Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD: “When a child gives you their trust you don’t have the right to betray it.”

ZAGREB, March 23 (Author: Katarina Hrženjak for Croatia Sun News) –  Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD is the director of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center. As a paediatric psychologist at the Klaićeva Children’s Hospital, Zagreb, she often encountered abused and neglected children who were unable to receive the protection they needed. Thus, she was among the first to recognize and raise the issue in Croatia, starting in the early 1990s.

Since then she has dedicated her work to this cause, and founded the NGO “Hrabri Telefon”, a counseling helpline for abused and neglected children. Additionally, in 2002 she initiated the establishment of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb, which has thus far provided care for more than 19,000 children. She is especially dedicated to transferring her knowledge and experience to future experts, and works as a professor at several universities, as well as serving as a permanent court expert on abused and neglected children. The author of numerous books and publications on child raising, Buljan Flanders has received many awards for her work over the years. In 2008 the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center was awarded as the best multidisciplinary team in the world by the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN). They have also been singled out by the Council of Europe as an example of best practices for protecting children, and the Center was presented at the UN.

Croatia Sun News: Good afternoon! Thank you for the making time to do this interview.

Gordana Buljan Flander: Good afternoon, I’m happy to take the time to do this.

CSN: What motivated you to begin working with children and the youth?

GBF: Even as a child in Dubrovnik I loved being surrounded by other children, so I took an interest in helping children from an early age. I looked after younger children, took them to the beach, taught them how to swim, helped them with their homework, and taught them how to write. By the time I began my freshman year in high school, I knew that I wanted to be a child psychologist. It is rare for people at that age know what they want to be, and a lot of my friend changed their opinions about it quite often during high school. Nevertheless, through all of high school I was sure that I wanted to be a psychologist who worked with children. When the time came to apply for university, I only applied to one college – the University of Zagreb Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. I didn’t have any backup plan! I knew if I didn’t pass the entrance exam that I would try the next year, and then next year and the next until I succeed. My parents were very worried because I didn’t have any backup, however I really knew I wanted to be a psychologist. I consider myself a lucky person because I was able to enroll, study and do what I really love.

CSN: What is your motivation now, after all these years, to continue working in this field?

GBF: My biggest motivation is the thousands and thousands of children that I have worked with. In the 1990s I worked at the Klaićeva Children’s Hospital in Zagreb, while at the same time I volunteered at a shelter for women and children victims of domestic violence. I didn’t understand how it was possible for abused children who are victims of violence to remain with their families. How children who came to the hospital because they had been beaten could have to go back to their families. How children who had been sexually abused by family members had to return to those families. That is when I began to take more of an interest in helping abused children, and not only as a psychologist who would work with them, but furthermore the activist side of me woke up and decided it was time to do something to convince our society view these children differently. I was fortunate enough to be invited to an excellent education program for countries of Central and Eastern Europe in 1995, organized by the greatest American experts in dealing with abused children. The specializations lasted for 7 years, everything was paid for and I received a lot of knowledge, as well as lots of materials, videos, and papers. During those seven years, every two months we had eight days of study, and part of our specialization took place in America. I consider myself a lucky person, because when I was writing my doctoral dissertation and scientific papers, all of the people whose works I read and quoted were not just names from books and scientific papers. For me they were living people, my teachers and my supervisors. This growing knowledge increased my interest in traumatized children, and with the support of my teachers and American supervisors, I founded the non-profit Hrabri Telefon (Brave Telephone) helpline for abused and neglected children.

Click image to visit Hrabri Telefon website.

At first it was located in one small room at a children’s hospital, and was staffed by two or three volunteers. After two years of raising public awareness and educating kids that abuse wasn’t normal and that if they had problems, they could call Hrabri Telefon, I realized that kids had started calling us, but the services available to help them were not reacting to the increasing number of children’s reports of abuse. I asked myself: What have we done, so far? What now? These children are calling for help and the existing institutions do not manage to help them. It has literally happened that, after a child reports abuse, the police ended up taking the child from one institution to another in search of assistance. Institutions were playing a game of “hot potato” with these children, because the first institution would say that they did not work with sexually abused children, at the second place they would say the children had to sign up on a waiting list, in the third they would find some other reason not to receive them. Then I realized that a small association like Hrabri Telefon could not cover all the needs of abused children. Furthermore, I undertook the first (or some of the first) research on the issue in Croatia, which showed that every fifth child in Croatia has been sexually abused, 16-25 percent have been physically abused, and the same percent were emotionally abused. Knowing all these numbers, I realized that the state must take care of these children, not one small association. I went to the Ministry of Social Work (at the time it was called Ministry of Social Welfare), where I was told that there was no money start such an institution. After that, I went to the City of Zagreb, to the mayor (who is also the current mayor). He understood the problem and initiated the establishment of the institution which I’m now in charge of – Poliklinika za zaštitu djece i mladih grada Zagreba (the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center). So, at the end of 2002, after two years of engagement and goodwill, the Poliklinka was opened.

CSN: What makes the Poliklinika different from other social welfare services?

GBF: What was important to me and what I see as the main point of it is that a child can get every kind of help they need in one place. The system needs to ask itself: “What do these children need from us?” rather than asking what we need from these children. It is necessary to prevent a situation where sexually abused children have to first talk about their trauma in the Center for Social Welfare, then in some other health care institution, and again in a third place, or a fourth place. Another important thing I learned through experience with the NGO Hrabri Telephone is that we can’t depend on projects and money received sporadically. We cannot play with the lives of abused children – helping for a year when we have the money for professionals, and then doing nothing in other years when we do not have funding. Therefore, my second goal was to make the institution a permanent solution within the system and not to depend on projects and donations. Unlike in America, where I was educated, every child in Croatia has health insurance and can receive care for free. So, my goal was for every child to be able to get our help within the healthcare system. I’m very happy that we have officially become part of the Croatian Institute for Public Health, so for each child our services are free of charge.

CSN: You mentioned that children are returned to the families from which they were separated. I find it very interesting and it seems to me that is still happening nowadays.

GBF: Yes, correct. What is typical for this institution, which is why abusive parents often attack us, is that the right of the child is always placed above parental rights. Since the right of a child to protection is above the rights of parents, we act according to Convention on the Rights of the Child, which supersedes all national legislation. So even if a parent seeks to assert some of their rights and invokes our laws, we refer to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that all actions taken on behalf of children must be in the best interests of the children. By doing this job I realized how important it is for psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health professionals and other professionals to really know children’s rights.

“When it finally comes into this girl’s heart that she is not guilty and once again she becomes a carefree child who suffered a trauma but can say: Okay, this is a scar and I can live with it. No bleeding wound is open… When I know that I can let them go and that they are okay, that is the most wonderful moment, it is something that cannot be described or be bought.” – Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD

Click image to visit the website. (Image source: poliklinika-djeca.hr)

CSN: Do you think there have been some changes in society, in the population you work with, and parents, in the time since you began?

GBF: I have seen changes. Twenty or twenty-five years ago we didn’t consider that child abuse happened in Croatia at all. People believed that child abuse only occurred somewhere in America – on the Oprah Winfrey show. That idea has changed, and it has become clear to people that it happens in our country as well. Of course, everyone is stunned by the numbers. When I say that every fifth child is sexually abused even the professionals are stunned. So public awareness has been raised, however, we do not have enough educated experts. Now, while we are more sensitive to sexually and physically abused children, one area where we haven’t done much is emotionally abused children. Sexual abuse of children causes horror, disgust, and people respond to it. On the other hand, we do not see the wounds on the soul of emotionally abused children. One child made a wonderful drawing – I included it in my new book – he drew himself with bruises from the inside and wrote: “These are wounds on my soul”. Since we do not see the bruises on the souls of these children, we do not do enough to protect them.

CSN: I agree with you, through working with children, I can see how much they need empowerment. Can you tell us more about current projects you are doing, the Poliklinika or you personally?

GBF: The clinic is involved in some European projects concerning child protection, especially children victims of crime. Also, I’m a consultant to UNICEF Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia. I have worked a lot, not only myself but also my colleagues, to educate judges and people in the judiciary which is incredibly important. Lately, we have been dealing with alienated children and emotionally abused children from highly conflicted marriages. This is a new topic that other professionals are reluctant to enter given that there is so much passion for these high-profile divorces. Very often even experts are subjected to parental attack, because people often cannot understand that professionals are on the side of children and not on the parents’ side. These children are quite unprotected because they are caught in a conflict between their parents and the wounds on their souls are invisible.

CSN: There are more and more divorces and the kids are caught between their parents…

GBF: And no one notices those children. One child expressed it beautifully: “When they quarrel, they do not see me at all because they are focused on each other, and then I know that they don’t care about me.”

CSN: It’s hard to listen to those kinds of stories. What are some of the biggest challenges you have had in your career?

GBF: It’s not hard for me. I’ve worked with at least 1,700 sexually abused children, and often people ask me how I can do it, considering the difficult and overwhelming stories. I can work with these children because I have a lot of experience, I studied and specialized to work with abused children and I can establish a relationship with them, so I know I can help them. There are many children who have resolved their trauma who I am still in touch with today. They invite me to their weddings, to their children’s baptisms… So, I can handle it. What is the biggest challenge for me, and my colleagues, is when the other parts of the system does not function and there is a lack of cooperation. A newer problem is that the state cannot protect experts who are exposed to attacks, and that is something that frustrates us. If experts who report abuse are attacked, how could young professionals, who are just starting, have the courage to report and react to situations when they see what is happening to established experts? It seems to me that we have gone backward a little, that the enthusiasm of experts has subsided. Because not all experts report abuse. It is always the same people who report and then they are the most exposed to attacks. Enthusiasm is something that fades over the years, so we cannot base our child protection on enthusiasm alone. I would say that any expert who suspects that abuse has happened and doesn’t report it – is a participant in the crime. Unfortunately, those who report abuse have to report to different ministries and institutions, because the parents complain about them. On the other hand, nothing happens to those who turn their backs on suffering children.

CSN: And that is an endless cycle…

GBF: Yes, because the experts are the ones who stand on the front lines. Front line professionals, especially experts in schools, kindergartens and paediatric facilities.

CSN: Were there any people or organizations that helped you overcome obstacles in your career?

GBF: We are owned by the City of Zagreb and whenever we have needed some support, we had both financial and human support from them. I think a lot of doors open when we ask for something for these children, and I really can’t complain about that. But I would also highlight a group of people that experts seldom point out – which is journalists. Journalists have been very helpful in raising the importance of this topic, so the media are our partners in protecting children. Here is what my American teachers have taught me: If you want to do something for these kids, then you need to have two groups of people on your side: journalists and politicians. It’s not hard for you to guess that we were able to get journalists on our side, but politicians selectively. So, the media helped a lot in raising this topic and I sincerely say that if it were not for the cooperation of the media, this Polyclinic would not have opened at the end of 2002. Probably it would have opened later, but not then. Today we still work well with the media – and we always make sure that it is based on ethical principles, that the identity of children is not revealed and that we never talk about specific cases.

CSN: What are some misconceptions you have encountered?

GBF: A common misconception is that we exaggerate the number of children abused. There is a misconception that children need to be beaten in order to raise them, and there is a delusion that emotional abuse is not something that harms children. There is the delusion that in high conflict divorces both parents are always equally guilty. Another misconception is that if a child refuses to see their other parent (and the parent is not the abuser) the parent should give up and the child will eventually come to the parent when it turns 18 years old. There are so many misconceptions that, unfortunately, some experts commonly tell parents.

CSN: So in some way we encourage these misconceptions.

GBF: Yes, I have heard some experts say: “Well, if your child does not want to see you, give up and the child will come to you when it turns 18 years old.” In this way, they actually encourage something that is very devastating to their child’s psychic development. Which is that if they do not visit one parent, they think all the worst of that parent, and they hate that parent – they actually hate half of themselves. We are all half of our mom and half dad, so if I don’t want the kid to have a good relationship with the other parent, and that parent is a good parent, I’m actually asking my child to repress half of himself. So there are many misconceptions.

CSN: Having touched on the topic of experts, which advice would you give to young professionals who are at the beginning of their careers?

GBF: Well I’ll quote myself! Haha! When I received the Woman of the Year Award last year I was asked what I would say to young female experts. I told them: “If you live what you do and if you do what you live you will be rewarded every day.”

CSN: Where do you get the energy for all that you do? Is it out of love for the job? What keeps you going?

GBF: It must be out of love for the job and for the children. I’m really grateful to the thousands of kids and for the trust they’ve given me. When a child gives you their trust you don’t have the right to betray it. I often wonder about people who were indifferent and did not react when a child confided in them, just to keep themselves safe and avoid questioning by police or in court. I really wonder how these people can live with themselves. When a child gives you their trust and you betray that trust…

Something that people don’t know, but we professionals do know is this: while working with traumatized children is certainly something that can lead to secondary victimization, it also leads to secondary resilience. When you see their courage, when you see they survived with their secret, with their trauma, that they were silent for years, and at the same time they were great students and good friends, carrying that sadness and that trauma within them… They have great power!

I reluctantly call them victims, unfortunately we have no better word. In the English language there is a wonderful word – survivors. I call them survivors because they survived all the suffering! I bow to the floor and I admire them. The children, young people and adults who survived this really give me strength and change my perspective on what trauma and what stress is. How can it be stressful for me to stay at work longer today? Or if I have a lot of work to do, or if my child got a bad grade, when I look at what these kids are living with. So that kind of work develops a secondary resistance in us experts. They give us a lot.

CSN: What do you consider to be your greatest success?

GBF: Professionally, I truly consider my greatest success the opening of this institution. I have two children, but I always say that my third child is Hrabri telefon and my fourth child is the Poliklinika. Employees of Hrabri telefon tease me, saying that I prefer the Poliklinka over than them. And since I started Hrabri telefon 23 years ago, and the Poliklinika 17 years ago, I tell them: “Okay, but I have loved you longer” Haha!

Poliklinika team (Image source: poliklinika-djeca.hr)

So, my professional success, I consider opening Hrabri telefon, where thousands and thousands of children have called the hotline.  Currently there are around 200 volunteers at Hrabri telefon, and they are all wonderful young people. All together we have had more than a 1000 educated and experienced people who have volunteered for the hotline. Wherever I go in Croatia I meet one of my volunteers who is now spreading the idea of ​​protecting children. The Poliklinika has a team of enthusiasts with a great deal of motivation, energy and passion. Now when you look at the Poliklinika – 19,000 children have passed through this facility. Where would these kids be if this wasn’t for us? Where would 1,700 sexually abused children be, where would the physically abused children be, where would emotionally abused children be? So I think it’s a really big success. This job can’t be done as a business or as an ordinary job – it’s a calling.

CSN: How do you deal with stress?

GBF: How do I handle stress?

CSN: I believe you experience stress?

GBF: Absolutely. Every child I work with, I “carry” home. If anyone says that she can close the ambulance door and draw the line, that’s a lie. I don’t think child suffering can be left in the workplace… But the biggest reward is the moment when I have finished therapy with a child and I know I can let him go. One little girl said it strikingly: “I know in my head that I’m not guilty, but I come to Aunt Goga’s until it goes down to my heart”. Well that’s it, that’s the goal of therapy. When it finally comes into this girl’s heart that she is not guilty and once again she becomes a carefree child who suffered a trauma but can say: Okay, this is a scar and I can live with it. No bleeding wound is open… When I know that I can let them go and that they are okay, that is the most wonderful moment, it is something that cannot be described or be bought. This is similar to when my children, my daughters, moved away from home. People asked me if I had a hard time when they left and moved away. I said, “No because I raised them to be independent”. This is the moment when my children can leave and be independent and happy. That is something that recharges my batteries – and also spending time with my daughters and my friends, hiking, going to the movies. During the summer we all get together in Dubrovnik and we find time for family. I think when a person has more obligations the better he can organize himself.

CSN: Is there a message you would like to add?

GBF: My message would be, to all readers who are parents, to listen to, observe and watch their children. Pay attention to what they say and how they behave, because very often their behavior shows us that something is happening, but we don’t want to see it. So, observe, monitor and listen to your children.


About the author: Katarina Hrženjak has a Masters degree in Social Pedagogy from the Zagreb University Faculty of Education and Rehabilitation Science. She has been an active volunteer for many years, working on mental health initiatives and youth rehabilitation programs, as well as leading workshops for at risk children and youths. She is currently working on a series of workshops for Croatian high schools.

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