The Protector of Citizens determined that the Social Welfare Center in Novi Sad, by failing to carry out its competencies during the state of emergency imposed due to COVID-19 pandemic, denied the right to protection against exploitation, violence, abuse and neglect to children whose family was under the Center’s correctional supervision.

In own-initiative investigation of controlling work legality and regularity instigated upon learning from the media that one child was sexually abused at the shipyard, the Protector of Citizens has determined that the SWC in Novi Sad did not carry out its activities, during the state of emergency, although it had been acquainted with the abused children’s family since 2016 and despite of the fact that they suspected of the elder child being abused even before the state of emergency.

By completely suspending the work during the state of emergency, the SWC in Novi Sad did not timely protect the minors’ rights and interests which is why the Protector of Citizens requested that Center’s manager to review the work of the employees who were tasked with protecting them and who did not take a single action from 10 March 2020 to 8 May 2020, despite the confirmed suspicion of child sexual abuse.

The Protector of Citizens determined that the family has been on the Center's records since 2016 when the disappearance of the elder child was reported, that in 2018 a younger child was found on the beach without supervision, that neighbors reported that children were without adequate supervision, that in 2019, the school reported suspicions of physical punishment of the child and that in the same year there was a suspicion of sexual harassment of the elder child, which was confirmed in 2020.

It was also determined that the Novi Sad SWC initiated correctional supervision over the exercise of parental rights, but that from 10 March 2020 until 8 May 2020, none of the activities within that supervision have been carried out.
Using the state of emergency as a reason for failing to act and conduct correctional supervision in such difficult family circumstances is impermissible because child rights cannot and must not be limited, the Protector of Citizens points out adding that the competent public authorities should make a plan of work and manner how to provide services to citizens in emergency circumstances.

The Protector of Citizens asks the Novi Sad SWC to provide immediate and continuous correctional supervision, especially in case of suspicion of sexual abuse of a child, and to set clear priorities in the work in case of emergency and extraordinary circumstances.

Today, the Protector of Citizens, Mr. Zoran Pašalić, announced that the new Law on the Protector of Citizens, drafted by the experts from the Institution, would significantly improve the field of child rights protection by strengthening the independence and autonomy of the Deputy Protector of Citizens for Child Rights within the Institution and strengthening the Deputy’s capacities.

At the moment, we are not entitled to directly control the work of the court administration, but we can do that by controlling the work of the Ministry of Justice, which we did a few days ago when the details of the verdict for sexual abuse of a child were published in the media, Mr. Pašalić said at the conference “The Rights of Particularly Vulnerable Children Groups in the Serbian Judiciary”.

Mr. Pašalić urged the judiciary bodies and the media not to make public the details of court verdicts on child rights violation since it traumatizes children manifold for the rest of their lives. “In our contacts with the children who experienced traumas, we learned that they were secondarily traumatized in court proceedings, and then additionally in the media", the Protector of Citizens accentuated.

The Deputy Protector of Citizens for Child Rights and Gender Equality, Ms. Jelena Stojanović, stated in the panel discussion that this institution had been successful in addressing child rights protection for 13 years by rectifying omissions and shortcomings made by the competent state authorities.

Further to the announcement of the Minister of Labor, Mr. Zoran Đorđević that he will table to the Parliament for adoption the Draft Law on Child Rights Protection and the Protector of Child Rights, Ms. Stojanovic said that there was already an institution that worked on it - the Protector of Citizens.

She stated that the establishment of a new institution, which implied additional costs for equipment, salaries of new civil servants and starting the practice from the beginning, posed an unnecessary budgetary cost, and that the new protector of child rights would have no new competencies or powers other than those that already existed within the Ombudsman Institution.

Ms. Stojanović believes that the issue of the protector of child rights credibility also arises, considering that, the Ministry of Labor has had the most omissions in the work regarding child rights protection, which was why the Protector of Citizens had to intervene. They neither established social and health institutions for eight years, nor provided conditions for the work of the Centers for Family Accommodation, nor did they increase the number of employees, although the number of cases in the social welfare centers is constantly on the rise, she said.

Ms. Stojanović also reminded that the social welfare centers, which were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labor, by suspending activities during the state of emergency declared due to the Covid-19 pandemic, had an adverse effect on the situation in the field of child rights protection, which was why the Protector of Citizens had to intervene.

Upon learning from the social media about the alleged shortcomings in protecting the best interests of a child in the vicinity of the town of Zaječar, the Protector of Citizens launched own-initiative investigation to control the regularity and legality of the work of the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy and Social Welfare Center in Zaječar with the aim of determining all the relevant circumstances.

The Protector of Citizens requires SWC Zaječar to inform him within 15 days at the latest whether and since when the child's family is on the Center’s record, what activities and measures in the field of family law protection the Center has taken so far, where the child is currently accommodated, who is currently in charge of the child’s rights and interests protection and on what legal basis.

The Protector of Citizens demands from the competent Ministry to submit within the same legal deadline the report on monitoring, which was initiated on Sunday, 27 September 2020, over the professional work of the SWC together with all the documentation, as well as to inform him whether it undertook any activities (if yes, which?) within its competencies to protect the best interests of the child prior to 27 September 2020.

The Protector of Citizens has urged the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy and the Ministry of Finance to provide an adequate number of professional workers in the Social Welfare Center in Sokobanja as soon as possible since the Institution has been working without a single social worker for a year, and in such conditions, among other things, it concludes child intercountry adoptions.

The Protector of Citizens determined that both ministries had made omission in their work in not taking all the necessary measures to provide an adequate number of professional workers in the Sokobanja Center, which had concluded an intercountry adoption the previous year without a social worker being present, and another such adoption should be concluded by the end of the year; a 60-days deadline, in which both ministries should inform the Protector of Citizens about the measures taken, was set.

The Protector of Citizens highlighted that the Ministry of Labor was bound to provide the adequate number of professional workers in Social Welfare Centers in order to fully enable the exercise of the rights of all social welfare services beneficiaries, particularly the exercise of rights and best interests of a child, including in domestic violence investigations.

In the procedure of controlling the legality and regularity of work of the Ministry of Labor, further to the SWC Sokobanja’s complaint that it had numerous problems caused by understaffing, the Protector of Citizens determined that the Center informed the competent ministry in October 2019 that it had been left without the only social worker and with only two professional workers employed, although there were three vacancies.

The Protector of Citizens established that for the previous six years, more precisely since 2014, SWC Sokobanja had been asking the competent ministry to fill the vacancies, but that it had always received the same answer - the request would be decided upon in the coming period.

The center further states that the number of cases is constantly on the rise, that there are no social workers employed, that there is a lack of professional workers and that the center currently employs only three workers - a lawyer, a supervisor and a psychologist.

In a statement to the Protector of Citizens, the Ministry of Labor stated that it had again sought the consent of the Government of Serbia Commission for the Employment of New Employees in the Sokobanja Center, but that it had not been decided upon yet. The Ministry of Finance declared in the statement that the proposals for giving consent had been decided upon once a month and that problems most likely arose because the centers did not resubmit their requests on a monthly basis.

The Protector of Citizens reminds that in 2018, due to a series of omissions in 30 cases, he issued a collective recommendation to the competent authorities, particularly highlighting the problem of understaffing in social welfare centers that would enable full implementation of professional work standards and adequate work of the Centers.

Upon learning from the media about the alleged case of cannibalism in the vicinity of Belgrade, the Protector of Citizens launched, on his own initiative, an investigation to control the legality and regularity of the City Social Welfare Centre’s work with a view to being acquainted with the facts and circumstances relevant to the event.

The Protector of Citizens requires from the City Social Welfare Center to state, no later than 15 days, whether it was previously acquainted with the situation in the family, whether and on what grounds they were on the guardianship authority’s records, whether there have been reports of violence in the past period, with special reference to the measures and actions taken by the Center in order to provide adequate support and protection to the family.

The Protector of Citizens requires the Center to submit other information considered relevant and a copy of the documentation; and after that further course of the investigation will be decided upon.

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