Victims are too often left to fend for themselves in an alarming problem Chisinau is just waking up to.by Natalia Ghilascu 22 January 2013
CHISINAU | By her final year, with graduation looming in June 2011, Ana was terrified of school.
For months, two classmates at a special education boarding school in Singerei, northern Moldova, had been sexually assaulting the 15-year-old, raping her on nearby farmland. When Ana initially resisted, they threatened her.
”They said that if I told the school administration, they would beat me up,” she later told a psychologist from Chisinau's Child Abuse Prevention Center in connection with a criminal investigation.
Afraid to open up to her alcoholic parents, Ana, who has a learning disability, told several teachers about the abuse, also alleging molestation by a gym instructor. But they said it was all in her head, and, according to Ana, the attacks by her classmates continued through graduation, after which she told her sister, who informed the police.
The gym teacher was never charged, but the other alleged abuse is under investigation. Slamming the school's children’s rights record, the Ministry of Education fired its principal, who professed ignorance, for a negligence that activists, officials, and other observers say is all too common in a provincial education system that leaves victims of sexual crime to fend for themselves – a problem the government is only now waking up to.
”I am concerned about the number of sexual abuse cases registered [in schools] in recent years," Deputy Prime Minister Mihai Moldovanu said last month, attributing it to a growing willingness to talk about such issues, not more assaults. "I will ask everyone responsible for children’s rights protection to be more energetic in preventing and combating this problem."
FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS
In 2012, incidents of school violence quadrupled and sexual attacks by minors – inside and out of schools – nearly doubled in Moldova, according to government figures. But the extent of specifically sexual-related crime in the education system is unclear; the government does not keep such data and, as Moldovanu suggested, most cases have likely gone unreported in the socially conservative Eastern European country.
"Molested children live in great shame and are afraid to [open up] because sexuality is not well handled in schools, or by parents,” said Daniela Simboteanu, president of the National Child Abuse Prevention Center.
A partial count of sexual abuse cases in schools conducted by the center found nine in the past five years, with a total of 23 victims.
Schools don't teach sex education, largely on opposition from the Orthodox Church. Only around half employ psychologists, and children’s rights specialists are scarce in administration, Simboteanu said. Those schools that do have trained therapists, meanwhile, avoid the issue of sexual abuse, often considered the domain of private counselors, according to the Child Abuse Prevention Center's Oxana Sevcenco, the psychologist who treated Ana.
Children’s rights experts also complain that school staff are not sufficiently engaged with students, both in general and to recognize potential warning signs.
”My child is in the eighth grade but has never met the psychologist," said Violeta Gasitoi, a children’s rights lawyer in Chisinau. In cases of sexual abuse, bullying, or the like, she said, "It’s too difficult for students to report any problem they face.”
As a result, Ana and other victims fall through the cracks. In late 2010, a high school teacher, also from Singerei, was convicted of sexually perverting four students, who kept quiet until a year after the initial assault, in 2008, before telling their parents. And last year, the abuse of a student in Hincesti, central Moldova, also went unnoticed until his parents intervened.
The Hincesti case reveals the gaping cracks in the system. After noticing 9-year-old Andrei, a pseudonym, beginning to withdraw and cry for no evident reason last September, his parents hired a private psychologist. Andrei told the therapist that three teenage students had raped him in a school bathroom and the gymnasium over multiple days that month. But when his parents informed the school principal, she didn't report it to supervisors at the Ministry of Education.
The ministry reprimanded the principal for trying to conceal the abuse, and the school psychologist was fired. After three months in therapy, Andrei transferred to a new school, where the psychologist, who asked to remain anonymous to protect Andrei's identity, said she would do her best for him. But, she conceded, this is her first such serious case and relevant training is hard to come by.
“There are a few specialized [organizations] that offer training in how to handle sexual abuse, which are taught only in the capital – the psychologists in schools have no clue," the recent university graduate said. "The theoretical knowledge in university is not enough.”
'THE PERFECT VICTIM'
Many observers also fault the government, starting with the criminal justice system. One of the young men who allegedly abused Ana isn't being investigated because he emigrated to Russia, and the other is yet to face charges. In January 2012, the Singerei teacher convicted of perversion was released early from a five-year prison sentence. And, after being apprehended in October, the three teenagers who allegedly attacked Andrei were freed from house arrest and readmitted to school during the investigation.
Hincesti Mayor Alexandru Botnari, meanwhile, said he was shocked to learn of Andrei's case from media reports, not police. He said law enforcement does not coordinate with local authorities on sexual abuse cases.
“We need to find better ways to cooperate with schools on solving sexual abuse,” Botnari said.
Last year, the Child Abuse Prevention Center launched "Indecent Touch," a nationwide campaign to prevent sexual crime and increase government awareness on how to handle such cases. In another positive development, the ministries of education and social protection recently launched a program that could see 300 specialists employed in the education system this year to respond to child abuse and other issues.
Meanwhile, legislators recently approved a ban on people convicted of crimes against minors holding teaching jobs. New Education Minister Maia Sandu also recently pledged to get tough on rising school violence, sexual and otherwise, "to assure that children’s rights are respected."
Ana, meanwhile, is now 17. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and, for several reasons, hasn't been able to pursue vocational studies. The psychologist Sevcenco said that, given Ana's bad home life and lack of self-esteem, she was easy prey in a school that wasn't paying attention, and that she'll be a long time in recovery.
“Ana was the perfect victim for such severe abuses because the abusers saw her as defenseless,” she said.