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From the media

The Protector of Citizens was hosted in the “Novo jutro” show on TV Pink.

We will continue the discussion with our guest in the studio, the Protector of Citizens. Not even 4 social welfare institutions reacted to protect two minor children of age 10 and 15 from Blace against the attempt of their relocation to foster family against their will. What does the protection against abuse and neglect refer to, which such services are obliged to provide? Who will have to take the responsibility for the scandalous omissions? What will the ombudsman do now and has the drama of many months finally got its outcome? These are the questions for the Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić. Good morning and thank you for being here. We have received the news yesterday that the Ethical Board of the Social Welfare Chamber suspended the director and psychologist of this center, Ivan P. and Ljiljana M. Ivan P. was suspended for six months with the prohibition of performing the activities from the scope of social protection whereas the psychologist is prohibited from the activities in the duration of three months. A progress has been made. You are to say it better how great this progress is, but another thing, are these punishments enough? We have seen those events and how it looked like. Exceeding of the authority, to say the least, isn’t it?

- I have never thought that the punishments are the ones that will make some essential change, but the ones who implement certain measures should start from the very beginning. Here we followed the events which are the outcome which has been going on since 2017.

But there had to be some, so to say, understanding, humanity.

- Certainly. The one who accepts to do this job first must have the empathy for the situation they oversee and deal with. That is the essence.

What have you confirmed so far as the Protector of Citizens?

- Look, dating back in 2017. It is the relationship between the spouses and mother, that is the mother of the father of these children, which culminated by the relationship between the mother, the grandmother of these children and their father. What is related to the media is, if we take that social networks are some sort of media, without the father’s consent the children were available to the public without any protection. That was the culmination of all these bad relations in the series since 2017. And then the decision was made to relocate the children from this family. Then we have that scene, in which children were relocated in the manner which really, that is there was the attempt to relocate them in the manner which was really inappropriate for treating children and their destiny at all.

How old are they, between 10 and 15 years of age. Can’t they decide if they want to live, for instance, with their grandmother?

- They can decide. Now, there is the question of objective perception of the situation. You cannot think in the manner those children think. You have to objectivize situation, to say if the conditions these children live in meet all the criteria. And not just if they meet, but if these children have normal development, schooling, education, doing some activities, work on the development of some talents if they have them. Not just to work, don’t think I underestimate that, some agricultural works, hard work. And that is the reason.

This grandmother, as we heard, is semi-movable. Also, they have to help her, which is good for the development of empathy with these children. But how much children can do that, in fact…

- Sorry to interrupt. The point is you cannot allow one thing to last for years so it culminates in this manner and attracts attention of the public. The problem should be solved initially. When it emerges, it should be solved within the shortest time span possible. 

That is exactly the question, why four social welfare institutions have failed to respond and solve that since 2017?

- It is not just about the social welfare institutions. There is the responsibility of school which did not initiate the misdemeanor proceedings against the father who neglected those children because they did not go to school. These are a series of omissions. There is what I have constantly emphasized, which is, you cannot observe one institution after another and now everyone transfers the responsibility to another institution. It is a series of institutions dealing with education of children, which deal with childcare, which deal with providing normal conditions for children and all of them should cooperate. If everyone looks only at their scope of work and how to do it, and eventually fails to do it, then you have a problem. This showed something. But there are such problems.

Transferring of the responsibility – it wasn’t me, they are not responsible, then we reach the situation which culminates and eventually something like this happens, which is the problem. Ok, we had this story now. Finally, we expect further outcome, don’t we? What is with the children now? Who will be responsible and where are the children at the moment? How do they live?

- The point is in this, they will be responsible, although we are not the court. As for the children, they are not, their status is regulated in the sense that they are practically accommodated in the foster family and it will be seen what will happen.

Alright. It is a temporary solution.

- That is correct. Now we are waiting for the decision of public institutions and these institutions competent for this case.

The manner of the implementation of this decision is the most appropriate for the development of these children and will probably be different from the thing we saw. We hope that. This is just about this manner and it seems about the ignoring of this solution.

- When you have the negligence and neglect of children, then I repeat, everyone needs to take part in solving of this problem and take their part of responsibility, that is the essence of every such case.

When it comes to children with disabilities, we discussed it already, in many of these institutions, negligence and neglect of these children, it is said that these situations occurred in many of them. What is the current condition compared to the previous one?

- The truth is somewhere in the middle. If you have negligence, as it was stated in the report, by individual employees of these institutions, there is on the other hand also the negligence of these children by those who by natural, biological laws should take care of these children.

We are talking about parents, relatives or someone connected to these children. Then there is the solution. Should the children be in the home, which is considered inappropriate. The tendencies are to accommodate children to a family they come from on the one hand. On the other hand, there are the cases in which some families refuse to take these children.

- They refuse, that is, believe that the home is an institution which will solve the problem of children, and to be honest, of them.

You said that the situation at homes should not be generalized, but to go from home to home and write down everything and see what the situation is in every of them. Have you proposed that, and will the visits finally be paid from home to home actually, because now we see and also now on front pages also the ones for the elderly, and especially if we are talking about children, is the situation unacceptable?

- You are mentioning the homes for the elderly.

I am saying both for the elderly and the young.

- The Protector of Citizens does not oversee directly the homes for the elderly, which I don’t think is a good solution. In the countries from the region you have…

And why is that so?

- That is the legal solution. And we are asking for its change. The reasons for that are, when you oversee something indirectly, then the question is if you have the right perception of it. As for the homes for children, we oversee them directly and it gives results. We are asking for the same for the homes for the elderly. For two most endangered categories in every society, and in ours as well, these are children and the elderly.

Do you think you can do something about it?

- I am convinced we can do it.

It is hard to read these headlines in the media, to see all that, negligence, neglect of children. Here we are reading about torture of the elderly at some homes. It somewhat, we can say, fits into the horror sphere of our social live. How true is that? Or isn’t?

- That is correct. I always distance myself from news headlines. I respect everything written, but the practice showed that in the majority of cases the information is not either absolutely true or not complete and then we get another image.

Did you go from home to home? What is the situation now and what if the home does not have adequate conditions?

- We cannot visit all homes in a week.

I didn’t mean you visited them all, but what is the situation in the ones you visited?

- It is changed because the media interest brought to that, and completely honestly speaking, those who were in a bad status, those managing these homes reacted swiftly in order to change this situation, to avoid being publicly shamed and in the public focus as some places where children suffer.

Here they talk about that, it is difficult to say what is true, home where the elderly were tortured. It was vacated overnight after a series of articles. It itself is for some services, perhaps not ombudsmen, protectors of citizens, but the Prosecutor’s office.

- No, that is for the ombudsman.

Yes, but it is for the prosecutor’s office, too.

- If there were some criminal acts, it is definitely for the prosecutor’s office.

There is a lot of work for you, we must say.

- There is a lot of work, but what can I tell you, we, all of us, literally spend this summer at work. And summer should be a situation which is not that dynamic. We expect at fall, if what is anticipated occurs, that things will heat up. Covid 19, and you see that most of us, I won’t say citizens, are completely relaxed.

Yes, that will be a problem. Thank you once again! And see you again.

The Protector of Citizens Zoran was hosted in “Uranak” show on K1 Television.

After the insight into the report of non-governmental organizations “Forgotten Children” which states disturbing omissions at the homes for children with developmental disabilities, the recommendations were issued by the Commissioner for the protection of equality and the Protector of Citizens. Which of them were acted upon and which were not? What are the actual conditions at homes for children with developmental disabilities and what is new information in the case of Petnica? These are the questions for the Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić. He is my guest this morning… This is something which is under the media coverage, so you are under additional pressure…

- Why under pressure?

Well, I am asking.

- That is a part of our job and we do it in the best manner we can.

You reacted with regards to the cases of accommodation of children with developmental disabilities. There were 25 recommendations issued last year. What are these institutions, in fact what you can tell us, what recommendations are there and to whom were they sent, upon which recommendations it was acted? And, if I am not mistaken, this year you also sent certain recommendations so tell us something more about that.

- The essence is that all these homes where not only children, as you called them, with disabilities that is with special needs are accommodated are under constant oversight of the Protector of Citizens both under the regular one which is conducted periodically and upon reports or when we find out from the media that some unpleasant situations and omissions in operation occurred at some of these homes. Our recommendations are acted upon, some of them may be executed immediately, others take more time because when it is necessary to renovate, provide different furniture, organization at homes or organization of the residents themselves, which is particularly important, in fact the most important.

So 25 recommendations were issued. What were the remarks, to call them like that, from your side and what was done?

- It is not a remark, it is one suggestion, that is the statement on the number of employees at these institutions. The reasons are that very few employees resulted in the situation in which they cannot respond to all the tasks or primarily to the needs of residents, that is those who are accommodated at these institutions. In this manner, it resulted in the multiplied omissions. Because if someone should take care of, let’s say one person, of 10, 20, 30 residents, that is physically impossible.

How many of them should be there?

- We didn’t do it, it is not our estimation. It is known who does it – the competent ministry, but there is definitely few of them. Secondly, the accommodation at homes is also under our constant oversight in the sense of technical conditions, equipment of homes, those necessary or required assets so that the life at these homes is going on in the right manner as these children deserve.

Therefore, the fundamental problem is the lack of staff. This is where everything else stems from. But here, when you say, 25 recommendations were issued, what else do they refer to or are all 25 recommendations related to that?

- No, they are not. Some of them refer to very urgent things. In total 10 of them have been acted upon, for other 13 require some more time. It is about the conditions at home, renovation, construction of some facilities… The urgent stuff refer to something which should be done immediately or at the shortest period of time in the sense of accommodation or procurement of certain equipment. For instance, the most difficult cases are with the children who cannot get up from the bed, so they are, let’s say, lying patients, so to say. Don’t mind this expression. And then, everything which is needed not to complicate their health condition. There is a series of needs at these homes, some were corrected, some we are waiting for. So, these are the 13 recommendations upon which it wasn’t acted but there is a deadline in which the action should be performed. And upon two of them there was no action. The point is that the children in these institutions ask for special need and not just of those who work with them. Here, now they are in the media and you took this topic as relevant just because the report which was issued caused a fuss in the media. And these children exist every day, these problems exist for years. The most drastic cases were taken as examples. I personally visited many of these homes… I saw what was the most important for them and what I always emphasized is that these children have, if they have and most of them have, either parents or relatives or guardians or social welfare centers take care of them and that it is very important for these children to be in the constant contact with their closest ones or with those who take care of them.

Why aren’t they?

- You must ask these people. You must ask those who frequently forget these children. Because, when I talked to those in whose cases that is possible, their basic remark was, apart from the conditions at home, there weren’t many specific complaints to individual employees at homes, to the communication...

What are the remarks?

- The remarks to individual employees at some homes... Yes, but in this communication it is very important that this communication be established better. Therefore, there is the tendency to return them to their families, relatives, foster families, to encourage the possibility of their staying there in every manner, it is the tendency which is practically followed by us and planned. All that takes time and in the world it is the tendency. So, not to be accommodated in this manner.

You also recently had certain recommendations. Have you got any answer? Your colleague who was… Well the same with regards to the accommodation, it seems to me that she said that she was still waiting for the answer, that it was recent, that it was still pending. When we discuss deadlines, you mentioned deadlines for acting upon recommendations – who prescribes these deadlines? Here, you say that 10 recommendations were acted upon while 13 of them are still in progress.

- The deadlines are prescribed by the law. The deadlines are not shorter than 15 days, since these are mostly the cases which require urgency. In the new law, for which I hope will be in the assembly procedure by the end of the summer, these deadlines are much shorter. Certainly, you cannot provide a short deadline if you are aware and the one you contact is aware that nothing can be corrected in one day if something needs more time, but we insist on these short deadlines. If we have the explanation why such deadline cannot be adhered to and which is valid, we will extend the deadline, but certainly we insist on shorter deadlines.

You are saying that you act on the basis of what you read in the media, upon the report, when you go out in the field and identify certain omissions, so to say. When we talk about these reports, who can report and who reports that to you?

- Everyone. All citizens of the Republic of Serbia and those at the territory of the Republic of Serbia who are not citizens of the Republic of Serbia but are here either at the moment or for a longer period of time. However, again the new law stipulates that even children, this age level is lowered, can contact us directly.

And when we talk about the accommodation of children with special needs, who reports it to you, when we talk about that case?

- In the majority of cases these are parents of these children, then there are complaints of the employees of these homes, rarely but they complain, but the greatest number of interventions, recommendations is on the basis of what we saw and established.

What do the employees complain about?

- About very difficult work conditions. If for eight working hours you are exposed to one very arduous work, both physically and mentally, then after some time it really causes some dissatisfaction. Then you have the fluctuation of employees, everyone who can find another job, they will leave. That is why these jobs are very difficult, that is why there are few employees, that is why what we insist on is to do that part to assess very well, very analytically what should be improved in comparison to the number, work conditions, their salaries and definitely to go for a longer period of time towards the relocation of children where their right environment is, and these are their parents, relatives or if they don’t exist, then foster parents.

And the residents themselves?

- What do you mean?

Because we were told from the ministry that the resident can report, so we wonder how…

- They can, but you see, as you said in the beginning, these are the children of certain problems, with special needs. It occurred that in the conversation some of them will report something, but you know some facts which are such that you should have an intervention.

Also, that report mentions sexual violence, that is the use of birth-control pills, IUDs and so on, does it happen without consulting the resident. What do you know about that?

- I didn’t understand you. Don’t be mad, sexual violence is something else. I wouldn’t go into the analysis now, experts from this field know that, but certain, I would say, atavistic urges with these children and people at these homes in general refer partially to those needs and therefore the constant oversight should be performed. We insisted that there is a full-time employed gynecologist or one who would come periodically in order to confirm what exactly confirm what can be done to prevent undesired pregnancy. But it has nothing to do with sexual violence.

That is mentioned, too, so that is why I am asking. And how decisions are made, in fact in what manner… it is said that it is done without approval, practically without the residents not knowing about it, so they are given birth-control pills, IUD is placed. How is it possible?

- We haven’t established that. I would like to see that result and to see who these female children really are, because even though we are dealing with this problematics carefully, we didn’t really find these cases in which someone complained about this type of omissions, although it is a too mild expression. We had remarks referring to work exploitation and we confirmed that several times. Many who were employed at these homes and who in such manner practically exploited the residents were sanctioned. It was very important not to follow that practice in principle. Here is what it means, to be clearer. That means that some of these children who have physical strength, mentally meet a certain level in order to do manual jobs, are practically hired to do these jobs for someone else. The one who organizes them has a certain financial benefit, and these children have nothing from it or a reward which can be discarded.

You frequently go to unannounced visits. Have you noticed what the relationship is, however, these people who are employed and work with this children find it difficult, how they treat them? Is there a lack of empathy? We could read about that, too, practically their names are unknown. How do they, do they have some time to be dedicated emotionally to these children? They don’t need just change of clothes and to be given food.

- In order for you to reach some conclusion, you have to go there and see how it looks like where it occurs. If you have, I will take an example of the home where one person is working, as you said, changing the clothes of 20-30 residents during the working hours. It is not once, one-time thing, it will be difficult to expect that there is time for something else. Now, in contacts with these children, I noticed that they really seek for attention, they like to talk, they like the contact, they show it in another manner, by touch, hug… And then when you ask them what they need, mainly and mostly it is the need for communication with the external world, primarily their closest ones and then others.

How do you estimate the responses of the competent ones to all your recommendations? Is there a progress visible, are you satisfied. Ok, not everything can be solved immediately, but is it dealt with by the ones who should be dealing with that and who should be dealing with that?

- It is not just about a one-time recommendation and solving of one problem or several problems. What is the most important for us is where the system failed to a smaller or greater extent, to try to influence on the change of that system. Not just to correct it with one-time intervention, but to alter it, that is to organize it differently so that the effect would be better. Because what can be noticed in many recommendations and contacts is that only when the system in certain, I would say, organizations, institutions, state institutions changes, then something changes for the better. It is often not too much about the finance, but the organization itself.

You said that the competent ministries bear the responsibility, not just one.

- Look, when I say responsibility of competent ministries. You cannot observe the competent ministry without looking at the smallest and lowest organization in that hierarchy all the way to the ministry. The ministry can do a lot of things, but if specifically the organizational unit fails to cat then it is really pointless.

The Minister Kisić Tepavčević formed a professional team. You are a part of that team, too. Have you started visiting some institutions, what is the purpose of it, what is your task?

- We go to regular visits. It means that the fact that we are in the team doesn’t mean that we will go to visits more now or that we will be more dedicated to this topic, we are constantly devoted to it. The National Preventive mechanism, which is dealing with it, which has the Emergency service dealing with that, which is in the constant contact, which has most experience and most potential knowledge or knowledge to assess this situation. We are not doing that ad hoc or conduct one oversight and reach conclusions based on that. What I am saying is the consequence of a great number of oversights and constant visits.

Alright and after this experience in this team, what are your expectations?

- Because of our experience in this team, because if someone knows the actual state at these homes, but it is realistic, so without any extremes in one way or another, then it is us, that is the Institution of the Protector of Citizens.

And you started with the visit to institutions. What is your impression?

- You are not following me. I say that we are constantly visiting…

But, you started within the team to visit institutions.

- No, we didn’t start.

How they don’t visit when we saw them going to visits?

- No, we didn’t go with the Minister. The Minister went upon her own initiative. We are doing our part of the job. Then we, which is in my opinion the best practice, cross our perceptions, so to say and then we see. What we noticed, maybe they didn’t, and perhaps they noticed something we didn’t.

That is why I am asking. What is the purpose of the team if you previously went to visits and you go now…

- I will tell you what the purpose of the team is. You heard about a folk wisdom phrase – four and six eyes see better than two. Because here is what you have, you have one opinion going to one extreme, you have another going to another extreme. What is the most important is to solve the problem and perceive it rationally. So without extreme perceptions and with arguments, to provide evidence. That is the purpose of the institution of the Protector of Citizens which is neither on one nor the other side. But it is really like that.

Yes, I just wanted you to explain to me the purpose of this team and what is different now from your previous visits.

- Have you understood or should I...

Of course, I hope the viewers have, too. You say that every day you receive new information on the Petnica case. From the Ministry of Education you asked for the information on whether it is financed, in what manner, how…

- We asked for that from the Treasury.

Then tell us exactly, since I read that you asked for the information from the Ministry of Education, are the absences justified and how they are justified for the children when they go to Petnica. Have I understood that well or not?

- Look, Petnica, that surprised the public, was organized as an association in 1982. It means that it is not an educational institution, it is an association as any other association, and I believe there are around 35,000 of them in Serbia and it is registered in the BRA. Now, there are several questions here. If the Ministry of Education says – we do not have the possibility of control because it is not a part of the educational system – then we ask and say – yes, but if schools are the ones who inform the children about Petnica, if they issue recommendations, that is the recommendation of the pedagogue or psychologist is mandatory, if children are absent from the regular schooling and the school justifies their absences, and the ministry controls the official educational system, then there is the question of the relationship between Petnica and the Ministry. What we emphasized also in the case of Aleksić is that every, regardless of its organizational form, whether it is a limited liability company, association or whatever, every one of those organizational units whose core activity is education of children must by changes of the law be under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and Educational inspection. You cannot leave this relation completely unregulated, because then we have what we have. Unfortunately, the repercussions are reflected in the most severe cases of sexual harassment both in the example I mentioned and in the other example. But then there is the issue of finances. If we get from the Treasury the response to the question which budgetary beneficiaries, direct or indirect, partly finance Petnica and it turns out that part of it was financed by the Ministry, schools, local self-government... We still haven’t obtained the data. It is not really like there is no direct connection. Then the programs of teacher and professor education, how many of them were there? There is a series of questions. And the question we asked the Commissioner refers to the personal data protection. Can the data which were in the questionnaire for going to Petnica be asked from anyone, especially children? The Commissioner is still, let’s say, within the deadline, and the Ministry asked us for additional five days, and we approved five days because there is a lot of information. This story has one epilog ant that is – everyone dealing with education of our children must be controlled so as to avoid not just sexual harassment but also having someone outside of one established system, I am not commenting of programs, dealing with the education of children.

And then, if the case is like that, the Ministry of Education cannot say that they are not related with Petnica.

- Here is the Blace case. It is the same, I believe it is also in today’s newspapers. One cannot say – we don’t know anything about that event with the children who lived with their grandmother, she went to hospital, they do manual labor instead of going to school and enjoying their childhood.

Here is the front page of Kurir, “What’s hidden in Petlovo brdo home. Old people tortured in secret room“.

- You see, it is a very important question that we, I am going back again to the future Law on the Protector of Citizens. We are not entitled to overseeing private companies, let’s call them like that. Directly no, indirectly yes via ministries and so on. We asked for the authorization to be able to oversee that too. It means not like it is now, when we find something out for that and we contact the competent ministry, but to oversee these places directly. You have that in the countries of our region, and it proved to be good. This is a somewhat specific case, but all cases are like that and due to their urgency the immediate reaction is required.

It says that the police and inspection were not allowed the access to the premises which are kept locked...

- Police wasn’t allowed that?

That is what the newspapers say… I am just telling you.

- Alright but imagine how low the chances would be for us to be allowed to have the legal possibility to do so.

We mentioned that everyone who are dealing with children education in one way or another, whether these are schools of sport, dance and so on must be in some way under...

- They absolutely have to. Then we wouldn’t have this that is happening now.

But the school of Mika Aleksić, if you recall, was registered completely as, I cannot remember now...

- I will tell you – as a limited liability company, as an enterprise in the form of the limited liability company.

And how does it work now? If you don’t register... Then how one can register one thing and do the other?

- It is not about how the core activity is registered, it is about when education emerges, regardless of the form of organization, as a core activity or as one of the activities, you mentioned school, one, second, third or some other activity, it has to be established by the law that in these cases the educational inspection is entitled and has to control this type of, how to call them, they are not institutions, this type of organizational units, schools ...

Fine, I find acceptable this, organizational unit, as you said. Alright, thank you for your time. I have to ask in the end, ca you say that it is not within your competence, but I find chips very interesting. We are reading about that, it is a current issue. It says, the Swedish, Russian, and the Chinese, decided to implement a chip. Have you seen that?

- Where, who and to whom?

I don’t know, somewhere in the arm and allegedly we will use it to make payments, to enter place, to unlock...

- Until I have a clear, but really clear information about it, what does it mean… Which countries did you mention?

I am telling you from the media, so the Swedish, Russians and the Chinese decided to implement the chip.

- I don’t know the Chinese ombudsman, if the Chinese have him and in what form they have a protector of human rights and they must have him. I know my Swedish colleague. I know my Russian colleague. So it is the least of a problem to ask them what it is about and then to respond to you some time in future. But we are a serious institution and they are serious institutions. As long as I don’t have some really clear information, I won’t ask questions to them which…

Yes, yes, ok, from the media. Of course, it wouldn’t be serious, but I wanted to ask you, so that I can check if you know something about that.

- No, not really.

Alright, thank you for your time…

The Protector of Citizens was the guest in the “New morning” show on Pink Television.

The report “Forgotten Children of Serbia”, which was recently published by the initiative for the rights of persons with disabilities in recent days appalled and shocked the Serbian public. The report is based on the findings collected during 2019 at the social welfare institutions in Serbia, and these findings that children and the young without parental care spend days in metal beds, with atrophied muscles and in pains, neglected by everyone who are supposed to take care about them. How children accommodated at social institutions live is the topic we discuss with the Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić. Good morning and thank you. This is a difficult topic, of course, and for all of us we can say disastrous. This is the defeat of the society. What are your comments to this report “Forgotten Children of Serbia”?

- Don’t say that – the defeat of the society. I believe that the things should be perceived realistically. You may be familiar or not, but within the Protector of Citizens there is the National Preventive Mechanism, one special department dealing exactly with this topic and they are in constant visits, constant oversight, their reports are issued periodically and certainly included in one annual report which is submitted to the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia. What you said, the defeat of the society, is not the defeat of the society if it is being worked on and if the conditions are improved and in order to improve the conditions it is necessary that everyone gets involved, not just to leave it to these institutions.

Do you know why it is the defeat of the society? If the children with mental disabilities who need care, if they were in such conditions, where are the parents to say – wait, my child lives without basic conditions? It was talked about that many of the children are not even visited. You were there, what did you come across?

- The first question to be asked there is whether all these children should be there, is it the only possible solution. In Serbia, and everywhere else in Europe, there is the advocacy to relocate them from such homes to families, whether primary biological family or foster families, that is the question now. Firstly, if all the children accommodated there are the ones who cannot take care of themselves and require someone else’s care, I have seen those. These are devastating scenes, it is what I stated. When I saw them in beds, lying, immovable, without any form of communication with their environment. And left to those who are obliged to take care of them. It all now depends on how every one of employees individually approaches to them. I have seen those who really, to put it colloquially, work their fingers to the bone, but I also saw very neglected children. What is important…

…The situation is not the same everywhere.

- All this should not have a general evaluation, but what I advocated and what I am asking, it is to go from home to home and see what is needed, before that to make a list of homes, the number of children, the number of employees, which evidently, I can confirm that with 100 percent certainty is insufficient and conditions in certain homes which are bad. Really bad! And then, it must be handled and firstly it is to see who of those children, may be accommodated with their families and then the children who cannot be accommodated with their families, whether according to their physical and mental condition they can be relocated to what I saw at some homes, and these are small communities near homes where several of them, mostly grown-up children with certain mental difficulties, but not such that they could not be capacitated for a relatively independent life, to function in such group. Without full guardian, normally with the supervision of the home and the supervision of the employees of the homes.

You actually saw that in unannounced visits?

- In unannounced visits I also saw that children can be in the situation where they cannot establish communication because they are isolated, isolated as explained by some employees because they were aggressive towards me, they didn’t show everything, I am not an expert to evaluate that, but I think that it is not the solution to isolate these children entirely.

Do these children have regular meals, do they have clothes, footwear, what is the accommodation, some of these homes were renovated, some were not, isn’t that right, probably the situation is not the same everywhere?

- it is not the same everywhere and now that you ask me about nutrition and clothes, I think that is the least of a problem at homes. A greater problem at homes is the work with these children, the communication between these children and the ones who are supposed to take primary care of them, and these are their closest ones, then with the employees of these homes and certainly what is not of less importance is the type of socialization through the communication of people outside the home and with these children at homes, I spoke to some of them, with the ones with whom it is possible to establish verbal communication and when I asked them what they needed, they said that they needed someone to come to visit them, to entertain them to organize something for them that would resemble a life they all seek and which they need.

These are the children of different age, their educational needs are different. How is that realized, the process of education? How is that going?

- This question is asked very frequently. And thank you for asking this question. These are mostly children whose status which is mentally and physically, let’s say, compromised is such that the education is put aside, there where it is possible it is certainly organized but it is important that these children, wherever it is possible, be brought to the state which is similar or the same as some normal life so that they can become independent. There is the question to be asked which I always asked when they are talked about and it is – whether this is the moment when a sensation initiated this topic and it will be interesting for some time. What will happen afterwards, or should it be reported about these children on a daily basis, visit those homes, these are not nice sights, let me tell you right now, but to insist on that every day.

Yes, but let me tell you this is now that you mentioned this report, that it was made in 2019, the researchers entered eight institutions as we understood, three institutions for children with developmental disabilities and five for children without parental care and it seems to me that of those with developmental disabilities only one met all the conditions. Why did they wait for 2021 to publish this report? Why wasn’t the public alarmed right on the spot?

- You have to ask them that.

I find it completely unrealistic. Finally, it is not within the scope of the competence of the Protector of Citizens, but still…

- Yes, it is within our scope of activities, we constantly visit these institutions as you call them, I personally visit them, I am in communication whenever I can. This is the thing, I repeat, you shouldn’t focus on just one visit or on one event, one research but to have a constant focus. Why? What hurts these children most, the ones I communicated with is that they don’t have their closest ones there. To come, to visit them, to help them, to simply have this connection better. This report doesn’t mention what I always highlighted, and that is – if there are no parents, where are the cousins? And what opens a serious topic, and that is, many of these children have some property, they were taken away their business capability due to their mental status, so some of their relatives disposes with their property, and these people do not visit them. What is that about now? That is why I said to one media outlet that it is not a matter of just one ministry, but there are the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Family Care, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Health.

That is, an entire package of problems which should be perceived in this manner, but we have to ask you one more thing. We had one devastating story, when it comes to a unique institution, which is Petnica.

- Yes, the Research Center Petnica near Valjevo.

Yes, what was talked about was sexual harassment, serious topics referring to, let’s say the abuse of the position and everything else that accompanies these events. One teacher in a den of his forced girls to take their clothes off, gave them alcohol, took photos of them, others covered that, some of them even destroyed those photos and data. How to understand the responsible persons from this institution and their lack of response, why didn’t they report that, knowing what was happening?

- The public was not familiar with that until we disclosed it, and it is that the form of organization of the Research Center Petnica is the form of organization which is registered at the Business Registers Agency as an association. That means, the three of us here meet the conditions for one association and that is three identity cards. It functions since 1982 and it was not in the focus of those who should be taking care of that. We asked the Ministry of Education if it is in charge of overseeing it, the Ministry of Education says that it doesn’t have a formal control. I agree, not formally, but if children who go to Petnica receive recommendations from their schools, recommendations from their teachers, pedagogues, psychologists, if schools justify their absence from school, that means that the school officially with their signature and stamp, whoever justifies that, if there is a certain connection, then it is an entire system of education which is left or is not under direct control. We should make a comparison to all those forms of organization such as limited liability companies, associations, dealing with education of our children, if they are under control, under whose control and in what manner and what else can be identified there. We didn’t send the request for information just to the Ministry of Education, but also to the Commissioner, we are asking for the information of the children, if they are subject to the rules prescribed by the Law on the Personal Data Protection, such as the material status of parents, if they have insurance or not, all sorts of questions and what is the most important – who provides the funds and how. Is it budgetary financing? I am waiting for the answer, this question was sent to the Treasury on 1st July. Once we get the entire picture, we will issue a report which will completely be based on confirmed facts and those who are in charge of the control of education of our children and upbringing, this upbringing is always forgotten, they should decide what is to be done next.

The courts and prosecutor’s office?

- That is as far as the sexual harassment is concerned, what is the consequence if we all can conclude that someone failed to conduct a proper control, if one man is allowed to do what he does, then the question is who is controlled there.

The question is for Petnica itself, that is, their management, managing board, director and I don’t know who else.

- We didn’t get answers. You see, we asked them everything about their operation and organization and oversight, because there is one protocol from 2019, I think it is the last one according to which all these institutions dealing with, this is not an institution, this is an association, let’s not make that mistake, are ordered to have an organized control over any type of harassment, not just sexual, but all types of the harassment of students. Petnica also had to have that. If it didn’t have it, then the question is why nobody checked that.

These children are minor or just became adults, but mostly they are minor.

- These children are nearly adults or just became adults, as it is said.

Yes, and let’s take a look at the situation now that the responsible person says that they knew it in 2017+2018 but we didn’t disclose it to maintain the reputation of Petnica? What is that about? They kept these events secret. They said: we solved that because children never went alone to his class, only with companion.

- Petnica is not the only one, that is what the public doesn’t know. You have the regional research centers which operate very well, I can name 10, focused on that, because it is 1982. Petnica was most frequently in the media, others were not that present, didn’t have good advertisement and now they are in focus, but this is not about Petnica or them at all, but everyone who regardless of their form of organization work in the field of children education. Under whose control that is, you send your child to a private school, you send your child to Petnica, you want to know if the one who provides education meets the conditions, if this is the person who can be in the communication at all, I won’t mention now other cases of 5,6, 7 months ago which resulted in court proceedings or will result in court proceedings. I don’t know what should be repeated in order to just conduct a control process of all of them.

Well said. Thank you and see you again.

The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić was hosted in the program of Radio Belgrade 1.

Our first topic is about the report “Forgotten Children of Serbia” which was recently published by the Initiative for the rights of persons with mental disabilities, which shook the domestic public these days. The research, among other things, stated that children with mental disabilities stay at inhuman environment and that they are closed often without medical or any other care. Today we talk to our guest in the studio, Zoran Pašalić about the conditions they live in, who and how takes care of them, if the homes where they are accommodated are regularly controlled. He is the Protector of Citizens of Serbia. Good afternoon and thank you for being here with us. These days we could all see the outcome after the publishing of the report “Forgotten Children of Serbia”. In Serbia it is again talked about the topic of homes for children and now we can perhaps mention what happened in the meantime. There are different opinions. Some say that this attitude is exaggerated and somewhat unfavorable, others say it is true. The Minister paid unannounced visits these days to several homes for children and now there is a certain direction in which this topic develops. Our first question for you is how do you see this entire situation and what has been initiated in the public with regards to this story?

- I am glad that it has been initiated in the public but I always observe it not to be a topic for a week or two, but to be under a constant focus of the public and those who should take care about what the conditions in these homes are, what is the position of these children accommodated at these homes. The expression “forgotten children of Serbia” may really be used because before this they were insufficiently in the public focus. I don’t like the fact that such tragic or bad situation, which cannot bring satisfaction to anyone, is talked about in such sensationalistic manner but it definitely needs to be paid attention to. I am talking from my experience, both personal and of the institution I am the head of, because this topic is in our constant focus, we have an entire sector, the National Preventive Mechanism dealing with the position of persons staying at the institutions of closed type and I know this topic very well and I know what are the needs of these children, what are their problems and how these problems can be solved.

What is your comment to the evaluations that the entire story is exaggerated and that it was unfavorably evaluated? You had the chance to visit such homes?

- I wouldn’t comment on that. I can say what I saw or my colleagues from the institution of the Protector of Citizens saw. We saw the situations which are really bad, that is the only correct expression, but we also saw some really good situations. And these good situations, good circumstances under which these children live are related to great efforts of the persons working there. What I can take as a general stance is that the number of employees at these institutions must be increased, because I saw with my own eyes that sometimes the employees, mostly women, take care of 20-30 children each, so it is really impossible during the working hours of one day and even longer hours to provide them with care in an adequate manner.

The research, that is the visit of homes took place in 2019. Have you been informed about it since then until now? Is there an obligation, I think it is an important question, of an individual, organization or institution to inform competent authorities, health care institutions, police and the ministry if they come across cases of negligence and abuse?

- As far as the institution of the Protector of Citizens is concerned, we acted either upon our won initiative when we identified and indicated to some shortcomings, only in last year there were 25 recommendations, or upon the reports of parents who were dissatisfied or hurt by the situation of their children.

What would you say, what is actually the greatest problem? We have now heard one of them, that perhaps the number of professional staff is insufficient. You visited and visit frequently these institutions. What is your perception of potential solution to this situation?

- The first thing is to determine the exact number of the children for whom it is necessary to be here. Not everyone should be… it is advocated in Europe the system which is originally accepted then rejected and it is to close all these homes and simply to put children to their biological and primary families. I came across children at these homes who were forgotten in the exact meaning of this word, removed from the everyone’s sight. What is said “I couldn’t care less”. But I also saw the situation in which the parents devoted full attention to the child, tried to help where the help was needed, even self-organized to provide these children with what they are entitled to, which is a normal and dignified life. That is the first problem, to determine the exact number of children. Then, according to this number to determine the number of employees. And then to see who of those children who wouldn’t go to their primary families could be organized in smaller groups, which is what I saw at certain homes. These are the children who are capable of taking care of themselves or who can reach the level of being capable of taking care of themselves. They are gathered in smaller groups, get isolated in these smaller groups outside homes, the home certainly controls their lives in terms of all their activities, their nutrition and accommodation. What I noticed is that these children are very satisfied with such manner of organization. Finally, to invest maximum efforts for the children who must stay at homes to be provided with adequate care and help. Why am I saying this? Because you have immovable children there, who absolutely don’t have an adequate communication with the external worked and they really deserve much, much better treatment. When I mentioned several times negative examples, I meant exactly about these children. It is a very difficult situation – you see a child who must be moved several times during the day by the person in charge to take care about that child so as to avoid decubitus and in the situation when they don’t have an adequate equipment in terms of decubitus mattresses, not to talk about personal hygiene, nutrition and other.

The potential solution to this situation is being discussed, as well as the relocation of all these residents of these homes who could be relocated to either primary or foster family, and for all these cases you mentioned now, could some form of hospital treatment be a solution? Do you think that the situation could be solved in this manner? There were such attempts in some other countries.

- The situation is quite the opposite. Those who are for hospital treatment are accommodated at these homes and what we insisted on is the increased medical supervision. One very, very broad topic is opened where one ministry cannot solve this problem. In this report the topic I find important is not discussed and it is that many of these children if they do not have parents, they have relatives, who frequently manage their property and at the same time these children do not have any satisfaction, not even in the form of visits of these close relatives. It is a very significant topic – taking of business capability and then everything resulting from such situation. Then, if you take into consideration that many children were simply relocated by the decision of their closed ones to such homes, then the question is how to return them? How and in what manner to convince them to take them back to their families? Then, which foster families would take the child that requires 24 hours of care?

All that aggravates such intentions. What is the insight...

- Pardon me, if I may interrupt you. Here, the most recent example which was before the institution of the Protector of Citizens, when it comes to the child with Down syndrome, two years of age, who was not accepted by his parents and even though the law prohibits the accommodation of children under the age of three at the home, there was no other choice.

That is exactly what I wanted to ask you, what is the insight into how interested parents and close relatives are in such situations when the children are accommodated at some institution?

- A general standpoint cannot be taken. You have exceptional parents and cousins who really care, but I must say that they are few.

A conclusion emerges now that they are indeed, conditionally speaking, abandoned by everyone. It would be interesting to hear and what do you think, could it be said that in our law there are clearly defined obligations of such homes. Therefore, can on the legal level, I almost repeat now one question, problems be solved if there are any. The law is not applied so perhaps children are tied or… Is there at all any clear principle based on which the actions are taken?

- Not only the law is applied there, but also the bylaws regulating in detail, the operation and the work at such institutions or institutes. The problem is not about the law, just like none of the problems is about the law or bylaws, but the implementation of all that. This detail you mention, that children are tied, it had a bigger impact on me than that they are left on their own most of the day. It is that lack of staff. Then their progress, and many of them can be brought in the situation to take care of themselves by serious, diligent work. That is the greatest impression.

That requires great work.

- Great work and what is important, when I talked to these children, when I discussed where conversation was possible, I even had that type of non-verbal communication, those children are very emotional. When you move to the manner they want, they really nicely show that and then when you asked them, the ones you have verbal communication with, what they would like most, they always say – greater contact to the external word in terms of having visits, having someone to organize their life in the manner how we all live in normal conditions, this covid situation now excluded.

What are your competences in this case when there is new report like this one, when you learn…

- They are included in the Law on the Protector of Citizens, but I hope that by the end of July a new law will be in the Assembly procedure which provides much greater authorizations. We made it based on the experiences we had in this long-term operation. That is when we notice a shortcoming we ask for the correction of that shortcoming first and appeal first to the ones who caused that shortcoming all the way to the top, that is the competent ministry. As I said, during the last year there were 25 recommendations. Out of these 25, 10 were acted upon, 13 are long-term measures so they haven’t been completed yet, but in two situations there were absolutely no actions at all. They ask me frequently if I am satisfied with that? I am absolutely dissatisfied because when we make a recommendation, it is based on evidence and what we ask must absolutely be done, and sometimes we do not have an adequate person to talk to and then it is a long and arduous work.

We heard partially or perhaps to give you time to finish also the story about how you see the solutions to the problems. You said, we should start in a logical manner from that and see what the number of children is, what is their condition, who of the children can be relocated. What would be the final outcome in your opinion?

- The final outcome would be to bring down the number of children to the number of those who cannot be helped in any other manner than institutionally.

And only these children to be...

- Only those. And then to focus on them. And certainly, I have to say to those children who are with their families or at foster families or with their relatives because the persons taking care of them seek and really deserve an adequate assistance. What does it mean? In means that during the day, week, month they should be provided with institutional assistance in order to, pardon my expression, catch some breath because it is not simple at all…

Yes, cooperation with them or assistance...

- The financial assistance in every aspect. And what is also very important is the communication among families with such children and society with the aim of organization of some manifestation which make their lives more joyful and nicer. Some would say that the protector now talks about that, and we have really bad situation when it comes to the hygiene. It is not really like that. Sometimes this detail is much more important because the first thing depends on technical and organizational conditions and the other detail depends on how much empathy you have for these children.

Let’s also mention the case in which in some way you also participate, that is Petnica. You addressed the Ministry of Education, asked for additional explanations, discussed it with the Commissioner for the Protection of Data and Information of Public Importance. What types of checks did you ask for and what is it exactly about when it comes to your participation in this case?

- The case “Petnica” culminated on 25th June by the cases of sexual harassment of the students of this research center, which then opened many questions. What was very disturbing for the public was the detail that Petnica is an association, that Petnica is not under the jurisdiction (in the educational system) of the Ministry of Education or institutions which would have to deal with the organization of education… It is frequently forgotten, it is about education and upbringing of our children,. What we asked and will ask is that the operation of the Research Center Petnica be inspected from all aspects. If schools send and issue recommendations for students who want to attend these courses or the research work in Petnica center, the question is how the Ministry of Education does not have the authority it has for school operation. If schools need to provide recommendation by the pedagogue or psychologist, if they justify the absence of children from regular classes by going to Petnica and many other questions, it is really important to see the entire control system, too. I wouldn’t like to be misunderstood. We sent appeals to the ministry also with regards to Mr. Aleksić, and a school which was registered as a limited liability company, and whose description of activities includes education of children, but also was not under the authority of the Ministry of Education. We insist and will insist on all those institutions which have in their name or activity education being under constant control, constant inspection of who works there, what is the operational method and many other questions. For instance, one question we asked the Treasury on the first of this month, it was how direct or indirect budgetary beneficiaries financed Petnica. We first thought it was the Ministry of Education, but if didn’t, was it the local self-government, if it didn’t – who did? Because, you have there the most talented children who must be under serious control of those who take care about our future. Don’t take this as a cliché. It is really like that because when it comes to the inclusive education, we do not talk about children with special needs, but also about exceptionally talented children who would have to find their place adequately in the society. Otherwise, we would have what could happen, what the Protector of Citizens put the special emphasis on. And that is that someone works with the most talented children practically, I would put it most mildly, that they are worked with and we as a society do not know anything about that.

Thank you for the conversation. We had with us on the program the Protector of Citizens of Serbia Zoran Pašalić.

The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić was hosted on the “Morning Topic” show on N1 television.

The Protector of Citizens asked the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance to check if the Research center Petnica collected personal information of the students of their programs in compliance with the law, for the purpose of protecting the interests and rights of children. This morning I am talking to Ombudsman Zoran Pašalić on this initiative based on which the Commissioner initiated the procedure as well as on the requests issued by the Protector of Citizens to the Ministry of Education with regards to this case as well as with the case of the report “Forgotten Children of Serbia”. Good morning, thank you for being here. The procedures and your requests were issued both to the Ministry of Education and the Research Center Petnica itself. What did you ask for and what type of information do you expect?

- We asked for the information first from the Commissioner for the Information of Public Importance, that is a chronological order, then from the Ministry of Education, we also asked for the information from “Petnica” even though “Petnica” is an association and therefore is not in the scope of control of the Protector of Citizens. And what was not published in the media, that is that we also asked for it from the Ministry of Finance and the Treasury of the Republic of Serbia. The last-mentioned instance, specifically, refers to the funds which were sent to the association of the Research Center Petnica in the last 10 years by budgetary and extrabudgetary beneficiaries.

Who is in charge? You are saying that as a citizen association the Research Center Petnica is not subject to the control of the Ministry of Education, aren’t you?

- No.

However...

- I made a parallel with other so to say forms of organization, such as limited liability companies dealing with education, scientific papers or education of children that it absolutely is not in the scope of competence of the Ministry of Education and it would have to be. Especially now when we talk about the Research Center Petnica, the reason is that elementary or high schools are some interphase between the choice and desire of students to go to “Petnica”, they collect the data, they justify the classes with their stamp.

They issue recommendations.

- They issue recommendations, then the opinion of the school pedagogue or psychologist is required so there is a connection between the official educational institution and the association of the Research Center Petnica and therefore I believe that the Ministry of Education is obliged to perform some oversight there. Legally, it is not obliged, but I believe it must be changed.

What type of information do you expect, how can these pieces of information help in solving of the situation in which our society is now, and which took place in Petnica, I am referring to sexual harassment and abuse of students?

- Specifically, the occasion was 25th June, we learned from the media about the sexual harassment of students of the Research Center Petnica, but we are interested in how these forms of organization at all, I really don’t know how to call them otherwise, dealing with education operate in terms of many factors – connection with official institutions and official institutes and eventually with the competent ministry.

How can the information you get help in this particular situation?

- It can help because then we will suggest some amendments to the law referring to the education, so to say colloquially, so that really pursuant to the law and bylaws the oversight of these forms of organization dealing with education of our children could be performed.

How can we protect the victims in this entire situation?

- As for the victims, specifically the ones we are talking about, on the sexual harassment, that is the matter of the prosecutors’ office and courts. The Protector of Citizens as an institution cannot within the scope of its competences deal with the protection, except for the constant warning that these issues are reported, that there are constant complaints so that the public could get familiar. But I have insisted, and I will always insist on that – it should not be in a sensationalistic manner.

Of course.

- It is very, very dangerous for the state of these persons, the children who suffered that. I emphasized on multiple occasions that it is maybe even worse than what these children went through. In fact, I have a very serious reason to say that. I discussed with a minor who suffered a severe rape and who told me “face to face” – that it was more difficult for her that she was subjected to sensationalistic reports, shows, news articles than the fact that it happened to her.

How does everything look like to you in the context of “Petnica”, has any awareness, if we can put it like that, been raised in terms of protection?

- We will see. For now it did not reach the proportions of sensationalism some previous events did. Probably it was my appeal, not just mine, but of many others, were fruitful so it was simply put to the level which really protects the persons who suffered all that.

The actions of persons in charge in “Petnica” and what they said in public, the resignation of the director, do you see it as the right way to make a deviation in order to provide for the research of what happened?

- That is a personal gesture, so to say. I believe that the very event which took place for several years, almost 10 years at the Research Center Petnica, may be connected indirectly, but direct connections are to really see what the form of organization that is and how it could be allowed that something like that happened at all. To put the blame of just one person would not be fair.

Do you think that there are several responsible persons?

- I am convinced that there are several responsible persons, because it is not just one person who makes the calls, there are several persons in the series who are responsible.

Do you think that the suspect should stay at the position of a teacher or not decide in general on the operation of the center?

- As far as I am informed, the suspect is no longer at “Petnica”. And now, what will ensue with regards to the sexual harassment, it is the matter of prosecutors’ office or court, but the very organization, the very correlation between official educational institutions which are in touch with the Research Center “Petnica” as an association, as I stated, and which is anyway reflected in what we asked to be provided as information, all the way to the Ministry of Education, must me very, very thoroughly inspected, to see where the omissions are and what can be done to prevent something like that from happening in future.

You asked the Commissioner for the Information of Public Importance to determine in what manner and whether the personal data of children in the course of application processing are protected, correct?

- Firstly, if such data can be requested at all. I don’t know if you have seen the form, but I believe you have it right now in your hands, is that the form?

These were named, isn’t that right...

- OK, you have the form.

...organization, photography, cell phone number, home phone number, material status…

- …parents. Then the data with the inmates the child lives with, there are many data for which the Commissioner will determine if they can be asked for at all and under which conditions.

Let’s talk about this other topic, too, that is equally important, to say the least – “Forgotten Children”. The report was published, the Minister Kisić Tepavčević said that it is about the visits that took place during previous years. However, the question is, how to change this situation? It is not the first time we hear occasionally, and if not before, that is, if not later, then the last time in 2008 even the NBC was there and did a story on the condition at homes for children with mental disabilities, which were shocking photos that reached the public, how to make a progress there?

- There is a tendency to relocate all the children accommodated at such institutions to their primary families, and if they don’t have them – to their relatives and if they don’t have relatives – to foster families in order to create more humane conditions for the lives of these children. That is the intention which is not easy to realize. I will tell you why. When you say forgotten and neglected children, I had contacts with these children on several occasions. Verbal ones with the ones with whom verbal communication can be established or the type of contact which says much more, and that is the non-verbal communication where you see what these children need and that is – they need a contact based on emotions and empathy. Whether the primary family as parents or cousins or fosters in the lack of primary family provide that, it is a very serious matter. Because, in certain country, this practice was initiated but after that, however, there were certain corrections.

Why?

- For the reason which is exactly that – the negligence. I will give you a situation in which I was during the visits to such institutions, where two boys without parents or relatives or at least they relatives didn’t show up to see them, and there is the obligation of the social welfare centers according to their place of residence to visit them occasionally. Then they were talking about when someone came to visit them most recently. And these are the intervals of several years. They you ask the ones who have relatives and they just simply say that their relatives did not visit them recently. It opens an issue which is not taken into consideration here at all, and that is – frequently the children are taken their business capability, legal and business and someone else handles their property, that is the issue opened by the Protector of Citizens several years ago. And it is what we will insist on. Because, this topic doesn’t just open the issue of negligence of children and poor conditions of their staying at these institutions, I personally visited several of these institutions, I cannot say…

Many people responded to what you said in a recent interview that you saw children sitting at the premises that smelled like feces, in the conditions which certainly are not suitable for growing up and normal life.

- I saw and confirmed that there are such cases where children who are really in the conditions which are absolutely not the conditions which can be at the level of the most hygienic but those which are, so to say, common in some other situations. But also, I must say that I saw those who are employees of these institutions who invest maximum efforts to put things in order but there is not enough of them in comparison to the number of residents. Moreover, the fluctuation of employees at such institutions is huge. People start working, stay there for a relatively short period of time, if they can find another job in Serbia or abroad or have some other forms of providing for their existence, people leave.

Does that indicate for us to the responsibility of the system, competent ministry, different organization system?

- This should be done first – to see exactly, but exactly to determine the number, firstly, whether all this children accommodated at these institutions should be there. I pointed that out on several occasions. I met children who didn’t belong there, who were sent there just so that someone could, to put it colloquially, get them off their back. Then, to determine who of those children could return to their, I will use that expression, primary family. There are other forms for organization of their lives, these are mini communities where, when I stayed at some of these communities I saw that the communication with these children is such that they are mostly pleased or most of them are pleased with it. Then there is the designation of the required number of employees, not just the required number but also the qualifications of persons working with these children. From those in charge of the hygiene maintenance to the ones who communicate with them in terms of qualifications who provide them with some social content of staying. Or, not just social, but labor as well. I know that there were attempts at some homes to organize some sort of activities, which is really the most pleasant way to animate these children.

Fine. Here we are talking, it seems to me, at this point, about sporadic initiatives, however, which in the best-case scenario give some result.

- You are right, sporadic initiatives, yes.

A small number, and we are also talking about those who have physical and mental capability and communication and some progress, connections, and so on, right?

- There are of those, of course.

In these recordings and in the report as well, I believe there are persons and children mentioned who are with such limitations bodily and mentally that we cannot tell them the way we perceive and design… future.

- If we look at these children, then the question to ask is – if these children are at home, who will accept those children? It wouldn’t be nice of me to say everything I saw and heard about the relationship of these children with their relatives and very frequently parents, where these children are simple moved away from the public eye to such institution. What is the worst – they get forgotten. There are parts of Serbia where children with special needs are moved away from the public eye, someone moves them to the place where they live with their parents, others send them to such homes. And it greatly obstructs what is the ultimate goal, and that is to close all the homes, to relocate children where their natural environment is. Because it is really…

To realize humane life conditions?

- Not just humane, but also humane and social conditions and to see what these children, who can, what they can do in life and to help them so that one day they could be independent as much as possible. This, the examples you said, are the most drastic examples.

How many cases of that are there, are there any data about how many children in this manner …?

- Evidently there are data, I cannot tell you these data really.

Do you have the right to ask for them?

- I have the right.

Or perhaps...

- And we will ask for them, for sure. The time is now, I was at the institutions where children, because they are so handicapped, practically just lie and have no communication with the environment whatsoever. The care of these children is what we find the most important.

And at this point it seems like they are abandoned.

- I am not defending anyone, I saw these children lying on the mattresses which are not decubitus mattresses, and they didn’t have decubitus because they are exactly the persons taking care of them worked a very difficult job and very conscientiously performed that job. But I saw also the other side I mentioned, which is frequently quoted, and it is that I saw the ones who didn’t have their clothes changed or anyone to help them bathe and were not bathed, so to say. I saw both sides.

How to encourage the first one, they are...

- The system, only the system. I always said that.

How problematic is that now, very frequently we can hear from the stories about the issues of this type, which are life, human, which should move us – we are a poor country, we don’t have for contributions, we cannot do more for culture, environmental protection is expensive, the system of social welfare institutions which should be specialized, investment in the education and qualifications of people, the increase of the number of these people, it all requires some investments which we, as a state cannot provide. Can that be an answer at all?

- That is not the response. At these institutions, when there were some, not exactly capital investments, there were frequently humane people to help, there are funds always, but it is about the system of organization and approach to these children by those who should take care. It requires a great empathy so that you could, in contact with children who are absolutely powerless, be capable of spending eight hours, frequently even longer, providing them with adequate assistance day after day, for years.

We heard what the Minister said, she said that this special team will be formed. How fast is it possible now to simply confirm the state and take some specific steps?

- It is absolutely possible, it is possible because, in my opinion, it is the task that may be very quickly determined, done or completed by visiting all these homes and really conduct a serious supervision of the condition of these homes.

How...

- What is important is that the greatest number of visits we performed were unannounced visits. And that is again, pardon my colloquial expression, for someone not to jazz up the situation. Sometimes it was upon reports, most frequently anonymous, and on other occasions we went upon our own initiative. Who should do it? The one who is in this system and has this part of job should do it. But it doesn’t exclude all the others who are in that system. It is not only one ministry, there are several ministries. What I said before, that is taking of the business capability of these children. That should be inspected, too. Moreover, it is, that is, was talked about sexual harassment. It is not just the coercive sexual relation, you have voluntary sexual relations which should be controlled, I don’t want to go into the topic of the mental state of these children, individual children and what are the repercussions to their relations. Therefore, it is necessary to have the ministry dealing with health included there. All this chain, all this system may round up the story in a good direction. Relatively, relatively fast.

That is what I am asking you and because, here at the beginning, that is during the last year you said that at the beginning of the state of emergency the needs of children with developmental difficulties were not recognized, there we had numerous appeals of parents to autistic children and other. How now, simply, do you think that, for instance, the request you issued then which changed the situation here somewhat later, influenced that we actually have some sort of systemic relation. Here we constantly talk about that we have forgotten children with difficulties who grow to be young people and whose life problems just get bigger, is it, this is the example too…

- I will give you an example. Last year we issued 25 recommendations, 10 of them were acted upon, 13 are being monitored because they are related to longer periods of time. Two of them were absolutely not acted upon. These recommendations we issued were not the will of me or anyone else from the institution, but they were founded by a serious analysis of the state in such type of institutions. Therefore, everyone who accepts the suggestion is welcome, who doesn’t and does not understand why that suggestion, can always come to the institution of the Protector of Citizens to get an explanation and be shown why we are asking for that. Long before this was published and reached sensationalistic proportions, again, when there are children involved, it gets a special story. I am not saying that this sensationalism emerged either from one or another or some third group, but maybe indication to such problem could move something for the better.

And perhaps it is exactly necessary to keep the attention at a high level.

- You see, for countless times, when I was talking about these problems, I said that only when something really bad happens, then this problem gets focused on, and it is not a problem which occurred yesterday, it lasts for a long time.

These are the problems of many decades. Do you think something changes with years? So, we have the Minister who said that we hadn’t had complaints or reports about the treatment of children, but also you say that many of these children actually do not have anyone to take care about them.

- That is the problem. The problem is constantly talking about these children not to be forgotten, not to be children who are simply removed, that is the right expression. Sometimes even by their closest ones. Not to mention the example from the most recent practice when the child couldn’t have been taken to the home because it is prohibited by law to send to homes children under the age of three. And what would happen, what would happen to a child unwanted by the parents if it hadn’t been sent to the home? Where would it be and who would take care of that child? I do not promote homes, I promote what we said in the beginning and it is one humane problem solving. That is why it should really be talked about, not just when a situation is sensationalistic, but every day, and literally to talk to the citizens of Serbia that somewhere around us there are these children. They did nothing to be put in this situation. It might sound pathetic, but…

And they are really not to blame for their...

- When I appeal to all citizens, the ones who were at least once in the situation to see these children, they will not conclude other than what I have just said.

When can we talk again about this topic and hope for some progress?

- Well, the first topic we will probably talk about most recently is the association the Research Center Petnica, once we receive all the information. These data are asked for now, there are several others.

Not later than in fifteen days.

- That is correct, there are several others, let’s say directions where we will be heading. As for the forgotten children, we contacted the ministry, the competent ministry and we will be monitoring the activities and operation of this ministry. We said that in the situations where we can help with our experience, both non-governmental organizations and executive authorities are welcome to ask us for help.

Thank you for your time this morning for our program. The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić was with us at the “Morning topic”.

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