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Lithuanian lawmakers set to backtrack on «Norwegian-type» child welfare protection

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Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RU

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

The Lithuanian lawmakers have sent this week a mixed message on their resolve to root out child abuse in Lithuanian families. As the MPs backtracked from the stringent Norwegian-type child welfare protection law to a more lenient one, not-criminalizing corporal punishment in certain cases, some experts warn that the reverse can trigger a spike of child abuse cases.

A savage beating and the consequent death of a four-year old boy, Matas, in early 2017 has led to an unanimous ban of all sorts of violence against children, including corporal punishments.

However, after a mother spanked her child in public in Kaunas city at the end of last year, which led to a forceful takeaway of the child by a reputation-tarnished official of the Kaunas Child Welfare Department, a major kerfuffle arose across the country with various conservative activists demanding their sacking.

In the wake of ensued protests, the Lithuanian parliament (Seimas) did give in to the demands this week, with 83 MPs voting for the amendments of the Law on the Fundamentals of the Protection of the Rights of the Child, two were against and 8 abstained from the voting.

The parliament will have a final say on the proposed changes to the law at the start of its spring session in March.

«Given the enormous scope, we spoke to all organisations and interested groups (and agreed) not to rush into adopting (the bill) on Thursday (February 14), (but to do so) on, let’s say, March 12,» Ramūnas Karbauskis, the leader of the ruling Lithuanian Peasants and Greens Union, said.

The amendments envision ridding of threat levels as far as the situation of child in family is concerned and switching to a general assessment of the situation of child’s best interests.

The definition of physical violence would be amended to include only actions that cause considerable pain.

It means that grabbing, pulling or twisting a child’s ear, perhaps still the most spread corporal punishment in many Lithuanian families, will be ok according the new redaction of the legislation.

The amended legislation also embeds cases when a certain person could not be employed by local Child Welfare Divisions.

In the wake of the takeaway of the child in Kaunas, it turned out that the specialist who was entrusted with the task had been sentenced for appropriation of large-scale assets and document forgery.

The Seimas left however the provision, stipulating that parents are legislatively disallowed to leave a child younger than six under care of somebody younger than 14.

If the amendment package is enacted, children will be taken away only in the dire circumstances, when there will be no relative or family friends willing to provide stay to the child.

«Poverty is excluded in the amended legislation as the reason to take away the child,» Karbauskis, the LFGU chairman, accentuated on the parliamentary floor.

The discussions on the parliamentary floor were heated, although the opinions of the hardliners prevailed.

«What we see is collision of two approaches to the matter. One of them insists that state should be entitled wide intervention when it comes to a child’s raising. And the other, supported by me too, by the way, defends the notion that family is the core cell of our society and that 98 percent of families cope well with their problems. Therefore, I tend to support our families and the notion that the state should intervene in families as little as possible,» Jonas Dagys, a Conservative MP, said.

«A child is an inseparable part of family and his or her situation cannot be discussed beyond the context and the framework. Only in a force majeur situation, the state has to interfere and react,» he added.

Dovilė Šakalienė, a Social Democratic lawmaker who spearheaded the 2017 child welfare protection law, argued that a child, like any other human being, has his or her inherent rights which cannot be abused by anyone under any circumstances.

She criticised some NGOs that the 2017 law ostensibly treat all families as potential children’s rights violators.

«Neither we do so nor the Criminal Penalty Codex deems all Lithuanian people as criminals,» she argued.

Speaking to BNN, the parliamentarian underscored that «the absolute majority» of the new amendments have nothing to do with the improving of the quality of children’s rights reform, but are rather «populistic pandering» to the demands of the nemeses of the reform.

«Alas, part of the society was misled and frightened about the essence of the reform, thence the undeserved backlash,» she said.

«Unfortunately, we did not guarantee the constitutional provision on separation of authorities in implementing the overhaul of the Law on the Fundamentals of the Protection of the Rights of the Child. Instead of allowing the Social Welfare and Labour Ministry to amend certain procedures (arising from the law), the ruling parliamentary majority (LFGU) bulldozed populist amendments,» Šakalienė noted.

According to her, there is no a single case when a child has been taken from families in violation of the new-redaction Law on the Fundamentals of the Protection of the Rights of the Child.

The MP received death threats after the child in Kaunas was taken away from what seems was a socially vulnerable family.

President Dalia Grybauskaitė has said on several occasions that the child welfare reform was premature – there was a lack of funding for adequate training of social workers and administration. Two coalitions of children’s rights NGOs have seconded this evaluation – the reform is essentially adequate, it only lacks adequate resources for the civil servants who are tasked with implementing it.

This week’s the Parliament majority’s decision to fast-track the changes to the law is a 180-degree turnaround from the legislators’ stance on the issue two years ago.

Then the parliamentarians voted overwhelmingly for a sweeping set of changes in the child protection legislation after 30 thousand signatures urging to act immediately after the death of Matas were presented to the Seimas in a symbolic baby stroller.

The Norwegian child protection type legislation was spearheaded by MPs Mykolas Majauskas and Dovile Šakalienė.

On the parliamentary floor, then it received unanimous support, with 116 Lithuanian lawmakers voting in support. The vote triggered a wave of applause in the Seimas hall and drew praises both from Lithuanian parliamentarians, NGOs and human rights watchdogs from all over.

The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks welcomed the decision swiftly, calling it in his Twitter post «a big victory” of children right defenders.

The society was truly galvanised by a tragedy at the end of January when the four-year boydied in Kaunas hospital from wounds after he was beaten by his stepfather.

To remind, the stepfather and the mother were immediately detained and charged and the child protection system was subjected to severe excoriation, especially after the revelation that responsible institutions were aware of Matas’ mistreatment.

Ironically, reforming child protection in the country was one of the promises of the current government. Ironically too, the leader of the ruling party, Karbauskis, was one of the drafters of this reform. His party’s minister Linas Kukuraitis was in charge of implementing it.

The statistics purports that about 2,800 underage individuals suffer from various forms of abuses in Lithuania every year, including about 1,000 minors who suffer from their parents, stepparents, adoptive parents or close relatives. According to NGOs’ data, six small children and 15 infants were killed in their close environment over the past five years.


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