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Public must see that social workers are not above the law

Ombudswoman Maria Lottides handing over the report to President Anastasiades in the presence of Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou

THE REACTION by social welfare workers to the findings of the Ombudswoman’s investigation into the circumstances of the suicide of a 15-year-old boy last September was, to say the least, astonishing. Just a day after the release of Maria Stylianou-Lottidou’s report, which found “utter criminal negligence” had been shown by social workers, employees of the Social Welfare Department in all districts staged an impromptu one-hour work stoppage.

On Thursday afternoon, Department workers held an extraordinary general meeting to discuss the measures they would take in protest against the suspension of four of their colleagues, who, the report said, had committed disciplinary and possibly criminal offences. The leader of the social workers’ branch of Pasydy, Iosif Michail said the four colleagues had been “victimised and, basically, blamed for the boy’s death.”

It was an appalling illustration of the arrogance of public sector unions who have come to believe that their members are untouchable. They can perform their duties negligently and inadequately, ignore the procedures and rules of their department, but when they are brought to book for the consequences of their actions they are being “victimised”. Then again, not taking responsibility for actions is part of the public sector culture.

The reaction also showed utter contempt for the findings of the investigation carried out by an independent state official on the instructions of the president. Was the union suggesting the Ombudswoman made up her findings in order to victimise social workers that had performed their duties irreproachably? No, what riled them was that Stylianou-Lottidou did not accept the social workers’ defence – that the department was understaffed and therefore unable to cope with all the cases properly.

Nothing could justify the level of neglect and indifference shown by the social workers and the Ombudswoman should be commended for pointing this out and refusing to accept the department’s claims of understaffing. As she pointed out, although the family of the teenager was being monitored by the department, there was “utter inaction” since 2013. Even with the alleged understaffing, something should have been done in the last six years, but it was not.

The authorities need to stand firm on this matter and resist the pressure from Pasydy to let off the social workers with a slap on the wrist. It is high time public employees were made accountable for their actions, more so when their sloppiness and disinterest has cost a young life. The social workers have not been proved guilty of criminal negligence by the courts and they could be acquitted, but they must stand trial, if only to remind public employees that they are not above the law because they have a powerful union backing them.

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