The anger and outrage expressed at the way state services and society failed to protect over the years a vulnerable 15-year-old boy – a neglect that led to his death last week – was perfectly justified. Despite knowing what was going on in the family none of the state services that had come into contact with them took action to protect Stylianos and his two siblings.
State services had been dealing with the family since 2007 when the boy was just three; some 40 incidents of violence were reported to the police by the mother, who was suffering from psychiatric problems, while there was also a conviction for violence in the family. His school was aware that boy was going through an ordeal at home, social welfare services had been supervising the family, and the mental health services were also aware of the problems, the mother having repeatedly sought treatment for psychiatric problems.
Announcing the council of minister’s decision to order an independent investigation, labour minister Zeta Emilianidou, said the four state agencies – welfare services, mental health services, the education ministry and the police – would be investigated for disciplinary or criminal offences. As is often the case in tragedies like these it is too little, too late. Our state services invariably take action after tragedy or disaster has struck, because public officials are disinclined to take drastic action when they see warning signs.
The above-mentioned services all knew Stylianos was part of a problematic family and that violence was repeatedly used, but no member of these services took the responsibility of having the children removed and placed into care. Such drastic action is probably not common practice in Cyprus, but it is no excuse for the inaction – the police claimed they had notified welfare services about the problems of violence, the school and the educational psychologist were aware of Stylianos’ problems while the mental health services were aware of the mother’s woes.
All that was needed was one of person from these services to take responsibility and make a case for taking the children into care. But public employees are not encouraged to take responsibility – the ethos does not exist in the public sector in which everything is referred to committees – for difficult decisions. The law allows welfare service officers to enter a house, accompanied by police if they are afraid of being attacked, and a court will issue an order to separate children from their parents if they are at risk.
The investigation will pinpoint all the procedural failings of the state services, but the most depressing aspect of this tragedy was that no person that knew what was going on in the family, cared enough to do something to protect a tormented and abused child.