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Dragana Ciric, MDRI Serbia

Dragana Ciric, Country Director, MDRI Serbia:

‘We have to educate not just the staff, but the policy makers as well’

by Yana Buhrer Tavanier

How would you describe the biggest problems in institutions in Serbia today?

It’s just that the lack of treatment in institutions is what’s the worst problem. And that kind of lack of treatment is actually killing people or leaving them into long-term detention. Because they stay in those institutions for life. They have no option to leave. So those who come in as children simply grow in an institution.

But of course the most important thing is to end serious abuses. And serious ill-treatment. Which has to be done immediately and can’t be tolerated in any case, in any country.

Is this lack of treatment because there is not enough staff, ot because there is not enough understanding about the problem?

Both. There is no understanding of the problem and there is not enough staff. And even the staff that exist can’t do much because they are not aware of the things they should do. A big problem is the attitude – that people with disabilities are simply “like that”. And that nothing can be done with them. Children lying in cribs, or young people, lying in cribs, became like that, because they had no stimulation, they had no activities. And you will hear many times from government officials or from staff members in institutions – “they are simply like that, because they are born like that, this is part of their condition”. Which is very dangerous, as you realize that they don’t see the problem in such treatment of people with disabilities. Because those people do not understand what institutions are all about and why we shout against them. And you will also hear when we talk about deinstitutionalisation – that “you will always have children who will never go out of an institution – look at those in Stamnica and Kulina, they are so severely retarded”. But what they don’t understand is that they are in such a bad condition because they stayed in isntitutions for such a long time. So we have to change that and make people realize that current condition of those people is not a result of their genetics or disability, but is the result of spending so much time in institution in total deprivation. It’s not enough to have more staff, it’s very important to educate them. But not only staff – to educate policy-makers, to educate the public about this issue.

After the MDRI report was published in 2007, did you notice stronger political will from the government of Serbia to change things?

The Serbian government began reforms even before the report was published, but reforms on paper. A great social development strategy was made, but not much of that was implemented. And after the report – of course it is always embarassing to have negative image in the interational community, it certainly moves that government to start changing some things. Some governments are more active, and some are less active. I think that the government of Serbia really initiated some changes, and they contacted many foreign donors asking for help to close down institutions. But we can question the way it has been done. For example they are investing a lot of money in foster care and a lot of projects are directed to foster care, and nobody talks about support to biological families. Which is for me complete nonsence, because you can stop institutionalization only if you give support to biological families. And if you don’t, then you can’t stop children coming to institutions. So it doesn’t matter if you take children out and give them to foster care, because you have new children coming.

According to you, which are the institutions where the situation is the worst right now?

Kulina – that’s definitely the worst experience I had. And Churug. These two would be the most severe. Very disturbing experience. Going from one room to the other, with people lying in cribs or beds, in dark rooms, without any sound, you get the impression that these people are actually stored there, put in a wherehouse. Because the staff thinks that they don’t feel anything, that they don’t realize the difference.

Last november we visited Kulina. Basically there nothing has changed, except that the staff is scared. They don’t know what is going on, nobody tells them what is going on. When they heard we are coming, they were so afraid. They did not know what to do. They kept apologizing and justifying themselves. Nobody was tied down actually but there were staff members standing behind or beside some children, holding their arms, so apparently this was happening not for the whole day, but while we were there, so the next question is what’s going to happen to those children when we leave. And the staff said they have no other option. They don’t know that it is possible to treat such a condition when a chlid is hurting itself or others. They didn’t receive any education, so the only option they have is to tie these people down. And it’s torture. But the only thing they are talking about is physical conditions – plans about adapting buildings, improving interior, that’s the only thing you hear.

The problem with the legal capacity – people being easily deprived of all rights and put into institutions, sometimes simply because of relatives who want their properties – how often do you see this in Serbia?

It’s very often. People are deprived of their legal capacity and placed in institution, which they can’t leave. Because there is no procedure or law that says that such decision has to be reviewed. So there is no obligation to do so. So once they are deprived of their legal capacity, those people are deprived of any rights.

It’s a huge problem. And there are a lot of abuses. The worst problem is that usually directors of centers for social work, or social workers, are quardians, and they are the ones to control the quardians. It’s a very clear conflict of interest. In Serbia centers for social work are the guardianship institution – if there is no family member. And they usually appoint a certain social worker as a guardian for a certain person – but that same person should be the one who controls the guardian – so it’s a complete nonsense.

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