There has been an outpouring of grief in Zagreb following the passing on Sunday of a two-year-old girl, whose mother is suspected of inflicting the injuries that led to hear death.
Early Sunday evening, as much of the country celebrated Easter, news broke that the little girl had died and people began to leave candles and stuffed animals in front of the Zagreb Children's Hospital in Klaićeva Street and continue to do so.
"I came here to light a candle for this little girl because I feel like we are living in some terrible nightmare. How is it possible that things like this can happen?" a father of two told Croatian Radio.
The toddler was brought to the hospital in Nova Gradiška on Wednesday with severe injuries to her head. She was brought in by her mother who claimed she had taken a fall. Doctors determined on Thursday that they could not provide the care needed because of the severity of child’s injuries and she was transferred to the Children's Hospital in Zagreb, where she died three days later. Dr. Goran Roić, the chief administrator of the Children's Hospital, gave an emotional statement to in the wake of the child's death.
"This is a sad epilogue to a case that has deeply moved all of Croatia. Yesterday, symbolically on Easter, we hope that our little patient has found peace in the great beyond, where she will be safer and happier than in this life," he said.
The child's organs will be donated to recipients in Germany and Hungary.
Intensive care pediatrician at the Children's Hospital, Dr. Karmen Kondža, said the child's short life will have a lasting impact, not only because her organs will save the lives of other children.
"The little girl who had a tragic life will go on. She will have an impact in raising awareness that society needs to provide better care to those who are vulnerable," Dr. Kondža said.
The parents of the little girl, who are both under investigation for child abuse, are in court custody and will remain there for one month. The couple's three other children have been placed into foster care. Following the death of the child, prosecutors plan to amend their indictment, adding charges of aggravated assault resulting in death for the mother, who is the prime suspect in the case. If convicted, she could be sentenced to 3 to 15 years in prison. The father has previously been convicted of domestic abuse and now faces child abuse charges.
The case has sparked a public outcry for reform of Croatia’s social welfare system. Questions are being raised about what could have been done to prevent the tragedy. The director of the Social Welfare Center in Nova Gradiška was fired on Saturday over the way the case was handled. Social workers at the center returned the child to her biological parents after she had spent more than a year in foster care, where she was placed because of suspected abuse in the home.
Lana Peto-Kujundzić, a judge who specializes in cases involving minors, says she is frustrated by the lack of action in the wake of several cases that seemed to spark a public outcry but failed to result in any change.
"After every case like this, we ask the question what are the problems? However, we know what the problems are. If the people that work at the ministries don't understand what they are, they should ask the experts, people who work in law, social work, and education, who deal with this issue," she told Croatian Radio.
Activists are also calling for change. Antonia Skender, who represents the "I Have to Tell You Something" group, says activists want to see reforms that have been promised for more than two decades. They want specialized teams on the ground consisting of a medical professional, a psychologist, and a social worker, who would make unannounced visits to homes. Currently, visits by case workers are always announced beforehand.
Other activists are asking that children should be automatically taken out of a home where an adult has been convicted of domestic abuse. Judge Peto-Kujundžić agrees that the system is slow, cumbersome and too often works in the favor of parents instead of in the interest of the child's well-being. She also said more social workers are needed in the system along with multi-disciplinary teams in the field. Furthermore, she is calling for more involvement from people at the ministry in what is being done on the ground and additional education and training at all levels of the system.
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