TV host Ilija Jandrić invited Center’s psychologist Mia Roje Đapić to N1 live broadcast on July 11, 2019 to talk about child neglect and abuse. They focused on two recent shocking events in Croatia: a 4-year-old girl who died after being left for hours in a locked car on a hot summer day in Rovinj, and a 2-year-old boy who was admitted  to Children’s Hospital Klaiceva in Zagreb with several bone fractures, some that were new and some that were old and never treated.  

Let’s look back at the tragic case in Rovinj. How important is it to make parents aware that a 4 year old child should never be left alone and unattended?

Of course, parents need to be made aware of this. When you invited me to this show, I read a little about what’s happening in Croatia and in the world in the area. Neglect of the child, which may not necessarily be gross neglect in the sense that the child is not being fed, but emotional neglect, or omissions that can lead to such fatal consequences are on the rise in the whole world. Last year in America, over 40 children lost their lives the way this little girl in Croatia did. People are not sufficiently informed about such things. So, there is one part of the responsibility on parents, and the other part of responsibility is on all members of society, including experts, the media and politics, to educate people on such issues. Modern psychologists are often being accused of making problems out of nothing, that they now declare as abnormal and wrong something that was quite normal so far and that we pay too much attention to it. Unfortunately, sometimes needs to happen such a fatal outcome in order to sensitize both the public and the profession to problems of child abuse and neglect, which are actually happening in everyday life everywhere, in Croatia and all over the world.

In the case of 2-year-old boy, we see lack of reaction from wider relatives, and even from the doctors who examined boys previously examined. The only action to protect this boy made the neighbor who brought him to the Children’s Hospital.

Regarding the neighbor, I would point her out as one positive example. In our society there is widespread opinion “what is in the family should remain in the family”. That’s why many people keep the distance and resist to react even when they see that something bad is happening to a small baby. In the example of a reacting neighbor, I think that when at home each of us may ask ourselves “who are these children in my area who need help and what will happen to these children if no one helps them.” Of course, professionals much more responsible than some laymen or passers-by who accidentally come into contact with that child.

Croatian law is quite good in this regard: any professional who notices a suspected inappropriate treatment of children is obliged to inform the social welfare center and, if necessary, the police, and in the event of failure to do so s/he may receive a term of imprisonment of three years. However, when we turn to the practical application of that law, I personally don’t know of even one case that it happened. Here is another problem, that if such case occur colleague should report to the police a colleague who did not report child abuse or neglect. Of course, people have some networks with each other, so they prefer to turn away and later, if asked why didn’t they report, they say  “we didn’t notice”. In reality, it is very difficult for us experts not to notice that a child is abused and neglected if we come in contact with him. We are all educated in the area, so the question is whether we look for these signs or not. For example, if a child came to me for a learning disabilities assessment- is it my job to assess only the learning difficulties of that child or the general condition of that child and family. Are we open to hear what the child has to say if we ask him? It happened to me during the research that was completely unrelated to abuse, but this kind of information came up when I was talking to children. Of course, after this I reacted and reported it. So, when we are working with children, we can not exclude dealing with parents and cooperating with other institutions, which many colleagues don’t like and don’t want to do. We have some cases of parents who told us that they were rejected in another institution because, for example, they are divorcing and the expert told them: “Look, I am working with children. I don’t want to deal with parents, the social welfare center and with the court.” I can understand resistance to a topic, but this is no excuse to divide our patients by criterion who is easy and who is complicated to work with.

What about those who don’t respond because they don’t want to cause the child to be separated from its family, and who still think that in any cse it is better for child to stay in its biological family then to live in some foster home? 

I do not think that any of us individually, including myself as a psychologist, or some social worker at the social welfare center, has that kind of power and make such decisions about the life of a child, and think that is good.

When it comes to separating a child from the family, there are many instances to go through, many people have insight into the case and are involved in decision making that ultimately must be upheld by the court. So, by letting us know that something suspiciously is hapenning next door is just the first little step. The main idea is not  “let’s report someone to get punishment” but “let’s say that something is not going well and that this family may need help.” So, rarely and in extreme cases of abuse and neglect is the child separated from its parent. If parents have the capacity, desire and will to work and to change, there are many measures that help the child stay in the family but in a way that they are safe. Reporting is just a small first step and an incentive for the system to draw attention to that child and that family. What happens next is the primary responsibility of that parent, not the neighbor who reported.

The case of the 2-year-boy from Children’s Hospital is such that he is likely to be separeted from his family. The boy is only two and a half years old, and it is revealed that he already had fractures that healed on their own. We can only imagine how much pain this child had to endure. He has cigarette burn marks on him. What consequences will he face later in life, given the huge amount of abuse and neglect that he suffered at such an early age?

I can’t talk about this or any other particular case, but I can tell you in general about consequences for children who were abused and neglected, especially at an early age, which is most critical in child development: children can suffer permanent physical consequences from injuries, they can also have problems in cognitive development. These are children who can start talking later than normally expected, and some children will never speak properly if they haven’t been prompted at the exact moment they should have been, so they may have difficulties in school. They can also have emotional difficulties – how can this children trust in the world, how can they believe that others who love them and care for them will be there for them when they need help? Self-image of these children is significantly disturbedA child is biologically predisposed to love its parents, to be attached to parents and to look at them as perfect, because it is necessary for childs emotional survival. A child who was beaten or shamed or otherwise abused by a parent always feels – at least in some small part of itself – that s/he is guilty, that he or she is damaged in some way and that’s why s/he deserves to be mistreated. Let’s imagine how this child’s love relationships, relationships and his parenting will look like when s/he reaches adolescence or adulthood.  

It is very important to know that that this is not irreparable. If this would be irreparable, I would not do this job. There are kids who suffered horrible abuse. When we see such a child, it inspires my colleagues and me to stand up for them. If the system responds appropriately, if a child meets an adult who really cares for him or her, that child can flourish and have a good and fulfilling life. But neither treatment nor therapy or recovery of that child will happen if we don’t recognize that something bad is happening to him/her in family or elsewhere.  It is important to respond on time, so that child don’t become an adult with mental disorder, or delinquent member of society. 

How much physical punishment of children is still present in Croatia? How do you draw the line between correctional punishment and physical abuse?

We are very proud that corporal punishment of children in Croatia was banned 20 years ago. Many people do not know this, and there is research showing that many professionals also do not know this, same as many students in the assisting professions. A survey conducted several years ago by the “We the Young People” Association showed that nearly one fifth of young people plan to beat their children in the future. These are certainly worrying data. Not every butt kick is physical abuse, but it is very difficult to draw the line. Worldwide research has systematically shown that children who were physically punished are 10 to 20 times more likely to be physically abused. Some parents believe in physical punishment, but some parents came to Center for help because at some point they were frustrated, they did not know what to do, and then hit the child. It’s nice to work with parents like this because they want to make a change. Their behavior was wrong, but let’s help them and support them and teach them some other strategies of raising and discipline a child.” 

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