Svetlana Lukic: 18 women have been murdered in Serbia since the beginning of the year. But, in the Center for Social welfare in New Belgrade, the murder happened in front of the authorities – the woman was murdered at the Center for social welfare. That man was a time-bomb and, on that day, he simply exploded. Can you tell us something about the paradigm of this horrible case?
Tanja Ignjatovic: If we look at those murders, we can identify 3-4 typical systemic mistakes. First, the majority of relevant authorities within the system failed to recognize the violence, exchange information about it, or act in accordance with their authority, i.e. we shouldn’t talk about the wishes of a woman, the stories of children or the acts of the assailants, but about what we have at our disposal. The question here is not whether the specific professionals who were in charge of the case will be held responsible, but whether we will manage to systematically implement obligatory analysis of safety risks.
Is it possible that people can’t recognize control, isolation, and jealousy as violence? That they don’t treat psychological violence as real violence? I’m afraid that in a society which nurtures discrimination against women to such a degree that it comes close to hating them and supporting every form of violence, the chances of fixing these problems are small.
Svetlana Lukic: We have two problems there. One of them is that we are prone to minimizing the violence and calling it a “domestic dispute”. The other is the fact that this man, for example, was in jail. He is a convicted felon.
Tanja Ignjatovic: Someone decided that, regardless of the fact that the father was violent towards the mother, he has the right to see his children, which is a complete misinterpretation of the law. The child has the right to maintain contact with its parents only if it’s in its best interest. There’s nothing worse a father can do to a child than to be violent to its mother. Such contacts should be suspended indefinitely.
I’ve done research on the way the Center for social welfare and judicial system combine violence towards a partner with parenthood. Most of them will tell you that “a child has the right to see the parent”.
Even with the proposed controlled conditions, the court and the center always stress that the children don’t have to be brought to the center by their mothers. No one remembers to talk with the mother first, to check all safety risks. Social workers can’t change the decision of the court, but can temporarily suspend it for safety risks.
Their job is to protect the children. It’s a state organ which can take a child out of its home without any document, if they think that its life and health are in danger. Not even the police can do that. So, they have very far-reaching authority which is rarely used.
Natasa Jovic: Femicide doesn’t happen by chance. Maybe no one could have prevented the murder itself, but everything that led to the final outcome could have been prevented. In 12 out of 14 cases of femicide in 2016, the course of events was identical: it all started with psychological violence and ended with murder. The period between the first act of violence, the first insults and threats, and finally the murder is very long. It lasts for years. And, during this period, the authorities have been completely passive.
Women who suffer violence are often helpless. They have nowhere to go, no means to support themselves. They are not welcome back in their parents’ homes. They don’t have financial, psychological, or legal support. If they go to the police or the center for social welfare, they are always asked the same question “What did you do to cause it?” and given a warning. So, if they call and say “He threatened to kill me”, the police come and warn both of them to solve their problems in court and in the center for social welfare.
Then the police inform the prosecutor about the case and characterize the event as domestic dispute, verbal conflict, bad family relations, even when they involve physical violence. So, it was a slap, a strangling, a kick, a punch to the head, and some police officers still described it as just “a conflict”.
So, if a police officer considers an event where a woman was slapped to be a family conflict, he will present it like that to the prosecutor. For example, in 2014, a deputy public attorney at one municipality told us that in over 90% of the cases the women insist on being relieved from duty to testify and the prosecutor’s office can’t do anything about it. So, the women themselves are to blame for their position. This is the statement by the authority which, according to the new Law on domestic violence prevention, is the key organ which should initiate a systemic reaction, provide support, and stop the violence quickly.
We’ve also found out that they very often use the institution of postponement of criminal prosecution. It’s contradictory if you, as a state, say that you consider violence against women a priority and then soften this kind of violence which carries criminal sanctions by providing perpetrators with the possibility to postpone criminal prosecution by donating a certain amount of money to a humanitarian cause. So we, as a state, are sending the message that men with money are free to beat their wives and children.
Even when these cases turn into criminal proceedings, 67% of them end with probation. And now we’ve come to the issue of difference between our declarative and actual policy. Besides these 14 cases, we’ve researched almost 50 more cases of violence where women survived and which involve children. We’ve concluded that domestic violence, i.e. violence against the mother, violence against other close family members: grandmother, older sister, aunt and so on, is simply invisible when it comes to deciding on custody over children. Domestic violence becomes invisible.
In our system of social protection, children are recognized as indirect victims, at best, which is an arguable position in itself. Since 2011, we’ve been giving recommendations to centers to treat children who’ve witnessed domestic violence as direct victims. I really don’t understand how you could separate the role of an assailant from the role of a parent.
Parental competence evaluations without considering the history of domestic violence need to stop. Also, we often hear, even in medical institutions, that “we can’t do anything if she won’t let us”. So, we expect her to get all the evidence, while we immediately warn her “to be ready to go all the way”. This is a horrible message. She should be told: “You should’ve come earlier, but now, things will get better, because you’re in the system”. Instead, she’s told: “What you’ve been through is nothing compared to what’s coming”. And that’s not far from the truth: the length of proceedings, the number of trials and hearings can really be considered secondary victimization. The same is true for children who are victims of violence.
Svetlana Lukic: Let’s go back to the case of murder at the Center in New Belgrade. First, the violence was reported many times. During the trial for the violence he committed against his son, the man was found to suffer from posttraumatic, i.e. Vietnam syndrome. If this was taken into consideration at the trial for violence against his own child, how is it possible that this fact was omitted when it was decided whether he would be allowed to see his wife and child?
Tanja Ignjatovic: Before the new law came into power on June 1st this year, systematic examination of safety risks was not obligatory. So, the special police protocol on protection of women from violence had a list of 14 safety risks, including health risks. Judiciary had no such list, so a police officer and a prosecutor didn’t speak the same language. A prosecutor would maybe ask about the weapon, but in the cases which were acted upon by the Ombudsman, not even this question was always examined, i.e. the prosecutor didn’t investigate whether the perpetrator had an illegal weapon.
For years now, we’ve been avoiding making a list of risks which are relevant for every case of violence, which would help us quickly identify everything that points to increased risk of violence. Police protocol is decent, but it was never obligatory. If we look at the lists of safety risks in England and the USA, we see that in each of them, a certain number of indicators are different and that they are partially determined by culture. So, the American list considers some kinds of violence, like strangling, as more dangerous. If there is strangling involved, the American list opens up 6-8 new questions.
The English list, however, contains other questions: was the violence committed in front of children? This increases the risk. Was it sexual violence? This, too, increases the risks. But I’ve never seen the question “Has the assailant participated in a war?”, because it hasn’t been relevant for these countries since World War II (these countries have special programs for professional soldiers). We’ve forgotten that, here, civilians participated in the war, people who had gone through regular military training when they were young and were then called to go to war. There are also paramilitary forces, police forces, regular army, in a word a great number of people who’ve participated in wars we officially didn’t take part in.
Every case of mass murder in Serbia is connected with illegal weapons from the wars. Except for a couple of NGOs which worked with veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, there’s no organized care for these people. Of course, there are also assailants without prior traumatic experience.
If you look at the statements and acts of different authorities within the system, you can see that they don’t consider the verdicts about violence, hospital reports and medical records, reports on whether the woman had stayed at a Safe house. The court verdict is reached without considering all these documents. That’s why all these statements say that they can’t determine whether it’s really violence, so they say it’s just a conflict with two equal parties.
In this country, you can’t convince people that a victim is able to defend herself. She is a victim only if she’s passive, helpless, if she cries, if she’s beaten up. So, if she looks like someone who won’t give up, she will often be blamed for breaking up the family. Sometimes the court will threaten to take away her children. And you don’t know how to handle all those contradictory prejudices. Of course, they always say: report it. OK, we’ll report it. And then what? What does the proceeding have to offer me besides using me as a human shield? I’m in front and you’re hiding behind me. And you’re the institutions, you have the power, you are the only one who can stop him, you have the resources.
Svetlana Lukic: One of the mantras that are repeated after cases like this happen is that coordination should be improved. Who is withholding information and how can that lead to someone being harmed?
Nataša Jovic: For example, Family law says that the Center for social welfare is obliged to keep records on domestic violence. In order for the center to do that, they have to have court verdicts, which they don’t. Why not? Well, because the judges say: “We didn’t know we needed to do that”. There are also good practice examples based on the personal capacities of people within the system. But, as soon as that person leaves, the whole system collapses.
Now we have an additional issue of capacities. The employment ban in the public sector has been in effect for the last three years. The number of expert employees is decreasing, people retire and new people are not hired. Centers apply to the ministries to fill positions. They don’t even receive rejection letters – just nothing. We have centers without psychologists, without lawyers, we have all sorts of situations which present serious obstacles in cases of domestic violence and we have a system which can’t seem to solve this problem.
Tanja Ignjatovic: How is it possible that we have a defensive measure like the restraining order, which is not enforced? Why should we pay for the women and children to stay at a Safe house when we can simply remove the assailant and leave the woman and children in their own home? 1,200 women stay in Safe houses every year. Wouldn’t it be easier to remove the assailants?
I would also like to mention the institution of prosecutor’s opportunity. Serbia has ratified the Convention on violence against women and domestic violence, and its article 148 which says that “alternative resolutions of cases of domestic violence are forbidden”. Forbidden!
Svetlana Lukic: This used to apply to criminal acts with prescribed jail sentences of up to 3 years, and now it’s 5 years. The list of criminal acts which justify postponement of criminal prosecution is interesting: stealing electricity, traffic offenses, and domestic violence. The government considers the implementation of prosecutor’s opportunity an incredible success – the number of open cases has been decreased and the perpetrators are filling the budget through fines.
Natasa Jovic: Prosecutor’s opportunity was based on the idea of reaching general prevention. General prevention means deterring others from committing the same act. Are we really achieving general prevention if we say that it’s enough for a perpetrator to pay some money to a charity? Only 25% of the cases that come to the prosecutor’s office go to court. Most of those people get probation. We often hear that the courts have to consider the capacities of correctional institutions when sentencing.
We’ve also heard that the fact that centers for social welfare refrain from starting procedures has to do with the amount of money assigned from the budget for this purpose. So, we have an influx of administrative, spatial, technical and other problems which we solve by forgiving, and thus further encouraging, violence against women and children.
There are criminal acts you can’t get probation for. Maybe these perpetrators would really respond to only a threat, but these crimes present such societal danger that we as a country say “Well, this is a criminal act you can’t get probation for”. This is true for cases of sexual molestation of children. I share the state’s opinion that sexual molestation of children is such a criminal act and such a societal danger that probation shouldn’t be allowed. But I ask: why don’t we consider domestic and partner violence, violence against children, abuse and neglect of children to be equally dangerous?
Violence is spreading and its forms are getting more and more bizarre. And we don’t have a focused state response. For example, we should say: “70% of all verdicts won’t be probations anymore”. That’s the data from 2014. I can only hope that this number was more favorable in the years that came after.
Tanja Ignjatovic: This last case reminds us of the connection between abusing women through children and abuse of parental rights mechanisms. This has to be a priority. And finally, we should clearly assign responsibilities among institutions. Without that, we will continue to see each other on these sad occasions.
Translated by Marijana Simic