VečernjiTV: “We need to help families to be better parents, and that of their children do not create a minor, and later adult perpetrators”

Director of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, professor Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD, gave an interview to journalist Lana Kovačević for VečernjiTV about violence among children and youth:


Kovačević: The Kaštela case shocked the public again. This is just one of a series of bad cases that happen among younger adults, even minors. The perpetrators are being bullied, the public condemns the event, the case, but the key people are not really working on concrete measures, punishments for the perpetrators. What’s the problem?

Buljan Flander: I can tell you my view of the situation, considering that for almost forty years of my career I have been dealing with the protection of victims of violence, but also working with juvenile perpetrators of violence. It seems to me that violence has become more and more cruel over the years, that not only children but we adults are less and less sensitive to violence, and that we react only when the violence escalates so much that we can no longer turn our heads. And now we will hear everywhere, which is logical, the condemnation of those who committed violence, they all have their ideas like “put them on Goli otok, beat, beat” but in fact it is certainly not the solution to react to violence with violence, but the solution is what you have actually touched on the question: to start systematically dealing with the prevention of violence from kindergarten age. This does not mean that those who have committed violence, whether minors or young adults, should not have sanctions. This does not mean that they should pass as “here are the children who played a little bit”, but unfortunately in the first, second, third grade we often hear “so the kids always fought, so it doesn’t matter” or “so it’s their game so we will not react ”or“ we do not want our school to be seen as a school where there is violence ”and then it hides and turns its head. In that way, the child goes to high school, and then the profession, the teachers, and the public often wonder why this young man, that girl, is so violent. She didn’t become overnight, he didn’t become overnight. These signs existed much earlier, and we who needed to not only spot but also react and deal with those children, we failed. Most often, children who behave violently and come for treatment are children who come from families where there is violence, where they watch violence, where they themselves are exposed to violent parental behavior, and where this is actually the only way they can get attention.


Kovačević: It is in such families, for which it is clear that the perpetrators themselves are victims of violence, how to treat such parents. Are they actually the most responsible and should they be punished?

Buljan Flander: I think we need to help them and we need to spot in time which families are violent, and we can really do that through children. Children show signs, but we adults pretend not to see because we don’t want to meddle in the family. We think that these are family things, we don’t want them to have problems so that they sue us. You know, the employees of our Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, there are about 40 of us, we are very often exposed to threats, and “we will put you in the media”, and calls for lynching, but we must do our job in accordance with the law. If we notice that a child’s parent is violent, then I don’t need to be afraid of that parent. I have to send a notification to the competent institutions, I have to, if the child is 9, 10, 11 years old, in some situations inform not only the social welfare center, but also the police, and then that family will get help, and if that family continue to behave in this way will receive sanctions. Thus, a child under 14 is not criminally liable. We saw the other day a video of an 8-year-old being handcuffed in the US. In Europe, except in England, there is generally a 14-year limit of criminal liability. Until then, it is the parents who are responsible and they should work, if they do not cooperate, of course they should have sanctions, but primarily they need help, because many parents are completely lost and when they come to us for 4, 5 or 6 treatments – still a lot let’s do it. But these parents can’t come to us voluntarily if they don’t understand what they are doing and if they don’t understand how they treat the child, because they say: that’s how mine treated me, so what am I missing. If we as a profession turn our heads and turn our heads, I guarantee that not only citizens, but we as a profession turn our heads and do not react because we do not want to deal with parents, with the system. Then we are responsible if things like this happen, and we don’t need to wonder why our children are like that today. As an expert who has been dealing with this issue for 40 years, I am not surprised, I am not at all surprised that these things are happening. Because the more we invest in prevention, the more we will get in the end. And we invest very little.


Kovačević: What measures can be taken to force the profession to take things seriously and start acting?

Buljan Flander: Of course, through education. When I do education for some professions, such as doctors, some of them do not even know that they are obliged and to whom they are obliged to report violence against children and among children. Some other professions also do not have enough information, there are no college courses for every profession that will work with children. It should be a course that will teach future professionals how to recognize, how to react, with whom to work. Today, two keywords in Europe when it comes to child protection are multidisciplinarity and intersectoral cooperation. So there is no need to be afraid of a doctor, a teacher, a psychologist, or a dentist… if he notices something, he informs the social welfare center, because that does not mean that the center will separate the child from the family. The experts of the social welfare center are not aunts and uncles who take away children. These are the people who will come into the family and help the families if they need to be sent to us or elsewhere for treatment. Help families to be better parents, and not to make their children juvenile and later adult bullies.


Kovačević: Children of victims of violence later find it difficult to talk about what they are going through, either on the playground or at school. How to encourage children to still talk to their parents or someone older than their trust, about what is happening to them.

Buljan Flander: Our research shows that only about 20 percent of children who are victims of violence are trusted, which means that they do not trust us adults. And we really have to ask ourselves what it is that children need, not get from us, to ask for help. So they need trust in us adults. If we as parents do not show our children that we are there for them, that we have time for them… Some recent research shows that parents with adolescent children spend an average of 10 minutes. How then will they tell us if something happens to them, in those ten minutes or so? So if we don’t create a relationship of trust, if we don’t create a relationship that we are there for them, if we have violent interactions in the family, then the children will not trust us. And, what we psychologists know, that in fact the first three or four years are the most important, but I would say up to the 12th is important what we did. Then it is much harder later if we do not establish such a relationship by the 12th, but we should never give up. And as for teachers to whom children should be entrusted, our research has shown that some 12 percent of children are entrusted to teachers. When asked why, they answer – when they confided it was even worse. In 2018, I gave a lecture in Dubrovnik to young people about peer violence, and that is actually one of the ways of prevention – work a lot with young people, involve young people, they have fantastic ideas to give us adults, they should be respected, they are creative. The more we include them, the better our prevention programs will be. At that gathering, I heard from the director of the Center for Social Welfare from Dubrovnik that in 2018 she received 5 reports of peer violence from the entire Dubrovnik municipality, which has 50,000 inhabitants. And we know that in Croatia, 27%, ie almost every third child, experiences some form of peer violence almost every day. And then compare that to five applications. So we asked Osijek, Split, Pula, Rijeka for information – we got very similar information, I think that only Pula had a larger number of applications. Basically, five to six applications to the social welfare center from schools. So, we pretend not to see, we let the children further develop violent behaviors because it doesn’t concern us, and only when such cruel violence occurs do we react. Now all the media will announce about it, again we will not make any new prevention programs, again we will just stick to some enthusiastic principal inviting me or someone else to give a lecture to the children, but that is not enough.


Kovačević: What is all violence? Let’s explain to children and parents when to react because they find themselves in a vortex that is very dangerous.

Buljan Flander: I would distinguish the usual conflict with peers, what parents say “it has always been and will be that children fought, argued, clashed” from bullying. A common conflict is when there is some reason for a conflict, a common conflict involves that both sides are equal in strength and not continuous. Bullying involves that one side is stronger, the attacker is one person or more, it is often even a group of several children, that the victim cannot defend himself, there does not have to be a specific reason for the conflict, and the victim is usually weaker in some way. or is different. Either she is from another ethnic group, or she is poor, or she is a child with special needs… These are situations where we adults have to get involved and we cannot say that it is normal for children to clash because “we clashed too”. So, it is normal for children in kindergarten to fight over a toy, but it is not normal for one or more children to systematically abuse another child, and they just cannot defend themselves. This is where we adults need to get involved, but not just the school, but the system and the police. There’s no reason not to report it to the police, even if it’s a 10- or 11-year-old because the MIA’s Department for Combating Juvenile Delinquency works great. It does not mean that the parents will go to prison or that they will receive some drastic sanctions. But he will get help. So we have to react when it comes to bullying, when a child can’t just defend himself, and especially when it comes to a child who is different in some way. It really just can’t defend itself and gets the picture “it’s my fault that this is happening to me, something must be wrong with me”. His self-esteem is lower and lower, his trust in adults is decreasing, and so the violence goes on and on. Unfortunately, since I have been working with children for many years, I have also had a number of children who have attempted suicide because they have suffered bullying for years, suffered peer violence for years, and have not received help. I have a lot of children and parents who tried to find help at school, but the teachers did not react, and some teachers told me “and when we wanted to react, the professional services and teachers did not agree.”


Kovačević: Do you report such teachers that your children and parents tell you did not want to react?

Buljan Flander: Yes, absolutely, because if I do not react, and you do not react, we inform the competent services that we did not react, because then we are participants in the crime. Although our law says that if an expert suspects a child has been abused and does not respond, he will be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison, I unfortunately do not know of any expert who has been punished with any punishment for not responding, and I think with raising awareness, such as these shows of yours, that in addition to the education of experts, it is necessary to introduce sanctions for those who do not react, because they are really participants in the crime.


Kovačević: Among young people and among children, the new trend is not only that they are violent, not only that they call for violence, but that they record and publish violence on social networks. What does that tell us?

Buljan Flander: It tells us that we adults did something wrong, that we did not give them other ways and explain and educate them to be popular, that we did not give them enough free activities in which to prove themselves otherwise, because adolescence is the age when they must be popular both here and now. It’s just that age. And if we don’t give them some other ways, then they ask for likes in these ways. Violence is all around us, I think that violence is glorified too much, I think that families do not have enough time and that some do not know how to be a barrier, how to stand between all these environmental factors that actually glorify violence and their family values, and then actually the children imitate violent heroes somewhere, and we offer them violent heroes.


In one of our recent surveys a year and a half ago, we asked children how they spend most of their free time. Of course, they spend most of their time on social networks, on the Internet, on small screens. But when we asked them what they would like, how they would like to spend time 95% of them, i.e. children who spend most of their time in front of small screens, said they would rather spend time hanging out with friends or in some leisure activities. So it’s a big message to those who have decision-making power – I don’t have that power, and neither do you – to allow children to spend their free time in a different way. What is happening is a big message to those who make decisions to introduce some learning to empathy in schools, something that is much more important to them than life skills than some knowledge that they will never need in life. I would like to emphasize that it is high time for the state to launch a large national campaign that will reach every child and in the smallest place in Croatia, every parent, every teacher, precisely on the topic of peer violence, and not that it depends on the enthusiasm of individual kindergarten principals. or schools or some expert who will invite experts to give one lecture. There was a UNICEF program that showed very good results – an anti-bullying program. It’s just shut down. There are wonderful programs run by various associations, but we are not connected. Everyone is doing something in their backyard and then now we all wonder, we all wonder where this came from. Precisely because we don’t invest enough in our children, and we all say that our children are the future, the treasure. But ‘let’s see how much we save on them. Because what we save today will cost us much, much more tomorrow…


Source: Večernji list:

Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center cannot be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.   


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