Four social workers have been fired and the head of social programmes at Georgia’s Social Services has resigned after a four-year-old was allegedly beaten to death by her mother despite a restraining order. Children’s rights groups blamed an ‘inefficient child protection system’ while social workers said they did not have enough resources.
On 6 January, Nino Zalinashvili, four, was hospitalised due to injuries allegedly inflicted by her mother. A restraining order was issued by the court, banning the mother from approaching her child. Nevertheless, on 22 January, Zalinashvili was found dead in her bed, allegedly following a violent encounter with her mother.
The mother was arrested the same day on charges of violating the restraining order and is currently being held in a preliminary detention. The police have launched an investigation for murder by negligence.
The Interior Ministry noted in a statement that witnesses denied claims the mother was abusive and that the child was heard crying.
‘Family members said that the injuries on her body were a result of her hyperactivity’, the Interior Ministry noted.
However, neighbours of the family said that they had often heard the girl cry as her mother would beat her. Several told Rustavi 2 that they called police a number of times, after each violent encounter between the mother and child
Zalinashvili’s death has put Georgia’s child protection system in the spotlight, raising questions about how her death could have been prevented, who is responsible, and what should be done to protect other children from domestic violence.
Who is to blame
Zalinashvili grew up in foster care, but her biological family was able to spend time with her. Her foster mother denies allegations that the child’s behaviour was challenging.
On 30 January, Social Protection Minister Tamila Barkalaia announced the results of their inquiry into the case and said they had fired four social workers who had worked on her case.
‘The biological family was only allowed to take her during the daytime, not the nighttime. Nevertheless, they took her during the night. This is one of the violations that we found’ said the minister.
Zalinashvili’s biological mother has denied accusations that she beat the girl. On 24 January, her lawyer told journalists that her client had not violated the restraining order as ‘she wasn’t supposed to approach the home where the child lived, or the child would be taken away’.
‘The child was supposed to be taken away from the abuser, which did not happen. Neither social services or the police took her. It would be a violation of the order had the mother approached the child after she was taken away’, the lawyer said.
Zalinashvili was buried without ceremony.
A broader problem
To mourn her death, local women’s rights group the Women’s Movement held a mourning demonstration on 25 January at the chancellery of the Georgian Government, demanding ‘core reforms to protect children’.
‘The government is responsible for Nino’s death, as all relevant government bodies knew she was being beaten, shouted at, and made to cry regularly. […] In this country, children are the most vulnerable. They are beaten and killed in their families. The state neglects them. Child protection systems needs core changes’, the group posted on Facebook.
On 24 January, the Coalition for Children and Youth, a child rights group, issued a statement calling on the government to enact radical reform.
‘For several years now, the child protection system has failed to fully serve the best interests of children. Despite being alarmed about cases of violence against children, often, the system fails to protect them and its inability contributes to the violence’, they said.
The coalition said that one of the reasons for the failure was that decision-makers were underqualified and that there was a deficit in financial and human capital.
‘Child care services are not developing and are on the edge of closure. Parents are not provided with the minimum information about good parenting and children’s rights. There are no efficient family support and rehabilitation services, and the 24-hour child protection hotline does not work. Education facilities, law enforcement, and the social services fail to collaborate on individual and mutual initiatives’, the statement said.
‘Lack of resources’
On 25 January, the Georgian Association of Social Workers issued a statement saying there were systemic problems in the child protection field and that the case was a symptom of this.
They identified problems such as inefficient collaboration between different state bodies, a lack of adequate training, a lack of family support services, and almost nonexistent rehabilitation services, among others.
‘The association has been calling on officials to undertake changes, but in vain’, the statement said.
On 30 January, social workers from the a service centre in Tbilisi’s Gldani-Nadzaladevi District, who were dealing with Zalinashvili’s case, issued a statement.
They blamed the Ministry of Health, Labour and Social Affairs for failing to listen to their requests, which ‘unfortunately resulted in the death of the most vulnerable victim’.
‘It appears that our numerous letters in which we demanded aid were insufficient. The proper fulfillment of the tasks bestowed on social workers today is beyond our human abilities. […] We have reiterated many times that until a social worker gets physically destroyed while doing their duty, the system will be unable to see the real problem’, the statement said.
They maintained that there were too few social workers compared to the number of people that need their attention, and that the ministry did not provide them with the skills they needed to fulfill their jobs.
‘We, the social workers, do not have 10 hands, though we have wished many times that we had. […] We don’t want you to think that we are hiding from our responsibility for the current situation, but do you feel your responsibility? Do you realise what you are doing? Looking for which social worker is more to blame to punish publicly, right? We are not asking you, or demanding from you, but we beg you, Mr David to hear us out’, they said, addressing Health Minister David Sergeenko.
On 30 January, Social Protection Minister Tamila Barkalaia said the ministry admitted that there were systemic problems and said they had already started addressing them.
‘We admitted that there were systemic problems back in 2017, and as a result, a law was written in 2018. In 2018, we evaluated the responsibilities of social workers. […] We are hiring 50 more social workers and the vacancies will be announced soon’, she said.
When asked whether the Health Minister felt a personal responsibility, she said everyone in the ministry, including herself and the minister, felt a share of responsibility for the death.
Social workers at the Gldani-Nadzaladevi Service Center spoke with Liberali in 2017 and described the professional hardships they faced. Overloaded work schedule, low salary, and ‘unbearable working conditions’ were some of the complaints they raised.
They told Liberali that there were 18 social workers in a single room and that they had only nine computers to work on. They reiterated that their office was unfit for both their day-to-day work or for members of the public that visited them regularly.
The head of the centre, Sopo Bakradze, told Liberali that a single social worker had to work on approximately 100–120 cases per month.
The Social Workers Association recommends that a social worker not work on more than 20 cases per month for an optimal result.