The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, was a guest of the "Belgrade Chronicle" show on Radio Television of Serbia.
A father suspected of keeping his eight-year-old daughter captive in the apartment was questioned today. He defended himself by remaining silent, but he admitted that he used narcotic drugs and alcohol for a long time. The court ordered him to be detained for 30 days at the proposal of the prosecution. He is accused of endangering his daughter's life with his reckless behaviour for more than two years. He is also suspected of the crime of domestic violence against his emotional partner. The criminal police, in cooperation with the prosecutor's office, is also determining the responsibility of other persons who indirectly led to this situation. The guest of the Chronicle today is Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens. Good day!
- Good day and thank you for your invitation!
You launched an urgent procedure to control the work of several institutions, starting with the Ministry of Family Welfare, the Ministry of Interior, institutions at the level of the city and municipalities. Have any of the reports arrived yet?
- There was a notification, not a report, from the Zvezdara Health Care Centre, considering that the last place of residence of the girl was the municipality of Zvezdara, that she had never been to that health care centre, nor was she registered, nor vaccinated. The first time she arrived there was when she was found. After the examination, she was sent to a health care institution, that is, to the hospital in Tiršova. We expect to hear from the Palilula Health Care Centre tomorrow, where the girl previously stayed, in the municipality of Palilula, and therefore the Palilula Health Care Centre.
Is there a deadline for these other institutions in which they must respond?
- Up to 15 days is the deadline, although we expect that they will respond faster, given that it is an emergency case.
When you heard about this case, where exactly did you start?
- There are bodies that deal with the protection of children and their upbringing, education, care in every way, from health care to educational care. And then we started in that order, to find those that could be responsible for the condition in which the girl was found. On top of that are the parents, that is, the father with whom she lived.
When all those reports come in, you read them and what happens next? What is the next procedure?
- We read them. We work on the basis of proven facts, to see what they stated in those reports, those authorities we addressed. We try to see which of those can be considered credible, that is, correct. If we believe it is not, then we go further and look for what we believe they left out, intentionally or unintentionally, to get the real truth, to have facts that are provable.
Wait, are you expecting someone to send you information that is not true?
- Of course. You see...
I understand that you contact all the official institutions. I don't expect any of those institutions to lie.
- No, I didn't say they were lying. But, let's say that they do not have the right information or that the accuracy of that information can be doubted, not because they are lying. One does not have to lie in order to mislead the work of the institution of the Protector of Citizens, nor can one tell untruths in this regard. Simply put, information that has not been verified can be given.
You stated somewhere that you will check whether the police responded when neighbours reported hearing a child crying. Did you check it?
- First, we need to determine whether the neighbours actually reported it. This means, whether there are reports to the police by the neighbours, by the relatives, maybe friends. And, if there were such reports, then we check whether the police responded adequately to those complaints.
And who was supposed to know? You stated that the child was not vaccinated, that the child did not go to preschool, did not start school. I mean, those are some things that are mandatory.
- Yes, they are.
Who should have known that?
- The local self-government. So, the local self-government is obliged to inform the school in which the child will be enrolled by the end of February of that year, that the child is old enough for school when he/she reaches the age to start school, the first grade. So, until the end of February of that year. And the school, in case the child is not enrolled, is obliged to inform the local self-government unit thereof, 15 days before classes start. Parents are primarily informed if the child does not go to school for two or five days, does not attend school, and the parents did not justify the child's absence from school.
Nobody reacted here, obviously.
- I don’t know. I don't want to prejudge anything, we will see in a few days, but the fact is that the child did not attend school.
- And then, sorry for interrupting you, there is the Health Care Centre that gives a report on whether there have been examinations. We will see in Palilula. They must first determine whether the psycho-physical development of the child corresponds to her age. Both physical and mental. In practice, we found many children that were practically far below the mental and physical status for their age, that were malnourished. Then there is the question of hygiene, in what conditions children live. And the most important thing, do the children have any injuries that are a result of violence, because when this is determined, it can be seen whether the child suffered violence. It is a very important topic and I would like you to give me a few minutes to say something about it.
It is an important topic and I will call you to talk about it. This case is absolutely terrifying. I'm thinking about it now while I'm talking to you and everyone is discussing this case and the public is dealing with it, because everyone is disgusted. The privacy of that child is increasingly encroached upon. How much can that potentially affect the child, whose life did not start well anyway?
- You have asked an excellent question. The extent to which a child will be secondarily victimized depends very much on the media companies, on the media in general. Today, in a show, I gave an example of a girl who had experienced severe violence and wanted to talk to me personally. And she told me literally this – that it was much harder for her to be in the media for a few weeks than what she experienced from bullies. I have always insisted that the media must report on children extremely carefully, using all the restrictions provided by law. Because, what happens then? I'm not a psychologist and I'm not going to talk about something I don't know about, but the thing is, the consequences of something like that can last a lifetime.
We are talking about how important the topic of violence is, you yourself say that, and we will take some time to talk about it, but today, unfortunately, we can't manage to cover everything. Still, you react when it comes to the most sensitive categories.
- Sorry to interrupt you. We react in all situations when someone approaches us where their human rights are threatened or when we find something out through the media, but we certainly check the information.
That is clear to me. Now we are talking about a specific case. I want to ask you about two more. Are you going to ask for the report of the school in Kačarevo?
- We are.
You are. And Surčin, with the students of the seventh grade, do you know about that case as well?
- Yes, I do, with the teacher. I will react to that, just as we reacted to that really drastic case, where the father killed the mother of five children. This is the topic of how violence should be treated, in the following sense – we want to create a recommendation in the law that children should be treated as victims of violence, even though they did not experience it as psychological or physical violence, even if they were only observers. I’ve been conducting some research for a very long period of time, my own research. I've been doing this since 2003, and if a child sees violence, regardless of whether it's by parents, partners or whoever, it opens up another cycle of violence and the child identifies with either the bully or the victim. And then there is no end to it. That's why we ask for the law to be changed and for a child who was an observer, so to speak, of violence, to be treated as a victim of violence.
Okay. Thank you for being a guest of the "Belgrade Chronicle" today.
Pašalić for TV N1: There is no collective responsibility in the case of the girl from Mirijevo
30 March 2023
The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, was a guest on the program of Television N1.
Regarding the case of neglect and abuse of a child in the Belgrade municipality of Zvezdara, the Office of the Protector of Citizens addressed all competent institutions from which they expect a response within 15 days regarding their actions in this case. I am talking about this with the Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić. Good afternoon, thank you for speaking for Television N1. What exactly did you ask and whom did your office address when it comes to this case?
- Good afternoon, thank you for the call. We sent requests to six authorities, and one address, that is, an act of cooperation, to the First Basic Court, because the Protector of Citizens, as you know, cannot control the work of the courts and the prosecutor's office, according to the law and the Constitution, as well as some other institutions I'm not going to list now. And that is why we turned to the court with an act of cooperation. The six authorities we contacted are: the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Family Welfare and Demography, the competent centres for social work in Palilula and Zvezdara. Palilula because the child first lived in Palilula, and later in Zvezdara, in the local self-government of Zvezdara, as well as those that should have taken care of the child's health. That is the competent health care centre, and that is the framework in which we operate.
What questions do you ask exactly?
- We ask whether they acted according to their obligations, according to the law and regulations, i.e. whether they acted in the specific case according to the rules that treat this issue from the scope of their work.
Give us an example, what do you ask the Centre for Social Work, did the child go to school, what do you ask?
- We do not ask the Centre for Social Work that, but the local self-government. The reasons are these, by the end of February of the current year in which the child should start the 1st grade, we are not talking here about the mandatory preschool, but school, the local self-government is obliged to inform the competent school, certainly the parents, and to get feedback on whether the child was enrolled. If the child is not enrolled 15 days before the beginning of the school year, the school is obliged to report that, and then the procedure provided for will normally start. This is when we talk about school, for example.
And what about the Centre for Social Work, how did this parent get custody of the child?
- That's the decision of the court. The thing is, as I said, and I will repeat it – we cannot control the decisions of the court. In particular, the Palilula Centre for Social Work gave its opinion in order to start the procedure for granting or denying parental rights in whole or in part, and the court decision was as it was, all that is known to the public. Furthermore, when such cases happen in the territory where one centre is competent, that centre is obliged to pay special attention and to visit the family and those persons under the care of the Centre for Social Work at regular intervals.
What answers do you expect from these institutions in the next 15 days?
- I expect complete answers to the questions we asked, and not within 15 days, but 15 days at the latest. I expect that the answers will arrive even earlier, although we cannot exert that kind of pressure, but we can schedule an inspection and see if, in our opinion, it is not going according to the desired dynamics. Such cases are given the status of emergency cases, then we will definitely take the steps within our competence.
And then what, when they answer you?
- When they answer us, then we see who made the mistake, whether they all made a mistake or whether one of those bodies made a mistake. There is no collective responsibility, in every institution there are people with names and surnames, who are obliged to act according to the law, according to their job description, their education, profession, all that falls under the scope of determining who made the mistake.
And then, when you assess based on the report that someone made a mistake, what happens then?
- We do not assess, but work on the basis of proven facts. We have to give an explanation as to why we think that a person made a mistake, and then an investigation is launched, which is well known. We do not have the possibility of sanctioning, unfortunately, this is how the ombudsman institution is organized in most countries, but we have the right to monitor the procedure against the person who made a specific omission, a deliberate oversight, that is, negligence or intent.
Who carries out that procedure?
- It is implemented by the institutions in which these persons work and, of course, by the competent ministry.
So, the Centre for Social Work should carry out the procedure against its employee, right?
- The procedure that they should carry out is first to see who actually made a mistake in the centre itself, and then it goes further through hierarchy to the top, that is, to the competent ministry.
Have you previously had the opportunity to control the work of centres for social work? I remember the case in Vršac, did anything change after that?
- Yes, things changed because we pointed out a systemic error in monitoring that situation, where the family, in which the father, I apologize to the viewers for having to say that, strangled his own child. What were the omissions there, did the Centre for Social Work, having learned some things much earlier before the event took place, do everything it was supposed to do.
And what happened then, has something fundamentally changed, how often do you actually control centres for social work? How many such cases do you have?
- It is not our job to control centres for social work. It is our job to react in a situation.
How many continuous situations like this have you had? I remember that there are more. Do you intend to deal with the case in Jagodina?
- We intend to. We are already dealing with that case.
How often do you deal with centres for social work?
- Whenever there is a possible mistake, failure to act, I repeat, or negligence or when someone really did not act intentionally for any reason, then we act and control the centres for social work.
Understandable. I am asking you in relation to the events, how often does this happen to you and does it happen often?
- Often, here's the short answer – often.
Has anything changed after those actions, after your recommendations?
- It often happens, as you say, that some transfer of responsibility to another is sought, so at one time, for example, the cause was always the lack of employees, that was highlighted and is highlighted in the media to this day. We made a recommendation to increase the number of employees, and that recommendation was acted upon. We asked for those centres to employ the necessary staff – if a psychologist is needed, then a psychologist, if a social worker is needed, then a social worker, and for constant education and checks of their work to be carried out by those who are obliged to do that, let's say at the level of the city, it is checked by the City Centre which controls the municipal centres.
You have been the Protector of Citizens since 2017. Do you have the impression that anything in that system has improved?
- A lot is changing in that system. I heard an MP mention social cards, that's a question I'm often asked. First of all, it is important to make it clear who has the right to the care of the centres, i.e. to social care, and to accurately record that, to choose the people who really need it, not those who pretend to need it, and when you go into the whole story, to put it so colloquially, you see that it's not quite like that.
Do you think there are a lot of people who pretend they need social assistance?
- I am prevented by the Law on Personal Data Protection, but I could tell you the names and surnames of people who are recipients of social assistance, who have movable property and immovable property, and who still receive social assistance.
Yes, I'm not sure that's the case, but it's not our…
- I will go public, certainly not with names and surnames, but I will explain very clearly why this is being done. Mind you, it is a matter of the system and the connection of the system. If the connection of the system exists, then you will very easily determine whether the Centre for Social Work is dealing with, for example, a person it should not be dealing with, and is not dealing with a person it should be dealing with. The same applies to the topic that we talked about a little earlier.
Let us go back. Do you have the impression that something has changed in terms of the protection of children and women when it comes to centres for social work? Because in some regular time intervals, we witness that something is not quite right there. Today it is this little girl, then we had that case in Vršac, then recently we had the case of a murdered woman and a child, basically under the supervision of the Centre for Social Work. Has anything improved since 2017, since you have been in this position?
What has improved, if it has?
- Yes, the situation has improved. It's just that, you know how it looks: mostly the cases that shake the public, so to speak, or that are under media attention are taken. There are really many of them, but if you take the total number of cases, i.e. those under the authority of the centres for social work, then you will get the correct ratio. I can’t tell you how many cases we have handled since 2017, where the epilogues were terrible. There was a case of murder of a child and then the wife, the child's mother. Admittedly, that case was closed before my arrival and I know exactly who acted, how they acted and how they had to act. That is why we introduced monitoring the work of Centres for social work and, most importantly, having direct communication with those people who seek the protection of centres for social work, that means direct physical communication, so to speak. They address me, me personally – that's right, and in case I can't, they address the Office. I receive them, the employees of the office receive them, they are received by employees who really know such issues very well. So, people who are good at what they do and very experienced. There are cases that are interesting to the media, I will not list them now because I am prevented by the law that I mentioned, on personal data protection, where a whole media campaign is created that someone lives badly, that they live extremely badly, that they are denied their rights. We enter the case, call the person, call the lawyer who represents the person, and find that the situation is completely opposite.
I get the impression that you don't believe that people live badly?
- No, I know very well how badly people live, better than anyone in this country. I can guarantee you that, because in these five and a half years, I have received thousands of people, personally talked with them, I apologize for having to say that since you told me this. Mind you, it's easy to watch on YouTube, on the Internet, to watch and listen to various speculations, various opinions. I invite everyone – this includes citizens, competent institutions, employees or heads of those institutions, politicians – to go out, as they say, and talk to those people, then suffer criticism, then suffer insults, then talk in the domain of what you came for, and then you will come to the right conclusions.
I would just like two more things, related to this case. If you say that the centres for social work are functioning better than before, then why do we still have so many cases with fatal outcomes?
- Why do we have them?
Why can't we see the progress that you are talking about? Why didn't we save more lives?
- First of all, there are such cases everywhere in the world and they cause the greatest media attention in every country. The key is that you have to look at it from several aspects, and not blame. I do not defend the centres for social work, nor do I speak about responsibility until I establish it, because I say – I work only on the basis of proven facts. The bottom line is that you have to trace, as they say, from A to Z, the precursors to everything that led to the fatal epilogue. Mind you, I don't even give myself the right to say that the biological father of the child, with whom the child lived, committed a criminal offense under Article 193 of the Criminal Code, which is gross neglect of the child, until it is established by law, for which the prescribed punishment is up to three years in prison. The most important thing, which is in the focus of interest is the protection of children at any cost. I will give you an example, we asked for amendments to the law and we will push for it, which would stipulate that a child is always considered a victim of violence, not only when he/she suffers mental or physical violence, but also when he/she witnesses violence. Why? I have been dealing with this problem since 2003 and I know very well that a child or children who observe violence in their secondary family, take over the model, imitate either the bully or the victim and the circle opens up again. We need to protect them completely, not by decision of the government, the ministry, but incorporated into the law with the prescribed punishment.
Have you had a chance to see this child?
- That is the next step. I have confidence that the child is placed according to regulations, but I would also like to see, as you said, that child. There is one thing I have to say. Just a moment, please.
Is that part of your job, should you have done it already?
- It is a very sensitive part of the job. I have always appealed to the media to be very careful when giving such information. I spoke to the girl, not at my request, but at the request of that girl, who suffered the most terrible violence, which was the top piece of news in the media for weeks. She told me that what she experienced at the hands of the bully was much less painful than, pardon the colloquial expression again, what the media had "dragged her through" for weeks, which led to the girl not having the courage to socialize with her peers. So, we have to be careful and sensitive here, the problem is we can go and create a media campaign for ourselves in the sense of anything, personal affirmation, information, institutions, but we have to be very careful with children. I answered you – yes, that is the subject of my interest, and certainly the subject of my interest is the future of that child. I am not a psychologist, you have to ask the psychologists about the traumatization of that child, which will have consequences, perhaps, that can last the whole life.
Let us go back to those procedures. Once you have all the answers you need, how long will it take your office to write the report?
- Sorry for smiling, but writing a report can be done in 2 hours, although writing a report is not the goal. This is a practice that I stopped when I joined the institution, that mindless writing of reports and announcements. What is the problem with that? Everything that has been stated and what we have determined should be supported by evidence in the explanation of our decisions, so that anyone who accepts our recommendation can say that the Protector of Citizens determined this and that.
And how long will it take you to write that recommendation?
- First, we have to wait, mind you, it's six bodies. Then, I'm sure, that's what the practice tells me, many will delay, ask for a delay, many may try to shift the responsibility to someone else. I repeat, we demand specific responsibility, not only of a specific authority, but of a specific person who works in that authority and who did not act according to the rules by which he was obliged to act.
And to get back, how long can it take to write that recommendation, when can we…?
- Writing it can take half an hour. Whether will determine everything, depends on what we get and what I told you at the beginning of the conversation.
Okay, so you need half an hour to write it, and how many weeks or days will it take for you to get that information, so that then…?
- They have to send us that information. We will insist that the information reaches us faster because we marked the case as "urgent", but it's like when you ask a question – how long will a court proceeding last, with the fact that this is far more complex, I'm not saying than a court proceeding isn’t, but this does involve six bodies. Plus, the most sensitive thing is that the beginning of the whole case is based on a court decision that we will not review. We have no right to that, I'm not going into the merits of the court decision, I'm not going into who gave the finding and the opinion, because that was incorporated into the judiciary and thus the court verified it. It is also a very sensitive part, where we have to examine everything from A to Z.
So, you cannot give a specific deadline by which the recommendation can be completed. Except for the half hour you will need to write it.
- That's right, when you have facts, the least of the problems is how to write it.
So, it can take several weeks?
- It shouldn't take long, but don't ask me to tell you now the specific date on which it will happen, or the exact time when we will have proven facts that this or that authority has made a mistake, that this one made a mistake. When we have it, we will go public with it.
Yes. For some reports you need more time... I could not find anywhere on your site if you have completed the reports and if everyone has submitted everything to you when it comes to that famous "List" case, when the Anti-Money Laundering Authority asked to monitor the accounts of certain people.
- And who contacted us about that case?
You said that you were dealing with it, you launched an investigation, and we talked about it in this show.
- You have to make a big, serious distinction there… You shouldn’t speak like that because this is what it's about. The Protector of Citizens practically investigates, in order for the viewers to better understand, the so-called procedural errors and procedural omissions, and the Protector of Citizens does not deal with what someone has established, not because he does not want to deal with it, but because it has been made impossible.
But you launched an investigation into whether there were any omissions... I am asking you if your investigation has been completed because I could not find it.
- If you take into account that after my arrival at the head of the institution, the number of appeals increased several times and that we completed 92 percent of the cases, do you think I can remember each case? If you want, I will. That may have been of crucial importance to you, but we have at least one such case every day. Go on, please.
You didn't remember that case. There was a lot of talk about it in public. I think you were a guest in this very show, talking about that topic.
- I have been talking about many topics as a guest. I love coming to you on television, so I can't remember every single case I've talked about on your show.
Okay. What would you single out as the most important thing from your previous work as the ombudsman, you also applied for a new mandate.
- I didn't apply.
You ran for office. What would you single out from what you've done so far that recommends you the most to continue doing the job?
- I will answer that question very simply: the Protector of Citizens is elected by the citizens of Serbia through their elected representatives. They will decide on that. But what I did when I was first elected as the Protector of Citizens, and I cannot say that I will be chosen for the second time as well, is what I said when leaving the assembly hall, when I took the oath. I said that I will open the doors of the Protector of Citizens to everyone who wants to come and talk with the employees, with the deputies, with me, and that's what I did. Why? Because the Protector of Citizens is a specific institution. You mentioned announcements. Announcements can be given by, I don't know how to call them, I call them associations, that's the real legal name, I think everything else is more colloquial. Why are you laughing?
No, no, go on!
- The key moment is that you have to talk to people, you have to go, as they say colloquially, into the mud, you have to go where no one will go, because you are the Protector of Citizens.
And you did that, you went into the mud, among the people?
- I did, of course I did. People reproached me about wearing a uniform, and now I can explain that.
Where did that idea come from... it was some camouflage uniform.
- Please. People need to know the difference, the uniform becomes a uniform when you wear the insignia of the army, country, a rank and your name on it. Everything else is called tactical gear. No, it's not reminiscent of a uniform, it's called tactical equipment, adapted to the conditions: mud, winter, snow. If in the middle of covid you visit some...
Okay, but you didn't just go to the mud, you were also a guest on television.
- I was returning from such an environment. If I go in the middle of winter, in the middle of covid, to an unhygienic Roma settlement, do you think I will come like this?
Okay, but you've also been a guest in the television studios…
- Well, as I said, I came from such environments. Let me be clear, I didn't have time to change clothes, that's why I came like that.
Okay, are you counting on the support of the deputies?
- I am not counting on anything, I said simply and as briefly as possible – the citizens of Serbia elect their Protector of Citizens through their elected representatives from the ranks of the opposition and from the ranks of the government, and they will decide on it.
And from whom do you expect support, I assume from the government and from the opposition?
- I repeat, I do not expect support.
You don't expect them to vote for you?
- I don't expect support from anyone, but I expect the citizens of Serbia, through their elected representatives in the National Assembly, to decide who they trust.
Here, in the previous days and when you were running for office and when you presented the report, there was a lot of talk about it – e.g. members of the opposition state that there are five proceedings against you due to mobbing before the High Court in Belgrade and that perhaps this is the reason why you shouldn’t…
- The High Court has jurisdiction. It would not be brought before the High Court if it did not have jurisdiction.
Okay, but five cases of mobbing are pending against you.
- It's not just against me, it's against the institution, and me as well, but do you know why? It can bother a person when someone who is a lawyer by education says something that has absolutely nothing to do with the norm. First of all, the proceedings are pending – you said it right. But when you say something like that, you prejudice the court's decision. Let's wait for the court's decision and then we will see if Zoran Pašalić, solely, or the body of the Protector of Citizens is really responsible for mobbing against those who are cited, if they are cited, in that lawsuit. Secondly, they said five. It’s not five, but three. You know, when you talk about something with the idea of making someone look bad, maybe you could also say the other things? And that is that there were many insults and slanders against Zoran Pašalić, and he got over some of them, he got over most of them, but he didn't get over some of them and he got slanderers in court. Why don't they say that? I ask the question, why don't they say that Zoran Pašalić was defamed in a way that is completely inappropriate. No, Zoran Pašalić has to suffer criticism as a public official, and I completely accept that, because there is a legal article about it, I think it is 18, but he does not have to suffer defamation, nor lies, nor insinuations. And then Zoran Pašalić comes to court, presents his evidence and receives a verdict.
I mean, that says enough about the atmosphere in your office or…?
- It doesn’t. You see, on one side you have the Law on Civil Servants and you have the protection of civil servants through not only mobbing, please don't use the term, the law is called the Law on Prohibition of Harassment at the Workplace, and you also have the Law on Protection of Whistleblowers, there is also a large number of laws that protect employees, but any prejudging of the court's decision, I really appreciate the media that do not do that. But now, they are prejudging what the decision will be, not to list the cases again, I am not allowed to say that because of the law on personal data protection.
Thank you very much Mr. Pašalić for this conversation, I hope to see you soon when you receive information related to this case we discussed.