We have been coping with peer bullying for years, and yet, we seem to be utterly surprised when public attention is caught with a case of bullying, which is usual everyday life for many children. According to research conducted in Croatia, every fourth child is exposed to some form of peer bullying. Despite laws and protocols, we often react only when severe psychological or physical abuse has already taken place.
There are ten years since, to children and their families, we opened the Child Protection Center of Zagreb, specialised for work with traumatised children. The Center was the first in Croatia to offer the multidisciplinary approach in the protection of abused and traumatised children after the model implemented in developed countries.
Requests for help months before the Center’s opening
How big the need for the establishment of such institutions is, was obvious from the fact that the moment it had been heard that we were going to start working in Gajnice at the end of 2002, months before that, there were numerous requests for help by children and their families and our colleagues from social care services, outpatients and schools asking how they could send children to our Center.
The founder of the Center is the City of Zagreb, whose officials, Milan Bandić, Mayor and Dr Zvonimir Šostar, Head of the City Office for Health, Social Care and War Veterans, showed high sensitivity for the needs of abused children. Their support still today is the main pillar enabling the work of the Center.
We started in Gajnice with premises of 500 square meters and a year ago the City of Zagreb enabled our relocation to the premises of 900 square meters in the city center. Our team started with 22 and there are 35 employees today.
A thousand new children come to the Center a year
Besides children and parents already in the treatment of our professionals, more than one thousand of new children and families come to the Center. The number of services we provide grows every year. Children are taken to the Center by parents or are referred to the Center by social services, most frequently due to behaviour difficulties, i.e. behaviour changes noticed after experiencing stress or trauma, refusing contacts with the non-custodial parent in high-conflict divorce and suspected sexual abuse. In 2011 we had a significant growth in the number of children victims of bullying, violence among children. Most children who came to our Center, after diagnosing, were included in some form of treatment, most often psychological, but also psychiatric and special educator’s treatment.
Publishing and education activity in prevention programmes
The City of Zagreb makes our publishing and scientific activity possible, so, apart from intervention, we are active in the prevention of child trauma, which is why we managed to publish twelve handbooks for parents, children and professionals. We have distributed more than 250,000 free copies of printed materials and made them available for download from our web page, to offer them to as large number of children, parents and professionals as possible.
We have conducted a series of studies related to the incidence and consequences of all forms of child abuse, peer bullying and the paediatricians’ and dentists’ attitudes and knowledge about child abuse. Based on the results of these studies we drafted preventive programmes and we offer programmes of training for physicians, social workers, judges, police officers, psychologists, kindergarten teachers and other professionals from Croatia and neighbouring countries.
We are familiar with world trends in forensic interview with the child
Forensic activity of the Center in line with world trends is very important for us and it promotes and is based on the principle of child-friendly justice. Two rooms are equipped with audio and video devices. In one of them our professionals conduct the forensic interview with the child while the interview is available to the judge, prosecutor, defendant, attorneys and social workers who are in the other room. They can direct their questions to the child via the professional conducting the interview because they are connected with an audio-video link. The interview is recorded and may be used as evidence in the court proceedings. This reduces the additional traumatisation of the child, since multiple interviewing of the child at different places by various persons is not necessary.
Cooperation with The Brave Phone
During the past ten years of dedicated work, acquiring the latest scientific and professional knowledge in the field and listening to our patients’ needs, we have successfully implemented an efficient model of work, based on the necessary cooperation of various institutions involved in child protection. This cooperation also includes cooperation with non-government institutions aiming at the protection of the child’s best interest. The Brave Phone hotline is also on the Center’s premises, engaging about 70 volunteers, whose training and supervision are conducted by the Center. Center’s professionals are available to the volunteers to respond to any questions, dilemmas and issues, especially in cases of difficult, e.g. suicidal calls.
International awards for our work – ISPCAN, UN, The Council of Europe
We are proud that only five years after the opening of the Center, the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN) awarded our multidisciplinary team with the award given to professionals who make the breakthrough in the treatment and/or prevention of abuse and neglect in their respective communities. The explanation of the Award Board stated that the activity of the Child Protection Center of Zagreb was recognised as significant contribution in child protection and that the vision of the Center’s leaders would influence further performance of ISPCAN.
In recent years, the success of our model of work has also been recognised by European institutions. The Council of Europe has more than once, within its campaign One in Five, invited us to present our work as a good practice example in working with abused and neglected children to the representatives from other European countries. Therefore, from 2010 through 2012 we presented the Center at several meetings and conferences organised by the Council of Europe and the European Commission – first in Rome, then in the United Nations in New York, Bruxelles and Strasbourg. We are invited by the Academy of European Law (ERA) to come to Belfast in March 2013 and to lecture about our model of the forensic interview of abused children, which is based on the sensitivity and respect for the child’s development stage, psychological status and type of trauma.+
Congratulations to our workers, thank you the City of Zagreb for the support, and parents and children for the trust they have put in our work
This year we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of work and I want to congratulate all our workers who, with their knowledge, work and personal engagement have made this Center to be accepted and recognised today, not only in Croatia, but in Europe, too.
My thanks to parents and children for the trust they have put in our work, because, as a mental health professional with many years of experience, I know how much courage and trust is necessary to talk about difficult issues our Center deals with.
My thanks to the City of Zagreb for the continuous availability and support, without which we would not be able to fully devote ourselves to all our activities. Since approximately half of our patients are not from Zagreb, and since children from all over Croatia seek our help (latest statistics show that 49.8% of children come from other Croatian cities) there is an explicit need for opening similar institutions in other regional centres. During the past decade of our work we have often considered possibilities for professional cooperation with several cities who intended to open such centers, but, unfortunately, it has not been realized. I sincerely hope that initiatives for opening similar institutions in other Croatian cities will be started and realized, which would offer opportunities for children and parents from other parts of Croatia to have easily available and timely help and support, which sometimes is crucial.