Custody Battle Becomes a Human Rights Issue in Slovenia

It was Friday morning, March 14 2008. At nine o’clock a thirteen-year-old was standing by the kitchen window when she saw a paddy wagon pull into the yard. She shouted,” Mum! Mum! They are coming to get me again!” Soon afterwards another one arrived, followed by an ambulance and other police vehicles. Out came some 20 people.
“They cut the lock and broke into. As I opened the door to the hall, in came the so-called “executor”, followed by criminologists, police and other people. They pushed me in the corner. My daughter was clinging to me crying, “Mum! Mum! I’m not going anywhere!” They surrounded us both and tore us apart. I was pushed to the fireplace when my sister entered. My daughter ran towards her, embraced her begging,” Auntie, don’t let them take me! I’m not going anywhere!”
The police separated the aunt and niece, grabbed the girl by the wrists, and carried her out of the house on a stretcher by force. The “taming of the shrew” was done in the presence of the father, who held her down, a doctor and the police. The brutal scenes were film-like; 15 policemen and criminologists assisted the medical staff in escorting the girl into the ambulance. She resisted ferociously but was subdued. From a fair distance the whole incident was being watched by the Social Service Centre solicitor Liljana Ovsenjak from Murska Sobota and a social worker and the whole neighbourhood who could not understand why a 13-year-old ninth grade straight A student from Murska Sobota primary school was being treated like a criminal.
The mother said, “In the meantime I was held down with my head to the floor. After the things had simmered down, the “executor “approached and handed me a document on “confiscation” to sign. When I told him about breaking the law by holding the girl against her will, he gave me a piercing look and left.
“Once my daughter was in the ambulance, they sent for me to accompany her. She was still in her pyjamas. One of her trousers got ripped during the struggle. She cried all the way in the car. On the way into the unknown the doctor made several calls to the Maribor and Ljubljana pediatric clinic but both refused to admit her. On arrival in Ljubljana, the doctor disappeared for a while and when she returned we were allowed to leave the car, which my daughter resisted. One of the nurses held her hand encouraging her, “Come along now! You’ll be all right!” She wouldn’t let go of me. We walked across the yard, accompanied by the police, my daughter only in her socks and pyjamas. “ (Miha Šoštarič, Dnevnik Večer)
The horrifying scenes of the execution are not from 60 years ago when Nazis tore Slovenian children from their mothers. This is Slovenia now and today.
Seven years ago Sekolovnik family from Satahovci near Murska Sobota (Northeast Slovenia) made it to the news because there was a serious dispute between the parents over the custody of the children. Just over half a year ago Slovenian public was shocked and outraged once again by the very same story and over a month ago the story nearly got its epilogue, but not quite.
After the parents’ divorce in 2001, mother Lidija was awarded the custody of both children twice, but due to the father’s appeals the court order was reversed by the High Court in Maribor and by the Slovenian Supreme Court of Justice. After the case had been tried again by the very same judge in August 2007, the custody was awarded to father Jože without any kind of explanation on what grounds. By the court order, the mother should have handed over the girl to the father at the end of 2007, but didn’t because the daughter threatened to kill herself if forced to live with the father. After the interview with one of the psychologists from the Maribor hospital psychiatric ward it was decided on 14 February 2008 that the girl be kept there, so she stayed for 3 weeks until March 7 when she was allowed to return to her mother. Only a week later, on 14 March, the family was paid another visit by the police. Nothing better illustrates the bizarre pointlessness of the police persecution than the sight of dozens of police marching a 14-year-old to the ambulance. After a spectacular intervention, she was whizzed to the Psychology Department of the Pediatrics in Ljubljana where she remained until 12 July 2008 despite her pleas to let her return home. The court and the medical staff justified their decision by referring to her vulnerability and distress.
In the meantime there were letters addressed to the Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs and to the government from several political parties, urging them to solve the case in favour of the girl. The leader of LIPA Parliamentary Party Barbara Žgajner Tavš severely reprimanded the Ombudsman. In her open letter to the Ministry and the Government she criticized the courts and social services centre for letting the parents juggle with the thirteen-year-old. She said, “As one of the signees of the International Convention on Children’s Rights, we are constantly forgetting about the children’s rights to express their wish about who they want to live with, a fact ignored by the courts. I must urge the human rights Ombudsman to immediately act in the interest of a child who is being held prisoner at the psychiatric ward just because her parents will not agree on the custody and the courts are cooperating with their hostility.“ (www.slovenskalipa.si)
At the same time the press and the public put a lot of pressure on the pediatrics in Ljubljana. All these activities finally bore fruit and on 12 July 2008 the girl was transferred to the Centre for Child Diseases in Šentvid near Stična, a more appropriate place to stay.
Sadly, none of the religious institutions lifted a finger to help. They refrained from giving any kind of opinion, but I guess they had much nobler causes to fight for such as exercising their religious and political power, fighting for their property and against the erection of the mosque in Ljubljana.
There are a great many questions nobody has yet bothered to address. We all have problems grasping the work of the court, judges and medical staff. Who is responsible? Why is the girl fighting her father tooth and nail, refusing to be in his custody? There had been allegations made by her about the father being a child molester, which nobody bothered to examine, including the Ombudsman, the story namely corroborated by her brother of age, who told the media, “My father is a very possessive and vindictive man. I had to go through the same ordeal, but on a much smaller scale. I fear that because he is an employee at the Court of Justice in Murska Sobota he can use his influence, which will only bring more grief to my sister and the consequences will be irremediable.”
If the courts are really tossing the girl back and forth just because they are siding with one of the parents, this is a disgrace for the whole legal system.
The Slovenian human rights Ombudsman claims that all the allegations coming from both children hold no water since they are the work of the manipulative mother who would not stop to do aynthing just to vex her husband, who for the time being has resorted to silence to protect the girl. Yet when asked to elaborate, she says she cannot account for the father’s silence nor can she release any kind of information on the girl’s state in order to protect her from media exposure. While it is true that both the Ombudsman and the father tried to convince the public of their good deeds, nothing they did or said can make us believe they acted in the interest of the child especially since we know that her name has been dragged through the papers for the past two years.
Finally, after the mother’s solicitor Franci Matoz had made appeal once again, both parties met in court in December 2008. This time a different judge Marija Stojko Tretnjak awarded the custody to the mother and ordered the father to pay monthly child maintenance in the sum of €280. At the same time the court issued a restraining order against the father, but the mother’s motion for the daughter’s return home was denied. The girl is to remain in Stična until the decision is effective. With the help of the solicitor the girl came home for Christmas, but returned to Stična after the holidays where she is now awaiting the court decision to be finalized. In the meantime Mr Matoz is going to file a lawsuit against the medical institutions demanding € 50,000 from them for mishandling the case and keeping the 14-year-old away from her mother against her will, depriving her of happy childhood and causing her intolerable grief.
In any other democratic country this kind of incident would bring down the Justice Minister, Minister for Home Affairs, Health Minister and many other civil servants in high positions, but not in Slovenia. So, this is an appeal to all the Slovenian people, a plea to muster enough courage and do whatever it takes, even if that meant turning the courts of justice, social services and medical institutions upside down to set the fourteen-year-old free and once and for good return her to the safety of her home, the one she chooses to go to.

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