The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, was a guest on the show "Novo jutro" on Pink Television.
A topic that stirred up the whole of Serbia and is talked about a lot – it's the uproar surrounding the case of a girl whose father kept her locked in a bathtub in an apartment in Mirijevo. That situation is not calming down. Who will be responsible for this case, who failed within the system, was the centre for social work obliged to control this family, regardless of the fact that the child was legally assigned to the father for guardianship, what kind of a monster does a person need to be to keep a born child in custody, in a bathtub without food and water, these are just some of the questions for the protector of citizens, Zoran Pašalić, and psychologist Zoran Crnjanin. Good morning, welcome.
- Good morning to you.
You launched an urgent investigation in this case of control of the legality and regularity of work of six competent authorities, you requested information to see where the omission happened. Mr. Pašalić, where are you with all that?
- As you said, we have sent requests to the addresses of six authorities that are competent to take care not only of the child in the circumstances of his/her stay at home, but also in relation to school, health institutions and everything that is considered child care. You ask me where did it fail? I expect that we will receive an answer no later than the 15th day since the day we sent the request, that is the legal framework, but I expect, since the case is like this, that we will receive answers much, much sooner.
Can you assess where the system has failed? We know...
- Only when we receive information will we be able to assess where the system failed, whether it failed as a whole, i.e. all those I listed, whether all six failed, or someone individually.
The Clinic for Psychiatric Diseases "Dr. Laza Lazarevic" stated in its expert report that the girl's father is capable of adequately caring for the girl, and it seems to me that this was several years ago. It was in 2016.
- That's right, in 2016. The girl was born in 2015.
That's one of the expert opinions, and another thing...
- We have to make a demarcation, there is a court decision on whom the child is assigned to.
- The child was awarded to the father, which means that the finding and opinion they gave at the neuropsychiatric clinic was incorporated in the judgment and it should not be reviewed. The court considered that the finding and opinion was valid and therefore ruled accordingly.
Should you turn to the clinic then, to examine how exactly was the father characterized as capable?
- This would mean that we are also reviewing the court decision, which by law we do not have the right to do, because as I said, that finding was incorporated into the court decision. The important thing for us is to learn from these six authorities, i.e. the Ministry of Interior, whether someone reported violence against a child, neglect or gross neglect, which is a criminal offense under Article 193 of the Criminal Code, then how did the Ministry of Family Welfare and Demography react, as it should have carried out control of social institutions that dealt with the child, that is, that had to deal with the child, which are primarily the Palilula and Zvezdara departments. Also, whether the local self-government of Zvezdara took into account certain circumstances, whether the child started school, whether she was prepared for school, i.e. whether preparatory classes were held adequately, whether she was enrolled on time, it is known exactly what the legal deadline for that is. And certainly, whether she attended school. And perhaps the most important thing in my opinion is whether the health care institution in which the child was supposed to be controlled by the territorial principle, in terms of the girl's health, did everything it should do. Primarily, whether the psychophysical development of the child corresponded to her age, because we have had cases where five-year-old children do not yet know how to speak, meaning that they were completely neglected. Then, what are the conditions in which she lives, which can be seen according to her status in terms of maintaining hygiene. Also, whether there are any injuries that would indicate violence against the child, and certainly the vaccination, that is carried out when starting school. These are all circumstances that must be reviewed before it is determined who, to say so colloquially, is responsible in the chain. What is the essence? The bottom line is that all of those that I listed had to deal with the child adequately. There is an expression used in the media – that the child is invisible. The child is not invisible, the child was born, registered in the birth registers, that means recorded. The only question is whether due diligence was exercised, considering the circumstances that could be assumed, considering that the family where the child lived had certain problems, to put it mildly.
They say he cunningly used bureaucratic loopholes to hide his daughter from society, school and peers, and now he faces 20 years in prison. It seems unbelievable that he managed to use those bureaucratic loopholes.
- I can't say which bureaucratic loopholes he used, as you say, but he certainly couldn't have used them if everyone had done their job. That's the law.
But they obviously didn’t.
- By the end of February, the local self-government is obliged to inform the school that there are children on its territory who should start the first grade. And if the child is not enrolled by the beginning of the school year, then it is reported to the local self-government, parents are contacted, the local self-government, schools. If a child does not show up at school for two to five days, the parents and all others who need to take care of it are alerted. So, when talking about are the bureaucratic procedures, there are clearly prescribed conditions on how someone takes care...
Here we can conclude that someone did not do his job well.
- We will determine that, be sure of it.
Secondly, we are talking now about the first grade, but we also have preschool.
- Preschool, that's right.
Mr. Pašalić, we have the opportunity to hear other tragic news when it comes to this violence, a shocking headline, a shocking case of violence in an elementary school in Progar, children were watching to see if the teacher who has this problem will basically suffocate.
- We have that in the Institution of the Protector of Citizens every day.
- Every day, but literally every day. There was this case of a murder.
In Jagodina, of the mother of five children.
- That's right. We also launched an investigation there. There is always the question of who in the system failed to locate the problem and react in time. That is the essential question. All the details about the psychological portrait of the abuser, what the child is like, are important if there are proceedings before the court. For what reason? If it is a sick person, then the question arises of the degree of his responsibility, how will the court determine it. If it is a healthy person, it is known. Firstly, the regulations indicate exactly what acts he committed, secondly, what are the prescribed penalties, and thirdly, how will the court rule.
They say up to 20 years in prison. Today we see it in the media. And do you know what is also...
- I have to interrupt you. What does up to 20 years in prison mean? Firstly, for what offences? It is pointless to comment on it since the court proceedings have not even started yet. There are elements of Article 193 – neglect, gross neglect of a child.
There is no qualification of the offence yet.
- That's right. For which a sentence of up to three years is prescribed.
I am saying what the media is reporting today. But an important question is also what would have happened in a few days, had this woman not reported the abuser and had she not reported that he was holding the girl captive in the apartment, because we heard that the girl's condition was so bad that it is questionable whether she would be able to survive for a few days more.
- Excuse me. I, like you, learned from the media that she reported this case only when she reported her partner, common-law spouse, whoever, for domestic violence. So that was the trigger. If that wasn't the trigger, the question is what would have happened.
We also heard various statements from the authorities in one of the institutions, not to mention it now, that it was the fault of the neighbours who didn't report it or something like that. We had the opportunity to hear that, which is incredible.
- What our practice has shown, and also my practice from earlier when I was doing another job, is that people are simply afraid, they do not want to interfere, considering that these are private, family or some other relationships between partners, people. There is a very, very distinct lack of empathy for such cases. I would take away a lot of time if I tried to compare the times that were 20 and 30 years ago, when people reacted to every kind of violence, stopped the bullies, caught them, caught the one who committed criminal acts, and the situation where people are completely blind to this. This is not the first case that I encountered in practice where someone knows, be it relatives or close friends, that in their neighbourhood, someone is perpetrating violence against a woman, a child or any other kind of violence, and they do not react. And that is the most dangerous phenomenon. That lack of reaction. Because, our relationship with the MoI in this case is exactly that. Did the neighbours report? Did the police respond to their reports? How did it react? What, if anything, was determined during their reaction?
There are many questions here. So, the role of the Centre for Social Work, the role of the municipality is much greater than that of the neighbours in this case. What are all the institutions from which you have asked for an explanation?
- I counted them. It’s the six institutions that I mentioned with the fact that, since we don't have the right to control the courts, we also used an act of cooperation. We addressed the court, not wanting to comment on the verdict at all, nor are we allowed to do so, but based on the documentation that is available, we will certainly have some more information that will very, very significantly affect some of our future steps.
How can we solve this problem systematically?
- Very simply. Through the constant connection of everyone...
- It is simple. By the constant connection of institutions that take care of something, in this case about children. You know that there is a recommendation of ours that we are asking to be incorporated into the law, and that is that a child does not have to suffer violence, physical or psychological, to be characterized as a victim of violence. Being a witness is enough. This is necessary in order to close that circle, because the consequences of violence are transmitted from generation to generation, most often. Some of our studies have shown that children who watch violence either identify with the bully or with the victim, in the future…
That’s model learning?
- That’s right.
They say that the father kept the child basically as a slave in the apartment, that it was something, let's say completely inexplicable, and it was reported only when he broke the nose of his unmarried partner in Mirijevo somewhere. Only then did she report it. It's just kind of shocking. And how can we understand those cases? This is something that shakes us. How can we understand the position of that child now? What will become of her? Will institutions decide who will take custody?
We will find out who failed within this system, as you said, in the next 15 days?
- That’s right.
You will be our guest. We will be pleased to hear that too. At the end of the day, what matters is...
- One question arises. They say, the institution is responsible, so the individual practically hides behind the institution. It's not exactly like that. You know, if you discover that an institution is responsible, it is known exactly who, by name and surname, which individual in that institution acted. And did that person act well or badly.
Or not at all?
- Or not at all.
We will find out. We await that information. Thank you very much for being our guest.