Until the relevant political officials find a way of protecting children in a preventive way, we will continue to lose children from time to time.
He Died. Because We Failed To Protect Him
The little boy was one year and two months old, and he died in hospital without ever regaining consciousness. Yet another child in Latvia who may have lost his life because of violence. That, at least, is what doctors are suggesting, although the local custody court is saying that the family was not in its scope. Because families are noticed by custody courts, you see, when someone informs the courts about them. If there is no report, then it is assumed that it means that children are not beaten in the family.
And yet children die, and sadly enough, the explanation received after another death as to why we cannot protect our children is one that we have heard for a long time – poor co-ordination among the relevant institutions. When will this co-ordination be stronger? That is entirely up to the relevant officials and institutions, although their ideas about how we can all work together to protect our children remain weak.
Outside the scope of institutions
"This is one of the few occasions of this kind in our parish. Nothing of the kind had happened for a long, long time," says Staņislava Locika, chief judge of the Naujene Parish custody court in the Daugavpils District, when asked about the area which she supervises. She protects the rights of children in the parish in which the dead little boy’s mother lives along with his stepfather and his own children. True, the local government did not even know that the mother and child lived there, because the mother had not declared her place of residence there. Until the child attends kindergarten or school, the relevant institutions know nothing about his or her existence in the first place. "In purely physical terms, we are unable to survey and supervise all families and all children," says Locika. She explains that the custody court learns of problems only when there is a fight in the family or if someone suspects that there has been violence against a child. And even then someone has to report the facts to the custody court or to social workers. People tend to be indolent about these kinds of things; they tend to hold on to the principle that it is not any of their business. Even now, when the chief judge of the custody court went to interview the neighbours of the dead boy’s family, they "sent me away with much cursing."
It is very possible that the fact that some families are not identified is one explanation for the phrase that is so common after information about yet another child’s death appears in the press – the custody court was not aware of the family. That is the case this time. The custody court knew nothing about the existence of the family, but now the chief judge claims that there was no violence there, because that is evident from the work of a psychologist who has worked with children who were together with the dead infant, as well as with "an inspection of the family which makes it impossible to know whether the family drinks alcohol at all."
True, the law on custody courts does not say that the courts must monitor families for preventive purposes. "The custody court is an institution which takes decisions," stresses Valentīna Gluščenko, director of the Custody Court Supervision and Methodological Management Department of the Ministry for Children and Family Affairs. She explains that preventive work is largely up to local government social workers. The custody court becomes involved only when there are already problems, when, for instance, it has to decide whether the child is endangered by his or her parents and should perhaps be removed from the family. That is all correct, it is all according to the law, but nevertheless, when disaster strikes and we have to say goodbye to yet another child, we return to the same place – the system in Latvia is not really in good shape, and inter-institutional co-operation is one of the weakest links in the chain aimed at ensuring that there is no violence against children in families, that any such problems are noticed from the very beginning, and that work can be done to help parents to deal with their anger or their everyday or relationship problems – those which so often lead to violence against children in specific. This weakness is admitted both by Gluščenko and by the man who bears the greatest political responsibility for the protection of children – Ainars Baštiks, the minister for children and family affairs (First Party of Latvia/Latvia’s Way). Experience shows, however, that this weakness is very difficult to fix.
Seeking weak links in the chain
Minister Baštiks himself does not have much advice as to what should be done. Two months ago he told Politika.lv that the weak link in primary preventive work relates to social workers. They are under the supervision not of the ministry, but of local governments, and so Baštiks’ ministry cannot have any effect on the activities of this structure. Now that another child has perished, Minister Baštiks says that most of the children who suffer from violence are three years old or younger. They have not yet reached school or a kindergarten. Therefore, says the minister, family physicians should be more active in finding those families in which there is a risk of family. They are familiar with families, and essentially they should regularly take an interest in the health of their young clients. "I have strong suspicions that they do not even visit those children, and most frequently the family does not visit the doctor either," thinks Baštiks.
He and the State Children’s Rights Protection Inspectorate now plan to seek out the weak links in the chain of "reporting." The minister hopes that by the autumn he will have data from children’s homes so that he can assess who has usually reported on risk families and violence against children. He will also try to evaluate how institutions have dealt with problems that have been noted or situations in which there just may be problems. For instance, if medics have filed reports, but the relevant custody court has not reacted properly, then the conclusion will be that the problem is with the custody court, and then there will be efforts to use additional training or changes in the law to deal with the problem. If, however, it turns out that medics have been indolent in monitoring families, then there will be relevant proposals on amendments to the law to speak to the more active role of medics in preventing violence within families. Baštiks recalls that in 2007, there was a proposal to amend the law on medical care to say that doctors have the duty of reporting to custody courts about possible risks in families, but doctors rejected the idea, saying that they already face enormous amounts of bureaucracy, and so they did not want to undertake additional work.
Custody courts must be more active – that is what the deputy commander of the 1st Division of the State Police Prevention Bureau, Alla Maceiko, says. She recalls that the law used to state that custody courts were obliged to identify problematic families so as to prevent violations of children’s rights in a timely way. When a new law on custody courts was adopted last year, this active investigatory function was taken away from custody courts, and the need to spot signs of risk and to work with families was left entirely on the shoulders of the social services. Maceiko says, however, that many social services are weak, and they basically engage in nothing more than offering social assistance services, as opposed to helping families to heal themselves. "Why can’t representatives of the custody court go to school, to the kindergarten, have a discussion? But no, everyone sits around and waits for some institution to send information. The police intervene only when the fists are already flying, and then it is too late," says Maceiko.
The idea of returning to a more active preventive role for custody courts is rejected, however, by Gluščenko, who insists that in that case the functions of the custody courts and the social service workers would overlap, as was the case before the 2007 amendments to the law, and by Minister Baštiks, who believes that custody courts must remain institutions which take decisions, and "at those custody courts where people care about the fate of children and families, they’re not sitting around and reading the newspaper."
Weak inter-institutional co-ordination
An absence of statistics makes it clear how little the state knows about violence against children in families. When Politika.lv asked the police about the number of criminal processes that have been launched in the last year in relation to violence in the family, the police said that it does not collect such statistics. Maceiko says that statistics are collected on the basis of Section 17 of the Criminal Law – crimes against families and juveniles. During the first half of this year, 295 criminal processes were launched in relation to Section 17, but it is not clear what percentage of those cases relate to violence against children. Baštiks says that there were 117 criminal processes last year involving heartlessness against juveniles, but if the two relevant institutions have such different views and explanations as to how many cases there really were in which there was violence against a child in a family and how those data are collected and correlated, that alone indicates that not all is right with this situation in Latvia.
True, social workers also point to another problem – it is often the case that the police do not realise that there is a threat of violence. They go to homes in response to a call, but once they determine that it is a family conflict, they do not particularly intervene, and they do not particularly try to investigate what is happening. The problem may be rapid turnover of staff in police institutions, but the police do say that they take any opportunity to send their employees to training sessions. Right now there is training aimed at ensuring that law enforcement officials can do what they are ordered to do in Section 20 of the law on protecting the rights of children. It says that specialists who work to protect the rights of children must have special knowledge in this regard. "It may be that the police are to blame here. The inspector in the precinct does not want to launch an investigation, but often it is the woman herself who does not want that to happen, because she says that the man is the only in the family who earns any money," reports Maceiko. Ieva Lāss, chairwoman of the Association of Social Workers, also confirms the age-old truth – that victims of violence are substantially subordinated to the violent person both in psychological and in material terms, and that is why the circle of violence is so very hard to break.
It is precisely because the circle of violence is so tough and tight that this tough and tight co-ordination among institutions, which so very much goes lacking in Latvia, is so very much needed. Other countries have such systems; our specialists have even studied them. Maceiko, for instance, knows that in Denmark, there is teamwork with problematic families. This does not involve just a social worker, there is an entire team involving the school, the social workers, the police, the doctors, as well as institutions, which protect children’s rights. Baštiks, for his part, says that in the Netherlands, there are social workers who are employed by the police, and as soon as the police find any conflict or disharmony in a family, they work with the family and then file reports with those colleagues who are responsible for the specific family. Asked whether Baštiks has talked to his colleague, Interior Minister Mareks Segliņš (People’s Party) about ways in which police operations could be improved so as to reduce the incidence of violence against children in families, the minister does not respond directly, only saying that there are discussions about aspects of this all the time.
It is of course true that Minister Baštiks himself cannot investigate every family and cannot be held responsible for the entire security system if several of the institutions which are involved in that system are not under his control. Only in co-operation with colleagues in government, however, can he reach agreement on those political decisions which are needed to finally deal with weaknesses in the protection of children. If that is not done, then violent people continue to have every opportunity to deal with their anger by attacking their own children or those of their spouses or partners. Until the relevant political officials find a way of protecting children in a preventive way, we will continue to lose children from time to time. And then we will all be surprised once again as to how such a disaster could have happened in the first place, because after all, the relevant institutions did not notice the family until tragedy struck.