child probably has – as I said, today we have opened the procedure and referred to the authorities I mentioned - the other relatives, which is grandmother, grandfather, possibly aunts, uncles, etc. We will see how familiar they are with the circumstances in which the child lives.
Why did the police and other competent institutions fail to respond to calls from citizens who reported that there was a problem in that family?
- We do not know that, that is why the question was sent to the Ministry of Interior about whether, when and why they reacted to the notifications of the citizens, the neighbors who stated in the media that they heard the child's cry several times and all the circumstances which would indicate that the child was abused or neglected, what the reaction of the police was and whom, if any, they sent the information to, who must take care of the child exclusively. When I say exclusively, it is mostly related to the Center for Social Work, but it is a whole chain that must be closed, not in this case, in each of the countless cases before the institution of the Protector of Citizens. Here, I will tell you an example of the Health Center. If the child - we still do not know that information - if she was ever in the Health Center, first in Palilula and then in Zvezdara, the Health Center had primarily to - in addition to a specific application for a disease or vaccination - determine what the condition the child was, whether she was in a psycho-physical condition adequate for her age, that means in a physical condition in terms of growth, development, psychological condition because we had cases where a five-year-old child could not speak. All this must be stated. Then, the status of her hygiene, then nutrition, then what is most important, whether the child had certain injuries, injuries that would indicate violence against the child, violence in the family and of course vaccination, which, as you know, is mandatory when the child goes to preschool, i.e attends school.
When we talk about this Center for Social Work, it almost accuses the citizens that they are to be blamed for not reporting the case. Are citizens the ones who should react? What obligates them, the law and in what way?
- I have appealed countless times to the citizens that when they see or when they hear or in any way determine some behavior in their environment - when I say “determine”, it is not the right expression, that there is something that would indicate violence, neglect, they must immediately report first to the Ministry of Interior, that it is their legal obligation, because there is no way to know if it is a criminal offense. Failure to report a criminal offense is punishable.
You said that 15 days is the deadline you should get all the answers.
- Not “should”, but we “have to” get answers, within the deadline of 15 days.
In that case, will all the institutions and individuals that made the mistake bear adequate consequences?
- Look, you have a big responsibility here, which can start with the parents - I do not blame the parents, let's understand each other well - up to those who are responsible to these institutions. It can be misdemeanor responsibility, it can even be criminal responsibility due to neglect, and that is primarily where the parents are concerned.
Several portals have just reported that Uroš Pašajlić has been arrested at this moment. That is the latest information. Mr. Pašalić, will we learn a lesson from this terrible example? You yourself said it is not the first time, i.e. will someone, and who is it, want to deal with strengthening the capacity of social welfare institutions, especially those centers for social work?
- I am sorry, I am not defending or pointing at anyone or targeting anyone, it is not just them, and it is the whole chain of insitutions that takes care of the child. Primarily parents, schools, health workers.
It is very difficult to determine responsibility.
- That is not the point. If there is responsibility, we will determine who is responsible and whether the responsibility is shared, whether everyone made a mistake or whether some of the authorities I have listed are solely responsible for this condition of the child.
What are your powers in such a case as the Protector of Citizens after collecting information about a particular case?
- What everyone knows is that the Protector of Citizens cannot lead a procedure that would later result in punishment, but there are certainly procedures where those who are responsible for it would be punished in one of the existing ways.
And they would be.
- Yes, they would be.
The question is, would they in this case, which is very important?
- Extremely important.
Mr. Pašalić, what is the role of the media in such situations, because a child's personal information is often presented, his-her photos are published, while the suspects are often referred to only by initials?
- It is absolutely not allowed to present personal data or to present photos, to post photos. It is known how a child can be portrayed in the media, in public in general. And that is also punishable. I have repeatedly pointed out and given one of the most drastic examples of all that I have heard of in my practice, which is when a girl who suffered multiple abuses - that was a case that shook the public of Serbia for weeks – talking with me on her own initiative, said that everything she experienced from the abuser was less terrible than what she experienced in the presentation of the whole event in the media. And I said not just after that case, but also before it happened - I ask everyone in the media to be very careful...
Somehow it has been going on for years and we are persistently waiting for those sanctions for that kind of publication and that media.
- Unfortunately, that is not within our jurisdiction. I do not want to neglect my part of responsibility, but this is something that really needs to be stopped because, I repeat, children are activated secondarily and often suffer trauma due to being exposed to some - I will call it conditional media campaign, which is worse than the case itself, from the very episode they survived.
Yes, we are waiting for 15 days.
- I said it will not be 15 days, it will be a shorter period.
In your opinion, what is the fate of this eight-year-old girl? Who will take care of her in the future?
- You see, I will prejudge something that I really do not want, but in any case - if it is determined that the parents are not eligible, the procedure is known.
Okay, we will talk again. Thank you very much for coming.
- Thanks for inviting me.