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“If something is not institutionally enshrined, it is pointless”

The former Supreme Court Prosecutor, who also served for years as a Public Prosecutor for Minors, speaks about her extensive experience in office, the shift from delinquency to victimisation, and her contributions to the child protection system.

Xeni Dimitriou during our interview.

Xeni Dimitriou during our interview.

© The Manifold

How did you start work at the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors?

The Greek Code of Criminal Procedure provided for the existence of Public Prosecutors for Minors, and they were already in place in Athens, Patras, Thessaloniki and Piraeus, but they were not functioning as an office. In the summer of 1983, when I was a young Deputy Public Prosecutor, having joined the public prosecution service in 1978, I ran into my supervisor, Mr Toumpanos, in Omonia. He told me, “Xeni, would you like to join the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors in September?” I knew what the Prosecutor’s Office for Minors was, but I had no idea of what it entailed, no relation to the various bodies and services, nothing other than the articles of the Penal Code pertaining to juvenile offenders. But I did not hesitate to accept. My agreement was driven by my love for children. I was already a mother of two and at an age where I was becoming more sensitised to issues affecting minors, in part due to motherhood.

At the time, the Public Prosecutor’s Office was housed in the Ambassadeur Hotel, an old hotel next to the IKA on Socratous Street, pending our move to the Evelpidon court complex. We were waiting for the construction of Evelpidon to be completed and office space to become available, so the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors was located there in the meantime. An office with a single secretary, who used to send summons and subpoenas to juvenile offenders. The incumbent Public Prosecutor for Minors would study the case briefs and then go try the cases at the Minor’s Court, which was located on Feidiou Street at the time.

As soon as I received the proposal, I began my research. Whenever I am faced with a challenge in life, I want to get a firm grasp on the situation, to know what the new job entails. During my career, I have been called to serve at other posts too, and you don’t just turn up. You must look into things, research the field or the object of the post you have been called to serve. I did the same in anti-terrorism, where I worked for ten years. I tried to do the same when I was informed that I would be joining the Prosecutor’s Office for Minors.

Was there material available for research at the time?

I visited the Institute of Greek and Foreign Law because there was no internet at the time, or at least we did not have the skills for that kind of research. I went to the Institute and asked them to give me the international literature on the subject. They even had to order some of the books. Also, when I was officially appointed in September, someone else was appointed as my supervisor at the same time. I was a Deputy Prosecutor, so a Public Prosecutor of the Court of First Instance had to be appointed Supervisor, and I would be second in command. The Public Prosecutor appointed resigned. He did not want to be involved in such mundane matters, he wanted something more high-profile, he was not interested. Another prosecutor was appointed then, and our collaboration was excellent.

So, when I was appointed Deputy to the Public Prosecutor for Minors as a Deputy Prosecutor of the Court of First Instance, I went to the office to get a feel for the situation. There, I met the secretary I mentioned, who is now retired and lives in Thiva. She was very aware of the issues involved; a lot of things had registered on her radar during her time there…

“One aspect is the juvenile offender and the other aspect the juvenile victim.  Juveniles often switch between these two roles.”

Let me tell you the first thing she told me. I asked her, “What does the Public Prosecutor for Minors do here?” She said, “That is two separate questions. One question is, what does the Prosecutor do? The other question is, what can the prosecutor do?” I asked her to explain. She said, “This is what he does: here are the case briefs, theft, rape, juvenile homicide and the trial court dates for Minors’ Court. But a Prosecutor can do a great many things here, Mrs Dimitriou, if they are so inclined.” A light bulb went off inside my head as I listened. In fact, while we were talking, a child entered carrying a suitcase, like a duffle bag. He had been sent to the Public Prosecutor for Minors. He walks in, the secretary asks him what he wants, and the child says, “I’ve left home, I’m not going back there, the police told me to come to tell you.” I do not remember the exact reason; he was beaten by his father or had a dispute with his father. He was a young child around twelve years old. The secretary then turned to me and said, “There you go.”

So, the secretary planted the idea of how active a role a Public Prosecutor could play for victims.

Not quite. I was cognizant of it thanks to the international literature on the subject. We were not aware of it in Greece, but the protection of victims was not a new topic internationally speaking. Although in the USA, victim protection started to become systematic around that time too, in 1985, with the creation of Victim Services Units that operate in juvenile courts over there. It was a Public Prosecutor who taken that initiative in 1985. So back in 1983, these ideas were beginning to develop around the world.

The truth is that Professor Spinelli had also spoken to us about the victims, within the framework of the protection of minors.  In other words, we did not think of them as something separate. I just did not know that the Prosecutor’s office did not cover that field too. So, when I started work there, I said that the Public Prosecutor’s office will have a twofold mission. Subsequently, we asked that the police follow suit and they did. Everything coming through the judiciary and police services should have a twofold mission. One aspect is the juvenile offender and the other aspect the juvenile victim.  Both because juveniles often switch between these two roles and because, at the time, matters were not viewed in that light, even globally. Even the USA was still in the early stages.

Addressing the juvenile exclusively as an offender dominated at the time?

Yes. Child abuse began to be viewed as a syndrome in 1962. “Syndrome” means a condition; it now means a pathological condition with multiple repercussions. It is not a one-off event that ends with the act, its consequences extend into the future. This is what I had in mind at the time: Janus with his two faces. They are the two sides of the same coin, perpetrator and victim, and my subsequent experience showed me that such was the reality. No juvenile offender, even a juvenile traffic offender, has not previously been victimised in some way by family, friends, school, classmates etc. No one goes suddenly from being a “good kid” and so on to become an offender. They have previously been the victim of certain circumstances themselves.

You mentioned that the Public Prosecutor for Minors used to try cases in an office on Feidiou Street at the time. Why was that the case? Was it to protect minors, to avoid exposing them in a courtroom?

That was part of the thinking behind it, which persists in many provincial towns to this day. Minors’ Courts inside office premises, meaning that the juvenile defendant is physically on the same level as the judges, there is no judge’s bench. That is what we saw at the time, Minors’ Court Judge Maria Vasilakis and me. She was a Judge at the Court of First instance and is also a friend; we have always had a good understanding on these matters that so passionately concern us. We agreed that we did not like those premises; that it was better if the child understood that they were in a space which, while being friendly, was also a special kind of space, that they were an offender. We often tried homicide cases, children who had robbed elderly ladies or killed them, we tried murders. You cannot have the offenders in an office, the lawyers in an office, everyone sitting around a table casually, it needs to look like a courtroom.

“We tried not to bring the child before an all-male or all-female bench, to have both sexes present, because we were often dealing with a child that had a very bad relationship with their father or mother, and the child would react negatively by judging you.”

So we made sure to move the Minors’ Court to Omonia, to the building that housed the District Civil Court. The District Criminal Court and the District Civil Court, before its move to the Court of First Instance, were housed there. We requested the use of a floor and succeeded in getting it. We remodelled a room, installed a low judge’s bench, unlike other courtrooms where the judge and the prosecutor and the secretary look down on everyone. Then we moved the whole service from 8, Feidiou Street to that floor. Staff found offices where they could interview the children whose case briefs they were preparing for court or supervise them afterwards, and a more concrete service came into being. The Minors’ Court became more respected and more concrete.

The courtroom, then, had a low judge’s bench, had places for the juvenile offenders, seats for the parents and the Prefects for Minors, the juvenile probation officers who assisted the minor during the trial.

We also tried to implement what the literature had taught us, namely, to have a female Public Prosecutor – male Judge on the bench and vice versa. In other words, not to bring the child before an all-male or all-female bench, to have both sexes present, because we were often dealing with a child that had a very bad relationship with their father or mother, and the child would react negatively by judging you. The child would personalise the relationships of the people judging it there and then.

Or fear on the other hand, if the parent had been abusive…

Indeed, often the parent had been abusive. We had a mother who used to beat her children mercilessly. If the child saw a female judge, they would have a terrible reaction, so we always ensured that the ratio was present. Also, after we set up the new offices in late 1985, we managed to set up a Juvenile Police Service, as we used to call it. Ultimately, it was a Subdivision in Athens with two units. There were two units in Thessaloniki and Crete respectively too, one for juvenile victims and one for juvenile offenders. In Athens, the Subdivision eventually became a Division.

So we did not confine ourselves to the Minors’ Court. We were fully aware of the need to open up to other bodies and services, that a Public Prosecutor or a Judge cannot deal with delinquency or victimisation on their own. We were aware of our weaknesses and the fact that we were insufficient to handle these incidents, that we needed the assistance of people from other sectors.

In this context, we also visited the General Secretariat for Youth many times, asking it to allocate us programmes that our children from the Minors’ Court could be enrolled in. 

There we met General Secretary Anna Diamantopoulou. When the opportunity for an exchange with Germany on juvenile matters arose, she called us and asked us if we wanted to participate. Of course, we wanted to go, no question about it.  She would also provide us with an interpreter because we did not speak German. The interpreter was always with us. There were five of us altogether: two of us from the judiciary corps and the rest from the General Secretariat for Youth.

That trip was a turning point. We began with a visit to the Ministry of Justice of Land Nordrhein-Westfalen and then toured all the facilities for minors in the Land. We stayed there for several days. We visited juvenile prisons and saw how they operated. We attended juvenile courts, visited “reformatories”, other detention facilities. First, we met with professionals active in the field. We saw the training they received, particularly judicial and non-judicial personnel—social workers, psychologists and child psychologists naturally, but also correctional officers, workers inside the institutions. Anyone who came into contact with the minors. Because you cannot have one service building something up and another service tearing it down. Everyone must have the same training about behaviour towards juvenile offenders. They must understand what it means to be a minor, to understand the minor’s profile, to show self-restraint.

I remember one of the workers would teach a group of children house painting. For the Germans, that is a science. There was another team learning meat cutting, the Germans see that as science too. You don’t just go to a butcher and learn to cut meat there, you have to learn the theory first, what kinds of meat there are, what beef is, the parts of the animal, how to carve it, what products you can manufacture. So, there is a science to it.

All these people had been trained in how to treat the children in question. They could be interacting with volatile children, who came from families with no boundaries, so they had to be tolerant, to be educated on juvenile issues.

To know how to set boundaries in a healthy manner?

Of course. The same applied to the correctional facility staff we met at a juvenile prison we visited. They had all received training for the specific demands of their job, it was not just a case of “you’re hired, get on with it”. It was done for the juveniles concerned.

Another eye-opening experience, for me at least, was that we used to believe that this was a matter for us State bodies to deal with and no one else. There, we learned that there is room for other actors in this field, for NGOs, for private entities and individuals that can do the job well and are certified. That there is room for other bodies that can help you in the matters that arise during the handling of cases, whether they concern victims or perpetrators.  

“We said, ‘that’s it, we are reaching out.’ We contacted universities, hospitals, private individuals and entities, institutions; we began to expand the reach of protection and come into contact with other professionals.”

I remember arriving in Frankfurt during the evening and being driven to Cologne. We arrive at night, and we have our first working dinner. We meet at the hotel where our German colleagues from Cologne are already waiting. We have a light dinner and the Germans instantly set to work. We almost had no time to eat, there was an agenda stating that matters were scheduled to be discussed that evening. At the hotel, as we dined, I hear them announce the schedule for our visit and find out that we will be visiting an organisation working with juvenile offenders, offenders who have committed serious acts at that. They tell us what services the organisation provides. What was that organisation? Today you would probably call it an NGO, they were called something different back then. Actually, it was a private organisation that had been set up by a former Prosecutor upon retirement.

Then they tell us that we will visit a Catholic institution that cares for victims and provides such and such things. I was in shock from the start. I used to think these were matters for the State, and I suddenly saw that they did not have to be, that we needed to open up more. And we did, my colleague and me when we returned to Greece. We said, “that’s it, we are reaching out.” We contacted universities, hospitals, private individuals and entities, institutions; we began to expand the reach of protection and come into contact with other professionals.

Up until that time, the child would come into contact with just the police officer or the judicial or correctional officer...

The correctional officer, the Prefect for Minors. Anyone who fell within the public sector would either be sent to a state institution — a place would be found if they needed protection — or to the educational institutions which existed at the time. They were akin to detention centres, one step below a detention centre if you will. There were many at the time and later they were shut down, again following our initiative.

The detention centres were the juvenile prisons, the equivalent to the current special juvenile detention establishments. At the time, there was the Korydallos Correctional Centre, and there were the reformatories. They used to be called educational institutions, and they were intended for younger children and juveniles committing minor offences. There was one for minors over sixteen at Korydallos; one for minors under twelve, situated in a building that has now been taken over by the Municipality of Korydallos. There was another educational institution, as we used to call them, for children under twelve at Kaminia. There was also the Educational Institution of Papagou for girls and the Volos Educational Institution for Minors for boys.  The Volos institution is the only one still open today, although its philosophy and the age of its inmates have changed.

How is it called today?

It is still called an Educational Institution, back then it was called the Volos Elementary Education Institution because children below the age of twelve were detained there, elementary school children. Now its orientation has changed. I visited it in 2015 because the situation was at breaking point, and I found youths up to the age of twenty-one there. The ages spanned from twelve to twenty-one. The Paraskevopoulos law rectified that.1

Consider the age-gap, imagine the sexual and all kinds of abuse taking place there. Most importantly, some of the children were held there because the investigating magistrate had imposed their stay at the institution as a restrictive condition.  This means that the magistrate had imposed a restrictive condition on youths under twenty-one, the obligation to stay there. In other words, it had been turned into a prison. A closed prison at that, nothing like I had known it in the old days when it was open to the community, just a simple institution for children under the age of twelve.   It was nothing like it, the conflicts inside were nonstop.

By then it housed 110, 120 inmates, an inconceivable number if you are talking about providing any care, no one could provide anything for them. At the time I was Deputy Prosecutor of the Supreme Court and Mrs Koutzamani had made me responsible for minors, so with great effort and repeated visits and meetings and talks and so on, we changed the law.

For a start, no investigating magistrate can now place such a restrictive condition, it is prohibited. All the restrictive conditions placed on children detained at Volos were revoked, and the children left, except for a few cases aged 16-18 that concerned very specific offences. So an end was put to this situation, which had become a breeding ground for violence.

Were these children orphans?

They are children without a family, without a real family. They are not orphans in the sense of parental death, they are children with an inadequate parental environment. I found two brothers who had been there since the age of eight because the age range for juvenile offenders was six and a day to twenty-one years old, up until 2003, I believe. Then it became six and a day to eighteen. I tried children aged six and a day when I was the Public Prosecutor for Minors between 1983 and 1990, my first tenure at the Prosecutor’s Office for Minors. I tried first and second graders because one had blinded the other with a pen or hit them. You cannot imagine what ensued, it was a real battle to change this. My belief, which I fought for, is that ten should be the lower age limit; ten to eighteen. Anyway, there was a vehement reaction, so the minimum age was raised to eight. As we speak, the age range is eight to eighteen. For those aged eight to fifteen, only reformative sentences are passed, which exclude sentences to the Volos Educational Institution for Minors. Thankfully we have shut down the other educational institutions.

What you have just described is the recurring issue: the penal management of minors. Following your return from Cologne, where the way forward became somewhat more evident, who did you start speaking to about this issue?

We addressed the ministries, the Ministry of Justice; they grew tired of seeing us all the time. We brought it to everyone’s notice, including our Supervisors. Let me give you an example. The Public Prosecutor’s Offices were moving to Building 16 of the Evelpidon court complex, where they are still housed. I campaigned for a coveted slice of the new offices to be given to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors. They are the Offices of the Public Prosecutors for Minors to this day, three rooms which used to fit us all back then, I don’t think they fit everyone now. I don’t know if you have seen the premises, but to secure three rooms in such a coveted part of the building was no small feat. When the Prosecutor in charge of allocating office space to the various services managed to give me those premises, I grabbed a mop and bucket, so happy was I. At last, we would be housed in a respectable environment, we could set it up so that it was accessible to children, we could have it decorated in a way that made it accessible to the ages that would reach out to us.  That was probably one of the best moments of my life.

I remember saying, “No one touch this! I’ll clean it.” I’m not renowned for my housekeeping skills, I might ignore my own house, but I cleaned the office bathrooms, I scrubbed the windows until they sparkled, before our staff moved in. I was also given staff. Before 1990, we had grown to four Public Prosecutors for Minors, two of whom worked in juvenile justice full time. There was no such thing until then.

The other step we took was to start keeping social case files, using index cards. There was no computerisation at the time. The first approach to computerisation then was using index cards, to keep your case files referenced, as in the old movies.  The police must also keep the cases similarly filed and then, once the data can be processed, you have a computerised system. We, at the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors, were the first prosecution service to implement this system. The other Public Prosecutor’s Offices, the other Departments, would not do it. We were the first to implement this kind of record-keeping, and we began to keep social case files.

What are social case files? Social case files are briefs that have nothing to do with juvenile offenders or juvenile victims. They are usually files of children in danger of either becoming offenders or being victimised by families facing problems. Children that are brought to our attention via anonymous or identified reports to various helplines, or sometimes identified reports made by neighbours, relatives or one of the parents, where the conditions at home are such that the child is led to one or the other direction.

I have to say that it was us, in Athens, who hesitatingly began to terminate parental responsibility and take children into care. Up until then, parental responsibility was never terminated. The children continued to reside with the abusers, various welfare interventions would then take place, and that was all. Parental responsibility termination by a court was implemented by us for the first time. Now it is widespread, and all the Public Prosecutor’s Offices in the country do it. They might not be experienced in these cases, but they will call Athens or Thessaloniki and ask, acquire templates, find out how this or that is done.

This happened with great difficulty over the years. To terminate parental responsibility was unthinkable at the time. The home was considered sacrosanct, the mentality was “I will do as I please in my own home, I lay down the law in my home, my child belongs to me and is not subject to rights, I will do as I please with it, I will discipline it as I please.” Let us not kid ourselves, discipline meant and still means bodily harm and demeaning conduct towards the child, verbal violence, emotional and psychological violence. Even as we speak the best families, not the families that first come to mind when you think about child maltreatment, do not know how to behave towards children.

So, you gradually start to reach out to other services.

I had done that even before 1990, before my initial seven-year tenure at the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors ended. I had reached out. It was a huge step toward openness. My colleague Mrs Vasilakis and I used to visit the Korydallos Correctional Centre every week. On Wednesday or Sunday afternoons, we would go to Korydallos, without our families even knowing. We used to joke that if anything happened to us along the way, they would wonder, “How did they end up in Korydallos?” Once a week without fail, we would go to the Correctional Centre and talk with the juvenile detainees who were aged between twelve and twenty-one at the time. In fact, the talks would take place without the presence of correctional officers.

The Korydallos Correctional Centre was one of the wings of the Korydallos prison. It had a large room where the children gathered to eat all together, unlike the Avlona Special Juvenile Detention Establishment today, where every child eats in their cell, where the food is delivered to the cells. There was just a single dining space. Other than that, it was a correctional facility with terrible conditions, which we used to observe and of course, advocate for changes. We kept going to the ministry and changes were indeed made at the time. I remember the cells had a toilet in full view, there was not even a curtain to hide it. One child could be using the toilet while another child was in their bed or sitting at the table, the conditions were appalling. We could not believe it and, after a lot of pressure on our part, they placed screens at first and then doors, so that at least the children could enjoy some privacy.

We also used to visit the Correctional Centre of Kassaveteia and Volos too; mostly Kassaveteia. There, we were really disheartened, disappointed. By some stroke of luck, Kassaveteia had been operating on the German model. In other words, there were cells, each cell housing one or two children. Suddenly, during one of our visits, we saw them demolish cells to convert them into dormitories. Just when we were saying that we have at least one correctional facility that is tolerable – because being in a room with eight to ten people and being in a room alone or with another child makes a big difference to the children—we saw that that facility had deteriorated. That institution, too, had failed.

During our visits then, we used to talk with the children, some of whom we might have sentenced that very morning or most of whom we had possibly sent there. They never harmed or bothered us. Not only were they welcoming, not only were they hugging us, children who are now grey-haired, middle-aged adults, parents themselves, still come see us. I think our visits were a boost, a spark of hope. We gave them hope: “do this, enrol in that program.” There were a few programmes run by the Regional Committees for People’s Education (NELE), who ran various actions in prisons. There were no schools in prisons like there are in juvenile and youth prisons today.

We had also continued the education of police officers for several years and that, too, was a very important step.

How did the juvenile police units come into being?

Around 1983, 1984, we had instances of abused minors coming to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors from the police stations. I will never forget one child, a young boy named Fotis. When Fotis came, I looked at him and noticed his ear lobes were swollen, like red spheres. I took a closer look; the child looked like an alien. I asked him, “Fotis, what happened?” The police had brought him in for theft, detention in flagrante delicto. For a small child. I asked him, “What happened to you?” “The police,” he said. I asked him what the police did to him. He told me the officer had pinned his ears with clothespins to make him confess to other thefts. Then, he said, they grabbed him by the feet and suspended him from the balcony. I listened to what they had done, the slaps and the suchlike, and I could feel my rage mounting.

The memory of that boy has never left me. There was another juvenile, too, whom I will always remember. He was a minor who had appeared often before the Juvenile Court in the past. We used to let him go because you do not incarcerate a minor for a first offence, you help them find their way through the Supervisor of Minors. You don’t immediately send them to juvenile prison.

So he arrives, accompanied by the police, and a part of his body is wrapped in bandages. I ask him what happened. He would not speak before the police officers. I take him aside, we were in our Evelpidon offices, just the two of us, and I ask him again what happened. He tells me he has been shot, that the bullet came out the other side but did not harm any organs, but he was injured. I sent him to a forensic physician, and he did indeed have a bullet wound because the police had chased him for thefts, you can imagine the kind of theft we are talking about, nothing significant. It’s just that the child was a repeat offender.

When you become a witness to such incidents, you realise something must be done, that the police force must also be sensitised. It’s not enough to raise the awareness of judges or prosecutors. So, in the summer of 1985, we began to visit the Ministry of Public Order. We met with the Minister at first, then he referred us to the General Secretary, Mr Morphopos, who was ex-military. I will never forget his name because he was the one who agreed to our proposal for a police corps for minors made up of trained policemen. He agreed despite the objections of the police as a whole, the Chief of Police and his deputy chiefs who believed it was an impossible objective, that it would never materialise, that it was unnecessary.

At a meeting with Juvenile Court Judge Mrs Maria Vasilaki, who is currently with the Supreme Court, Mr Morphopos sat us down and said, “I am not asking you whether a juvenile police service will be set up. We are gathered here to figure out how it will be set up.” He had already made the decision, in other words. The meetings we had previously held had convinced him, and this great step forward was taken. Initially, a ministry circular was sent to all Police Departments and Services in Greece for the first time. It advised police officers how juvenile offenders should be treated, following our input too. After that, the space that would house the Division for Minors, which was a Subdivision back then, was chosen. At the time, we demanded that it contain two units, one for juvenile offenders and an equally important one for juvenile victims, who also required a specialised approach.

Back then, it was not a given that victims needed special treatment too and that you needed specialised training to avoid revictimisation through the procedure and secondary abuse during the collection of evidence. Two units were also set up in Thessaloniki and in Heraklion in Crete respectively. These still exist today, and special training was provided following the request of the police officers who wished to join those units.

Was that also your proposal?

Our proposal was that the officers should not be chosen by the police force. That the hierarchy should not appoint the officers, but that the officers themselves should express interest in joining those units first. Then, a selection could be made if the number expressing interest was greater than the number of posts.

Also, we trained police officers from all over Greece on matters pertaining to minors in the three to four years that followed. We held week-long training workshops. We used to go and teach them—myself, Mrs Vasilaki, Supervisors of Minors, psychologists and Mrs Spinelli, Professor of Criminology at the University of Athens, who is our teacher to this day. She was not only highly sensitised to issues affecting minors, but extremely knowledgeable too.  

You said that the juvenile police units were founded in 1986. That leaves another four years until the end of your first tenure at the Office of the Public Prosecutor for Minors in 1990. During those four years, then, an autonomous Police Service for minors came into being. Did you see any progress?

Yes, of course. First and foremost, the abuse of juvenile offenders stopped. Juvenile offenders used to come to us having been slapped, punched; they had black eyes. It was a noticeable change because up until then, anything involving minors, offenders or victims, in Attica, used to end up at the General Police Directorate of Attica (GADA). Nowadays, minors still get taken there– of course, there has been an increase in the number of incidents too – but they only send the most serious offences to GADA.

However, both during my first tenure until 1990 and during my second tenure between 1995 and 1998, I handled juvenile victims, particularly sexual abuse victims, myself. I did not send them to the police. I used the police as my assistants, to remove the children from the abusive environment where needed, to visit them in institutions that would subsequently accommodate them or at Children’s Hospitals where they would often be temporarily accommodated. The police would help us with all that. But, particularly in cases involving the sexual abuse of minors, I would take their statements following the example of the Germans. The international literature on the subject also informed us that that was the procedure followed in the USA too.

The only thing we did not, and should not, follow was the Code of Penal Procedure, which stated that when you question a juvenile witness – the victim is also considered a witness by the Code – you should ask a question and get an answer, ask a question and get an answer and so on. But that is not appropriate in cases of child sexual abuse. You must allow the child to narrate. Closed-ended questions are prohibitive. Questions must be open-ended, or you should allow the child to narrate and only interrupt in a very specific manner if you need to ensure that you have understood what is being said correctly. “You are telling me such and such, did I understand correctly, is that what you are telling me?”

When did you first encounter the idea of the House of the Child?

By 1989, I had received the whole text of the “Procédure MELANIE” which a colleague from the island of Réunion had forwarded. By late 1998, early 1999, I had completed my second tenure as Public Prosecutor for Minors and was Deputy Public Prosecutor of the Court of Appeal of Patras. Around that time,  I attended a conference for professionals in the field which was co-organised at a very high level – suffice it to say that the meetings were held at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the session was opened by the Prime Minister himself. The participants were Greece, France and Italy, and it was a conference on child abuse. I spoke about Greek Law and how it approached and dealt with abuse.

Talking of that conference, I just remembered something that shook me. They had drawn up a comparative table for the three countries. There, the legal provisions concerning violations of children were listed to allow a comparison between the laws of the three countries. Mostly violation of their bodies, their life, neglect, but also other provisions, such as labour law, administrative law and civil law provisions in each country’s codes and statutes. My turn to complete the comparative table comes; France and Italy had already completed it. It was my turn to complete whatever provisions the Greek law made. That was when I realised the poverty of our system in legislating to protect children.

I saw that most of our rules and laws applied to both children and adults. Be it bodily harm or rape or anything of that nature, whatever provisions applied to adult victims applied to juvenile victims too.

The child did not exist as a legal subject.

No, nowhere. I still have that table somewhere. I was so ashamed for my country when I saw it. The undisputed fact is that if you do not come out of your national shell, you cannot see your weaknesses, you cannot become aware of the steps that others have made. You think everything is fine and what goes on here is happening everywhere.

That was when I saw the deficiencies of our system. Labour law? I had no idea what to write in that box. If you see the table, I filled the box with “same as provisions applying to adults”, when the other countries had already incorporated provisions that we eventually passed in 2006, as part of the law on domestic violence.

What had changed in your absence, between your departure in 1990 and the beginning of your second tenure in 1995. When you left in 1990 the foundations had been laid, something was beginning to materialise.

When I left there was juvenile police, a public prosecution with its own offices, the social case files I mentioned ready to be computerised, we were the first service to be computerised. All of that was working, those that came after me moved things forward. We held hearings for minors every day. Currently, that is not the case. Now they have diminished; the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors has declined. It has suffered a decline.

I will tell you what changed then, what we did during my second tenure. Actually, let me go back to 1990 because it illustrates a point. In 1990, I left the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors because I was promoted to Public Prosecutor of the Court of First Instance and posted to Chalkida. At the time, Chalkida was an industrial zone, full of factories, poultry plants, and so on, cement plants, shipyards, anything you can imagine. It was a difficult post and I would also be the Supervisor as I was the Public Prosecutor at the Court of First Instance. At the time, the Office there had a Public Prosecutor at the Court of First Instance, and the rest were Deputy Prosecutors and an Associate Judge. It was a large service that dealt with two felonies a week, usually sent by Athens. The trials had to be attended by the Public Prosecutor of the Court of First Instance, no one else can attend these trials. The same applies today.  So, the post was very demanding.

As a result, I dreaded it a little. I wondered how I would cope. Well, let me tell you that compared to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors, my work in Chalkida felt so light. For the first time, I realised the pressure I had been under at my previous post, the psychological damage I had suffered. I did not feel it while I was there, I was unaware of it, but once I left, I understood what the Germans had told us, that professionals in this field, dealing with these matters, can end up being burned out.

Remaining a good professional and mentally healthy in this field to avoid burnout is a delicate balancing act. I was supervising the whole of Euboea, dealing with two serious felonies a week, I often slept on a couch at the office rather than return to Athens, I was commuting, arriving at the crack of dawn and being the last to leave, literally locking up the Chalkida Public Prosecutor’s office and still, it all felt easier than my time at the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors.

The incidents I had been seeing there, especially the sexual abuse cases which I had opted to deal with on my own. The Germans had warned us, “You need to look after yourselves. In this field, it is essential to have outlets, to do things for yourself, to have a hobby, a sport, something that takes you outside the job, that clears your head.”

They had taken us to a room where Public Prosecutors for Minors, Supervisors of Minors, Juvenile Judges had group therapy every month. I remember they all sat in a circle, and everyone aired their grievances about the other: In such and such case I told you to do this, but instead, you did what you wanted to do or in this or that instance you were wrong. Everyone aired everything they had bottled up inside.  We had also joined the circle, all five of us and our interpreter, and watched the session. At the end of the group therapy session, they picked up pillows and flung them at each other. They had a pillow fight to vent their anger and be more effective afterwards.

What did you do after you saw these examples?

When I returned from Germany, I did the following. I made a deal with the Institute of Child Health, which was headed by Eleni Agathonos at the time and is now headed by Giorgos Nikolaidis. I made a deal, like a memorandum of cooperation.  I told them, “Whenever I get a sexual abuse case, one of you, a social worker or a psychologist or a psychiatrist, whoever is available at the time, will come to my office before I initiate proceedings and talk with the child. That way, I will learn something, and the procedure will be easier for the child.”

So I used to notify the Institute, because I had child abuse cases, involving victims of both sexes. I would notify the Institute and keep the child there, give it a glass of juice, sit it down to draw or do something suited to their age. Also, if the child was accompanied by the mother, I would allow them to sit together in my office. In other words, I would give children time to become familiar with the environment they found themselves in. These were approaches used by the Americans and the Germans, which I was trying to implement on my own in Greece.

But we know that Greece is not just Athens – that’s what used to bother me the most. If something is not institutionally enshrined, it is pointless. People come and go; you can’t rely on individual actions. Of course, things depend on people too, but that is not the point. There have to be laws and institutions that both oblige you and train you how to act.

So, the people from the Institute would come and talk with the child and so on, and this way I would get a first impression. Then, my examination would follow. I always used the same secretary, who was very aware and very intelligent. She now works in Piraeus. We used to carry out the examinations together, in the presence of the people from the Institute. By then, I would have a rough idea of whether what was said was true or not. Usually, children do not lie, but there is a small percentage that might. I have had instances of Munchausen syndrome, of lying, but there was an explanation for the lying too. You need to find that reason; you must identify that, too.

We have heard professionals speak of “service chauvinism”, i.e. that the services are so confident that what they are doing is right that they are incapable of listening to criticism. Systemic abuse, however, is occurring to this day.

That is the case, unfortunately. It still occurs because we have not decided who does what, we have not acknowledged that some professionals think we are better than others. Even public prosecutors have an attitude that they are superior to the child psychiatrist, superior to the social worker. We are overweening, Judges too.

The other reason is that we have not learned to cooperate from a young age. We are not taught how to cooperate in school. Everyone gets tested individually, does homework on their own, reads out their assignment, does this and that on their own. They have not been taught to cooperate the way it is done abroad.  I experience Germany through my grandchildren, who are in German schools, and I see what they are taught once they are enrolled in the schooling system. The first thing they learn is how to cooperate. Group projects, group activities. One person looks this up, another person looks up something else, they pool their work and present it together as a team.

We are not even aware of the concept of inclusivity. As we speak, inclusivity is possibly the uppermost concept in child protection, the uppermost concept in child-friendly justice. In other words, the child must participate, even in the Juvenile court’s sentencing of the juvenile offender. You must include the minor; the minor should make that decision with you. You can guide them in deciding what the right thing is, but first, you must persuade them or choose the measure that would suit the offender best. You don’t get to decide just because you are the judge, just because you say so, that the sentence should be conciliation or compensation or something else. You will pass the sentence that you will jointly reach with the juvenile offender. The same applies to victims and everything else.

So that is the one thing we lack as professionals, we are incapable of sitting around the same table, or we think we are superior to the doctor or the medical examiner or the police officer. It will not happen unless we understand that interdisciplinarity is essential in caring for minors at any level, both for victims and offenders. You cannot stay holed up in your own bastion….

The Public Prosecutor cannot replace the psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist cannot replace the social worker.

And yet we make that mistake. I see well-intentioned colleagues of mine who appear to be sensitised to issues affecting minors, but they meddle in what should be the work of others. And that is a mistake. I cannot draw a conclusion; the child psychiatrist will do that. I should stay within my area of expertise; stick to the area I know. I will not intrude in another’s field; I will respect them.

Let us broach the subject of the legal duties of other professionals. Shouldn’t the state encourage professionals whose work brings them into contact with children to report their suspicions?

When I was Deputy Prosecutor of the Supreme Court responsible for Minors, we held a meeting at the Department of Child Psychiatry of the “Agia Sofia” Children’s Hospital. It was attended by child psychiatrists, social workers etc. from other hospitals that have children’s units, such as the Tzaneio Prefecture General Hospital of Piraeus, The Panagiotis & Aglaia Kyriakou Children’s Hospital and the General Hospital of Attiki “Seismanoglio”.

These people stayed for a whole morning, and we spoke about many things. About how they, the psychologists, the psychiatrists and the social workers, could be protected. In many instances, they are dragged through the courts, sued for libel, for false accusations etc. because they were obliged to submit a report stating which parent is to blame or if both parents are to blame. They face years of litigation, legal fees, it is terrible.

Following that meeting, I went to the Ministry and asked it to legislate a provision that would grant them immunity. The law was passed, but it only applied to social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and child psychiatrists working in public hospitals, child protection institutions etc.

However, other professionals are involved in this field too.  For example, municipal social workers who carry out investigations following a public prosecutor’s order. Medical-educational centres also carry out investigations and submit reports to the public prosecutor. Then, there are the professionals who carry out psychiatric evaluations. The teachers also came to see us. Then, the Hellenic Association of Social Workers (SKLE) too, came to see us. I was Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court at that time. The social workers visited my office, the Children’s Ombudswoman Mrs Koufonikolaou attended too. We agreed that as we were considering expanding the provision to include teachers, then it might as well be expanded to provide immunity for professionals working for municipalities and social workers etc. working at medical-educational centres. This would mean that no one could bring a lawsuit against them unless they could establish wilful misconduct. If I am acting deceitfully or with malice and it is proven, for example, that I was related with the person initially filing the report or I was the school principal, but I also had something to gain from filing a report, then we have wilful misconduct.

We submitted it to the Ministry, but it has not been passed yet. The government changed too, and at present, the expanded provision has not yet been passed into law.

Mrs Koufonikolaou told us that the Minister, Mr Kalogerou, had made a commitment back then.

Yes, he was on board but did not have enough time. The previous government had also been on board for the initial provision; it got passed into law by Mr Athanasiou, so then it just needed to be extended. Mr Kalogerou did not have enough time to address the matter, so it is now pending. It would act as a safeguard for teachers, a guarantee of legal protection that would make them more open to coming forth. At the moment they are reticent.

They should also receive training.

On Saturday, we held a Conference in Aigio. The conversation that followed went on until two, three am. They could not get enough of the conversation, they had questions, they wanted answers. They want us to return and continue the conversation. It is natural that they have queries. These are things they are hearing for the first time. They had not even heard of the Convention on the Rights of the Child before. Can you imagine that? Aigio is not an isolated spot in the mountains. So imagine what the situation must be like in more distant places… in Orestiada, in the islands.

In 2014, I asked the National School of the Judiciary to introduce a course on the powers and responsibilities of the Public Prosecutor for Minors. That way, upon graduating the School, everyone would have some knowledge on these matters. I taught that course until this July, without remuneration, of course. I refuse to accept payment for anything that I willingly offer our country and our community. I consider it part and parcel of what I do, so although teachers at the school are remunerated and have their travel and accommodation expenses covered and get compensated for teaching, I decline all of that. Moreover, during my final three years there, I taught by inviting other experts in the field as speakers, so that the students could become familiar with other sectors.

This year I invited Mr Nikolaidis, I invited Ms Olga Themeli, I invited Ms Artinopoulou, Mrs Mpeka, the child psychiatrist, from Thessaloniki, Mr Anagnostopoulos from the Department of Child Psychiatry of the “Agia Sofia” Children’s Hospital… Over the years, I invited many others, such as Ms Paris Zagoura, to speak.  At least three guest speakers joined me every year to teach the students, to allow them to hear other professionals and to role-play. Seeing how well the information you are trying to impart gets assimilated during role-play is quite something.

So public prosecutors need training, but I had also asked for the same to apply to Judges. When the Judge tries a minor or tries the adult who has abused a minor, he needs to have a broader awareness, otherwise, how can he do it? Should not there be an equivalent course for Judges? Family Law is not enough.

Isn’t there?

No, it is pure, dry Family Law. It is not an education in abuse and delinquency. The Judge needs a different kind of training. If we were to introduce such a course, we would get a different kind of judge, someone who would then pursue some kind of continuing education to enrich their knowledge.

We held so many Conferences across Greece during my three-year tenure as Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court. I visited all our Public Prosecutor’s Offices, both at the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal, covering my own expenses, that goes without saying.

So, I visited them all over Greece. We held training workshops where we did not just invite my people. I invited police officers, port authority officers where available, judges. I trained nearly all the military judges, they were invited to the training, as were judges and public prosecutors of the Court of Appeal and the Court of First instance, everyone I could reach in each location I visited. The aim was to allow them to at least reflect on certain matters; it was not comprehensive training, but you still came away with something. At least you became aware of everything you did not know. You might not have learned a lot, but at least you came to the realisation that you should thoroughly think before you act, that you do not know everything.

Have such initiatives been continued by other prosecutors?

Yes. It touches me when I say it because they are my children, I see them as my children, and I think they see it that way too. They have dedicated books to me, they refer to themselves as my children, all these students of mine who went on to become Deputy Public Prosecutors and Public Prosecutors. Most of my children, whatever post they now find themselves in, can recognise abuse, know how to take steps, find out more, they call me to this day and  ask, “I have this case, this incident, what should I do, how should I proceed?”

I am genuinely moved when I see my children everywhere, in Kavala, Thessaloniki, Heraklion in Crete, Veria, Alexandroupoli, Edessa, Florina, Ioannina, Patras, Piraeus, Kos, Zakynthos, handle juvenile cases which they could not have handled back in my day. Thessaloniki has an incredible Public Prosecutor, Mrs Dimitra Tsiardakli, who is a mother of four herself, so she is not someone who has no other obligations, and still, she made a difference. What did Dimitra do? She gathered all the relevant bodies and services and created a Network. We will now showcase this network abroad too, with Mr Nikolaidis, in a programme Mr Nikolaidis is currently running, about how services can work in tandem across the whole of the EU.

So, we have this Network created by Mrs Tsiardakli, which I brought to Giorgos Nikolaidis’ attention, he had not been aware of it. But I have been following Tsiardakli’s work. In fact, she recently managed to obtain a decision by the Central Union of Municipalities of Greece (KEDE) that Municipal Social Services will assist the removal of children into care on a twenty-four-hour basis. Before, they used to tell us, “It’s three am, I am not going to go take the child into care right now, I won’t do this or that.” KEDE issued a decision following Mrs Tsiardakli’s initiative. The hospitals too. No child stays at a hospital for more than twenty-four hours. They are immediately given to families, there is a list of available foster parents.

So it’s not that difficult.

Nothing is difficult.

  1. The so-called “Paraskevopoulos law” is Law 4322 of 2015, introduced by the Ministry of Justice, under Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos. The law provided for, among other things, changes in the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure regarding minors (Article 7). It was also controversial, because of Article 12, which provided for the “decongestion of detention facilities” through the release of prisoners who had served portions of their sentences. The latter provision was a major point of contention between the SYRIZA-led government and the major opposition at the time, New Democracy, as well as their respective friendly media. Conflict over the provision persisted until the July 2019 national elections, which were won by New Democracy.[]