The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić was a guest in the show "Uranak" on K1 Television.
The case of a nine-year-old girl from Belgrade who called the police twice, complaining that her father was keeping her in custody and her uncle was entering the bathroom while showering, upset the public. The whole case was reported to the police by mother Marijeta Savić. According to the media, the Rakovica Center for Social Work, under unexplained circumstances, assigned custody of the nine-year-old girl to her father. The girl has already run away from him several times. The Center for Social Work ignored the mother's appeals to return the child. How does the child, who has lived with her mother so far, find herself in this situation? Why was there no reaction despite the reports? Why and who ignores this case, and who is obliged to protect the girl in public? This morning, we invited Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens, as a guest. You have initiated the procedure of controlling the regularity and legality of the work of the City Center for Social Work in Rakovica and the Ministry of Family Welfare and Demography, and you are asking to be informed about what exactly happened in this case, within a deadline of 15 days.
- We also asked the police if there were any reports of domestic violence.
What information have you received?
- We have not yet received any information. We expect answers within the deadline provided by the Law on the Protector of Citizens.
When did you submit the request?
- A few days ago, after learning about it from the media, we expect to receive information from those we contacted.
Is it usual to wait for the expiration of the legal deadline in such cases?
- Usual, yes.
This is a minor, a girl who may have been abused. Shouldn't there be an emergency procedure, shouldn’t the police deliver the answer sooner, shouldn’t the Center for Social Work answer you immediately? Because, 15 days in this case is quite long.
- As long as the law is as it is, then you have to abide by it, even if it is the worst. That is why we have suggested the amendments to the Law on the Protector of Citizens, which would in such cases envisage a much shorter procedure, i.e. shorter deadlines. We hope that it will be in the parliamentary procedure at the beginning of the summer season.
What worried you? When you say, we learned about it from the media, what is it that you recognized in the media article as problematic?
- I have to correct you first. The Center for Social Work is not the one that grants or, as we have said, gives one parent the right and denies the other. Only the court can do that, and the court decision is as it is, and then we have to take care of that. The Center for Social Work gives an opinion based on all the parameters it has in its work, but the final decision is the decision of the court...
Why is this so important?
- This is very important because we cannot talk about something and take one side or the other until the court gives a final opinion.
I absolutely agree, but the centers for social work are the ones based on whose opinion a court decision is always made, and often...
- Don’t, please...
...the decision does not agree with the centers for social work.
- It is the court that decides, that gives the final decision, and that is just one of, let's say, the parameters that affect...
Nevermind that, but tell me this, what did you see problematic in this case when you read the article in the media, what worried you?
- It’s the manner in which it is presented in the media, how it is reported on. You have to take into account one thing, that we protect the interests of children in the first place, more or less the interests of parents, one or the other. The interests of the child are paramount to us. So, we pay special attention to everything that could negatively affect the child. The media often go beyond what might be called the "interest of the child". We are even considering initiating proceedings against certain media, because one position or opinion cannot be given without both sides being heard and without waiting for the final decision.
We called the Ministry of Family Welfare yesterday. They told us that they were the second instance in this whole case. We asked for answers about what their jurisdiction was in writing, we did not get them. So, should the Ministry of Family Welfare be involved in this case?
- They must get involved in this case, absolutely. And not only must, it is the right thing to do, as they control the work of the centers, they are under their jurisdiction.
Did they make a mistake?
- We will determine whether and to what extent they checked, so to speak, what the Center for Social Work in Rakovica did. But what’s the starting point for all that? In Serbia, 40 percent of married people get divorced, and in that relationship of ex-spouses, it is often overlooked that although they are no longer husband and wife, they are still the father and mother of the child, and the child's interest is a priority. We must not make such mistakes, because it has been shown not only in Serbia but in the whole world that when that happens to a child, especially at that age, the consequences are immense. This is the focus of our work – whether all of them, not only the Center for Social Work Rakovica, but also the relevant ministry, police, the media, did something bad to the child by not acting according to the rules required by law and certainly according to certain obligations that go beyond the law, in terms of moral and ethical norms.
It seems to me that the media are not at the very top in that chain. So, we need to investigate what happened to the girl, and then protect the rights of the child from the media too.
- Our experience has shown in conversation with children, at their request and not at our insistence, because we do not have the right to get into the essence of the problem in that way, that children are most affected by reporting in the media. Because those children go to schools, kindergartens, they socialize. The reaction of their friends, those with whom they come into contact with is a reaction formed precisely based on what they learned in the media.
If they had not been molested, their peers would not have had anything to read about in the media. So, first of all, the basic thing is the deed that was committed.
- Yes, but also, you shouldn’t approach such a topic in a sensationalist way. If the public needs to be informed, then it can be informed about what has either certainly happened or possibly happened, and then you stop there.
So, the mother reported the case to the police, this is all written in the media now, when the daughter called from the bathroom. Since the video call was on, she saw that her uncle had entered the bathroom. She states that the police reacted immediately, but that the father of the child showed that he had a custody paper. After the police call, the father and uncle did not allow the child to talk on the phone anymore. The mother's lawyers say that the acting court reacted and that the girl was questioned yesterday, the media also report, I say this to explain the whole story, that the girl's mother and father separated even before she was born because the father did not want her to have a child. She decided to keep the child, and for the first eight years, the girl saw her father sporadically. According to the mother, after eight years, the father decided to file a lawsuit and ask for custody of his daughter. The girl's mother claims that the Center for Social Work in Rakovica gave custody to the father and that they used her diagnosis of bipolar disorder as an argument, regardless of the fact that she was on medication and therapy and that she never did anything bad to her child. Why are the child's requests to live with the mother ignored and are they important?
- The child's request or statement is absolutely not ignored in the procedure...
Isn't that the most important?
- No. The whole situation is important, everything that is related to the case. What you read was only one paragraph, you did not read the other opinion, of the one to whom this refers, and that is the father of the child. I do not represent the father nor the mother, but the interests of the child. Certainly, the child will be given the opportunity to express an opinion, to explain in the simplest words the situation which she found herself in. But certainly, the position of the center for social work and of the court that decides on it cannot be based on the child's opinion or the position of only one side, as it could be conveyed in the media, because it must be supported by a very serious analysis. It's not just social workers, but also psychologists and others, if necessary, that determine what the best interests of the child are.
The girl escaped three times in the four months she was with her father. The father sued the mother for abduction. When the child ran away from school, no one informed the mother about it. This really looks like a movie script and it seems to me that sides don't matter at all here... Believe me, I've been in the media for a long time and I know very well that two sides have to be heard, but when you see a nine-year-old child is afraid and running away, claiming that she is being locked, not allowed to make a phone call, this is very stressful for a child.
- Every situation such as this one is stressful for a child, which we see every day. There are a large number of situations when the conflict between partners, ex-spouses, leads to the child having to choose one side or the other. I repeat, which is why I came to your show, that even when someone is no longer in love, they still remain the mother and father of their children and they should behave accordingly. In 90 percent of the cases, the child ends up with the mother, and this is not such a situation. Mothers often instruct their children against the other parent, and vice versa. It is a fatal mistake, something that will damage the child for a very long time, maybe even for life, even with all the required treatments. I am saying that we cannot take this for granted, and that we need to protect the interests of the child. The child will say, when necessary, what he or she experienced in his or her environment, whether with the father or the mother.
What are the next steps in this case? The child was questioned, the mother's lawyers say, and the acting court reacted.
- Our steps are to see if everyone has done their job properly. We would like to be able to participate in the procedure itself, and there are countries, not even that far, like Montenegro and some others, where the Protector of Citizens is authorized by law to participate in such proceedings that relate precisely to this, to the custody of the child...
I understand, so you are waiting for 15 days for the legal deadline to pass.
- We are waiting for an answer, but we are not idle, as they say, we are not just sitting and waiting for 15 days to pass, we are collecting information that is very important to us and when we get an answer from these institutions we have contacted, we will compare it with our info that we received during those 15 days.
Who else are you getting information from?
- From those who are participants in the procedure. We cannot...
Have you contacted mother and father?
- We called the father and we'll call the mother today. We cannot...
You called the father first. Why?
- Because such was the order, there is no reason for something to be first or second.
What kind of order is that, to call the father first, and then the mother?
- Why should we call the mother first and then the father? Give me a reason.
Because it is the father who is problematic in this case.
- That's what you say, that he is problematic. Are you sure he is problematic?
From the media, yes.
- Well, from the media. See how you take one side in this show? We will listen to both father and mother and then we will say...
And you are taking the other side, I see.
- I’m not taking the other side. The institution takes only the side of the child.
The child is currently waiting for 15 days...
- The child is not waiting for anything.
What do you mean? It was heard yesterday, when it comes to you, 15 days need to pass...
- The child is not waiting for anything. So, it's not 15 days.
- Not for us, but for those who need it. We do not have the right to deal with the essence, but the thing is that no one is waiting for anything. Don't take such an attitude. Simply, in order to get the realistic, relevant picture of the situation based on collected facts, the way things really are, you have to hear all these sides and take all these factors into account. You cannot follow the logic that someone is guilty and someone is not.
What does the father say?
- First of all, it is a thing that is not talked about because it is a procedure where, when it is over, we will make everything public. It is not, as I would say, a procedure that is made public at every stage.
If you are protecting the interests of the child, the father's statement is important or the father's statement does not match the impression that we gained from the media. Why don't you want to help us get to the truth?
- I have now started a story that may be interesting to the media, but which is not good for the interests of the child.
Let me tell you, it is completely uninteresting to the media and I would like there to be no such stories at all.
- But the media deal with this topic, which means that it is interesting to them.
It’s not about what’s interesting. We have a child who runs away, who has problems, who was taken away from her mother. That’s the side we know from the media, so tell us...
- From the media.
Have you just corrected me now?
- I didn't correct you, I just wanted to say that it is only knowledge gained from the media, knowledge that you read or heard.
Then help us to...
- We work on the basis of what can be determined exactly. Also, I repeat, we do not make authoritative decisions, we look at all institutions, control them and we want to hear the truth. It is my approach. Based on what comes from the institutions and what the parents say, regardless of the order of who is first and who is second, we will make our own picture that will be closest to reality, again, all in order to protect the child.
And when you get that picture of yours, then what?
- Then, based on that, we will give a statement about that case, as we have given about many others. The most important thing is that in most cases, the picture that was presented in the media was incorrect. I can cite numerous examples of this.
Now you are leading me to think that the truth here is completely opposite to what we read in the media...
- No, if I knew the truth, I would tell you, I would give a statement about it first, and then we would discuss that statement.
But we talk very unusually, in the sense – the media talk, they write untruths. It is usually untrue what the media say. It turns out based on the report, the analysis, that what we read in the media was not true, and we are talking about a specific case, where we previously mentioned that only one side was held...
- I just said that in 90% of the cases, what is given in the media is not so in practice, and that is why it is up to the institutions...
And you really want to underline that now, when we talk about this case, don’t you?
- I always want to emphasize this because I have always insisted that the media do not go sensationalist, no matter which side is in question, which side is protected, but to protect the interest of the child by publishing information and to stop there and wait for the institutions, if we have confidence in our institutions, while we as an institution that deals with it, give our final position, without holding one side or the other.
How would you find out about this case, if it weren't for the media?
- Maybe in some other way, maybe we would not even find out. That is exactly what I am talking about, but the information that was in the media is the point at which you should stop writing about it until the case is finished before the competent institutions.
They say, and this is not clear to me, so please explain it to us, that you will also address the Center for Social Work and the Ministry of Family Welfare, which we said at the beginning. So, if the ministry is not in charge of the centers for social work, explain to us the hierarchy, since obviously we are all wandering around. They say that the dispute between the mother and the center should end first, and that then they will see what happens next. Which is the institution... The dispute between the center and the mother should end... So, who is protecting the interests of the child here today, in this whole case, which institution in Serbia?
- Primarily, those who deal with it, which are the centers for social work within their hierarchy to the line ministry...
Which is the line ministry?
- The one you mentioned, for family welfare. In case they fail, then the institution I am in charge of, that is, the Protector of Citizens, more precisely the Department for the Rights of the Child, deals with it. We can't resolve a dispute between one or the other parent and the center. Both parents may be dissatisfied with the center's actions, and then they will contact us. We then start the procedure, as you yourself stated at the beginning, towards the center and towards the one who controls the work of the center, and that is the line ministry.
The ministry, I understand. All right, but here, when there are parties to the dispute, and the subject of the dispute is a child who is a minor, who protects the interests of the child?
- I tell you again – the center protects them, we protect them, that is, the Department for the Rights of the Child. In our country, an entire sector deals with the protection of children's rights, so I insist on child protection. That is why I insist that the child is not brought into a situation that is disastrous for his or her development and psyche.
Okay. So, you give an opinion, then time passes, and I assume that you will give an opinion urgently?
- When we get the answers, we will give an opinion as soon as possible.
Within a day or two, right?
- That's right.
So that is already known. But what I want to tell you is – what then?
- We will not give an opinion until we get all the elements of the case. This is what I told many of those who came to us with, say, an idea that we might take one side or the other or that we will even incline towards the attitude that is already proclaimed in the media. You know that verdicts are almost passed before the procedure is over, which is inadmissible. There is a presumption of innocence, even if it does not apply to this case. We are working to make our position so well-founded that no one can really dispute it.
All right. You give an opinion, is that what it's called?
- No. It’s a recommendation, of course, but it doesn’t matter.
Okay, it doesn't matter, but it does. But what I am interested in is which institution in this case will have to act on the basis of your recommendation?
- All those who are the subject of our recommendations. In this case, the Center for Social Welfare, the line ministry, and even the police if they did not act properly.
Okay, and what do we do with the court that has already awarded the child?
- What do you mean by the court that awarded the child? Well, we are not examining the court's decision, at this moment we have no legal right to. But we are determining whether all these institutions that I have listed have acted in accordance with what they had to do.
All right, let’s say that the Center for Social Work did not act accordingly, and based on its opinion, among other things, a court verdict was passed on who gets the child. What then?
- Sorry, but you are mixing two things. I'll explain. There is form and there is content. The form of action is one thing, the content and establishing the facts are another. We re-examine the first. The latter is being reviewed by the court. And not just in one instance but multiple instances, within a series of hierarchies of courts. And whatever the court decides, it will be an obligation for both parents.
Okay, and the court has made its decision.
- The court has not decided yet, it has passed a temporary measure as far as I know, since we do not control the courts, I repeat. This decision of the court may be perceived by one or the other parent as unfair. But if we are going to relativize everything, to say that everything is wrong, then that brings us to a situation of chaos.
I don’t want to relativize anything. I want to understand the power of the institution you represent. In the sense that when you give an opinion, does the one who reads it say, here is this guy with the reports again, and puts it aside like this, or are they obliged to act on the basis of your analyses? Anyone in this state.
- I tell you with complete certainty that in 90 percent of cases they act according to what we state in the recommendation. In case they don’t, we have other means ahead of us that we can use to implement what we think should have been done. That's why I say – we work carefully, you can't take a stand without having all the facts in mind.
Okay. Thank you so much for coming, and for having the patience to explain everything to me. But let me tell you, I think that we will see each other soon, very soon, since this whole analysis of yours will be completed very soon.
- You know, the thing with cases like this, which are usually a subject of interest, is that we see them every day. It's not comforting at all, but it's true.
Not only that it's not comforting, but it's scary as well.
- If I may, I would use a few more seconds of your show. I will always appeal to parents that, although they are no longer in love, they should not forget that they are still the parents of their children or their child, and that they should, in a way, create an atmosphere that will benefit the child.
Yes. Thank you very much for visiting... When it comes to centers for social work, here are just two more pieces of information. Let's remind the viewers. On 27 July 2017, in front of the Center for Social Work in Rakovica, Marko Nikolić killed his wife with a knife, and strangled his 4-year-old son Mihajlo. Do you remember that?
- Not only do I remember, but I know the whole case in detail. From the moment the problem arose to the moment when, so to speak, the problem ended, I don't think it's the best possible expression, with the suicide of the father in custody.
Yes, and we also have 5 July of the same year, in the Center for Social Work New Belgrade, when Milan Lovrić killed his ex-wife with a stone, in front of his three sons. And we remember that. I'm just afraid that, when you and I talk like this, somehow, it seems to me that we have confused the people a bit.
- In what sense?
I don't know how to explain. This looks like a discussion between you and me, and the bottom line is that…
- No, we withdrew the basic thesis, which is...
The essence is…
- The interest of the child. So, if someone in the Center for Social Work does not act in accordance with how he must act, then he should bear responsibility. That's our job. If the controlling ministry does not act, then it bears responsibility.
Yes, but I am afraid that this conversation went in the direction of me defending and representing one side in the media, based on insufficient evidence. You're in the middle, but you can't talk much about it. So, I'm going to say it, the conclusion of this whole conversation is that this woman who talked in the media, the mother of the child, is making things up.
- I never said or thought that.
Okay, but I'm telling you. That's how I feel, now I'm going to ask for the first time the people who work here with me, who have listened. What is your impression after the end of this conversation? Here.
- You see, this here is a very, very important moment.
Come on, because we, not wanting to get into everything…
- Just as your employees did not declare themselves now, it happens that someone observes the case of family…
They did declare themselves, in my headphones.
- Sorry, I didn't hear that.
Okay. I mean, they declared themselves and said that they also have the impression that you may be unintentionally defending the other side. That is…
- I am not defending either side.
Well, it’s the same as when you tell me that I’m on the mother's side.
- No, I'm just defending…
So, we got the impression that you are on the father's side.
- No. Why would I be on either side? I am on the side of the child.
Actually, not that you are on the father’s side, but that the mother is making things up.
- Did I lead you in that direction?
Well, maybe, how do I tell you, that's my subjective feeling. I just wanted to share that with you.
- Do you know why you have that subjective feeling? I'll tell you.
- Because I didn't accept the story that is unverified. Because I am a professional and I cannot react emotionally and take what I read for granted. I have to hear all sides. To see what an institution did, so that I could then take a stand. And then it may seem like I’m taking one side.
Well, yes, but we are going back to the beginning, again, you learned about all that from the media, reading about the mother's opinion.
- No, no, we learned from the fact that we know very well what actions someone must take to protect the best interests of the child.
Well, all right, but you got some information from the media?
- We were informed about the event. But we did not pay attention to the conclusions or comments provided by the media. Don't be angry.
No, absolutely. Let me tell you something, I didn’t take either side. I'm just talking about what I read in the same media that you read, but the thing is that I have one position and you have a completely different position. Maybe if we had called you after your conversation with the mother, you would have had a different attitude.
- What do you mean a different attitude?
Well, I don't know, maybe.
- I have an attitude based on the position of one or the other parent.
Based on the parents.
- I have an attitude about what is happening to the child.
And will you call the child to talk to her?
- We cannot call the child because that is not what this institution can and should do.
All right. Thank you very much for coming. And we will see, when this is all over, we will talk again.