SOCIAL SERVICES and child protection agencies are under the spotlight following the shocking death of a five-year-old girl that has caused revulsion in Porto and throughout the country.
Vanessa Filipe’s death comes in the wake of the disappearance and presumed murder of eight-year-old Joana Cipriano who disappeared in Portimão last September. Joana’s mother and uncle are now charged with murdering the girl, as well as desecrating and concealing her body. Both cases have publicised the seeming anonymity of child victims whose abuse and neglect only comes to light after their deaths.
The most recent victim, Vanessa Filipe, lived in Bairro do Aleixo, a run-down area of Porto. Vanessa is believed to have suffered a catalogue of abuse at the hands of her drug-addicted father and grandmother. She died after being beaten and immersed in boiling water, causing extensive second and third degree burns to her body. Police believe the little girl may have spent up to
three days in agony before her death. Her father then dumped her body in the River Douro, where it was discovered on May 1.
Vanessa’s case reveals that not only was she a victim of the cruelty of family members, she was also an anonymous victim of the authorities’ negligence.
Police now believe that Vanessa’s fate may have been sealed after a visit last month from a member of the Instituto de Reinserção Social (IRS), which is responsible for dealing with issues of crime prevention and juvenile education, to her grandmother’s house where she lived.
They conclude that Vanessa’s grandmother was apprehensive about a forthcoming decision from Porto’s Court of Family and Minors. The court may have been about to remove Vanessa from the house and this, in turn, could have triggered revelations from the little girl about her mistreatment.
Judge Amália Morgado ordered the immediate detention of Vanessa’s 26-year-old father, Paulo Pereira, and her grandmother, Aurora Pereira, 48, on charges of mistreating the child and causing her death. They could receive jail terms of between three and 10 years, but it is believed that the sentence may increase to between 12 and 26 years if the charge changes to ‘qualified homicide’.
Court decision pending for three years
A report from the IRS had initially recommended that custody of the little girl be awarded to the father, since nobody opposed the decision and the mother initially wanted custody of Vanessa only on weekends.
Porto’s Family and Minors Court had still not decided to whom Vanessa should be granted permanent custody. It has emerged that no decision had been forthcoming three years after Vanessa’s mother, Sónia Rodrigues, had sought permanent custody of the child. At no time did the court seem aware that the girl was being mistreated.
Invisibility of abused children
The president of Porto’s Court of Family and Minors, Judge Madeira Pinto, has revealed that there are 700 unresolved cases in Porto alone involving potentially endangered children. She believes that an urgent shake-up to the law is required. “The time has come to give more leeway to the National Commission for the Protection of Children and Young People in Danger and more power to the Public Ministry in order to protect minors,” she said.
The magistrate warned of the “legislative inertia” regarding young people’s rights. One of the salient aspects of Vanessa Pereira’s story was her almost total invisibility to the authorities. Neither the Department of Social Security nor the Commission for the Protection of Children and Young People knew of her case.
The President of the National Commission for the Protection of Children and Young People, Dulce Rocha, confirmed that there were records about her somewhere, but that they received scant attention. “Staff from the Social Income and Social Insertion teams monitored the family and should have warned the commission or the court,” she said. But she concedes that “they had not appreciated the gravity of the situation”.
The president of Porto’s Central District of Social Security, Rui Pedroto, also notes that staff did not know about Vanessa at all. Vanessa’s grandmother had been receiving the minimum income guarantee since 1998 and so was known to the department, but Pedroto makes clear that his offices lack the authority to order protection for a child. This is a task that rightfully belongs to the courts.
In 2003, Vanessa’s mother had gone to the Commission for the Protection of Children and Young People, complaining that her estranged partner was no longer permitting her to visit the child. The commission led her to the Court of Family and Minors in Matosinhos that eventually awarded custody to her grandmother. This was seemingly the only occasion when the authorities encountered Vanessa.
17,000 children could be at risk
Dulce Rocha says that knowing that a child is the victim of mistreatment or negligence and keeping silent is “unacceptable”. She regrets that society still tolerates the suffering of children. “We cannot cite the poor education or social-economic disadvantages of the perpetrator as mitigating circumstances. It is simply unacceptable for a child to be the victim of physical punishment,” she makes clear.
“Keep your eyes open” is her message to the public. “There are children invisible to the services, but visible to neighbours,” she says. Rocha lists some of the visible telltale signs that a child may be in trouble. These include poor hygiene, malnourishment, inadequate clothing and drug addiction in the child’s parents or guardians.
Luís Villas-Boas, head of the Refúgio Aboim Ascensão (a children’s home in Faro), stressed that “the country cannot allow more and more children to be subjected to conditions leading to their deaths”. He believes that there are 600,000 poor children in the country and 17,000 children at serious risk. “Poor families love their children like everyone else. But poverty, lack of proper employment, housing, food and hygiene, leads to heightened risk,” he says.
People concerned about the mistreatment or neglect of children can phone SOS Children on 217 931 617 or 800 202 65. All calls will be treated with the strictest confidence.