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…