For many decades, children in need were seen by Greek authorities mainly as props in the political game, and regarded by the law chiefly as delinquents — actual or potential. Many lingering shortcomings of the child protection system are direct descendants of these traditions.
Modern Greek history has seen its fair share of brutalities, but few among them have been as little discussed as the ways in which children have been mistreated, abused, neglected and institutionalised by the State. From the late 19th century, when a prototype welfare system was first put in place under the Greek Royal Family, all the way to the nationalisation of welfare from the 1970s onwards, one constant has been that children have concerned the State as props in the political game or as potential perpetrators of crime — usually both. This chronic undermining of children’s rights affected most aspects of the public sector; and its traces are still visible today.
A recent video of a policeman beating up an eleven-year-old child in the outskirts of Athens, that surfaced on social media, raised the question of what ideas police and other authorities continue to have regarding the treatment of minors — whether suspected offenders or not. 1 The Minister of Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrysochoidis, took to Twitter to condemn the incident, stating that “whoever hits minors does not have a place anywhere”. 2 The speed of the Minister’s reflexes can perhaps be explained by the fact that the memory of the 2008 murder of fifteen-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos, shot by a police officer in downtown Athens, is still fresh.
The consequences of Grigoropoulos’s murder were staggering: Athens, and other Greek cities, burned during spontaneous riots that lasted for weeks. But the mistreatment of children by officials has also been documented in many other, less explosive, instances: some research has shown that children victims of abuse have been made to recount their ordeal to authorities up to fourteen times, in what cleary amounts to secondary abuse in the hands of the State; children who have been removed from their families are kept in hospitals, despite not being in need of hospitalisation, sometimes for years; and at least one institution has been strapping disabled children to their beds and locking them in cages. 3 Authorities have described such practices as unavoidable, necessary, or “for the good of the children”.
It is impossible to explain the persistence of such practices, at least in part, without considering the way that historical events have shaped Greek authorities’ attitudes toward minors.
In the Hands of the Lord
Institutionalisation of children had been introduced very soon after the foundation of the Greek State, with the City of Athens already operating an Orphanage for Abandoned Infants in 1838. However, a quasi-system of fostering also existed, with foster families often paid a meagre fee to host abandoned children, and institutionalisation was in part seen as a solution to abuse and neglect within this unregulated framework.
The Athens Municipal Nursery was founded by the city’s Mayor in 1859, and brought under the auspices of the Royal Family in the 1870s. According to its own data, between its foundation and the mid 1960s, it hosted over 50.000 children. During its peak, it hosted about 600 at one time. As Maria Athanassopoulou and Marianna Drakopoulou write in their Historical Account of Abandoned Infants in Greece, it was within the Municipal Nursery that the first attempts were made to systematically document child ailments and statistically study infant mortality. 4
As was common in many countries — and remains today — the Municipal Nursery also introduced a vrefodohos, or baby hatch, where mothers could abandon their babies anonymously. On the outside, there was an inscription from Psalm 27: “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me up.”
Also on the initiative of the Royal family, the Patriotic Foundation for Social Welfare and Perception, or PIKPA, was founded in 1914, initially as the “Patriotic Association of Greek Women”. Although its initial mandate was to cater for the families of soldiers fighting in the war, after the 1920s it gradually shifted to the sheltering of orphaned and displaced children.
By the end of the 1930s, even the few progressive ideas about government and lawmaking that had emerged in Greece during the interwar period had been snuffed out — first by dictatorship, then by war and occupation. Civil war followed, then two decades of “feeble democracy” and a military junta, until a tumultuous return to democratic politics finally led to stability and the relative strengthening of public institutions. Only then, near the end of a seventy year period, did a political consensus appear that the State should provide a safety net for children, who had either broken the law or been neglected or abused.
The Youth Problem
Dictator Ioannis Metaxas ruled Greece from 1936 to 1941, a period known as the 4th of August Regime. Although his legacy of oppression has been somewhat tempered by the fact that he denied fascist Italy’s demand to allow Italian troops to occupy Greek territory, his regime was totalitarian and he was an admirer of fascism. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had reciprocated Metaxas’s admiration in his official visit to Greece in 1936. Although the 4th of August Regime was not in the strictest sense fascist, and Metaxas personally was more influenced by Portugese dictator António Salazar, it did have common traits with fascism and nazism, including the targeting of youth for indoctrination. In 1936, Metaxas created the National Union of Youth, or EON, the Greek version of the Gioventù Italiana del Littorio and the Hitlerjugend, which sought to shape minors into future supporters — if not functionaries — of the regime.
As was the case with every other fascist government in Europe, Metaxas’s policy choices often attempted to counter the voices pushing for progressive reforms, inspired by European Social Democracy that had bloomed in the beginning of the century. In her 2013 book “Youth in Peril: Supervision, Reformation and Justice for Minors after the War” 5, Efi Avdela, a Professor of Modern History in the University of Crete, has written about a number of progressive sociologists, legal theorists, feminists and socialists in the interwar era, who advocated among other things in favour of introducing welfare instead of penalisation for minors. According to Avdela’s account, the “criminalisation vs. welfare” debate would go on for decades after the war, although the scales would always tip heavily towards the former.
Two laws by the Metaxas government would cement the idea that children in peril should be treated as criminals (with all the implications that this word entailed at the time) to be reformed, instead of more progressive approaches to welfare. In December 1939, a law introduced Judges and Prosecutors for Minors. A year later, after Greece had entered the war against the Axis, a concise plan on operating reforming institutions was made into law, introducing two new entities subject to the State Prosecutor: the State Prefect for Minors and the Societies for the Protection of Minors. They were both mainly tasked with guiding minors through the justice system, whether that meant carrying out social research on a minor’s background, or providing support for the minor that went through the system. They were mostly staffed by volunteers.
A month after passing the 1940 law, with Greece on the brink of Axis occupation, Metaxas died. But conservative conceptions of juvenile delinquency were crystallised in his laws, and the newly founded entities began working on minors, although their practices were modified to also address the humanitarian crisis caused by the occupation. According to Avdela’s findings, 4.600 minors went through the justice system in 1941 alone, but most of the volunteers’ work was focused on gathering and distributing food and clothing.
From 1947 onwards, some Societies for the Protection of Minors began operating their own institutions, which provided an interim shelter for rehabilitation between the time a minor was released from a reformation centre and the time they went free back to society. Until the fall of the Military Junta, in 1974, when Greek state institutions would gradually become more “liberalised”, the Prefects for Minors and the Societies for the Protection of Minors would deal with all sorts of “moral panics” that focused on youth cultures: “teddy-boyism”, rock ‘n’ roll, sexual liberation and leftism — all filed under “anti-social behaviour”.
During the Greek Civil War, the issue of child protection took a darker turn for both competing sides, and the particulars of what actually happened are subject to debate until today. In 1947, the United States of America began providing military, technical and financial assistance to the Greek government and its National Army against the Democratic Army of Greece, formed by the Greek Communist Party and former resistance guerrillas. The scale of U.S. military assistance meant that the government could now launch air attacks against guerrilla strongholds, which included the first documented use of napalm bombs.
From 1948, when the war scales started tipping in favour of the government, the guerillas began transferring children away from the conflict zones of northern Greece that were being bombed, to countries of the Eastern Bloc. Pro-government voices named this paidomazoma (literally, “child-gathering”), after the much older practice of Devshirme, or “child levy”, in which Ottoman authorities abducted children from among their Balkan Christian subjects, converted them to Islam and trained them for military or civil service. Pro-Democratic Army voices, in turn, countered by calling the practice paidososimo (“child-saving”) or sotiria (“salvation”). Up to this day, left-wing and progressive historians have been debating with conservatives, as well as the far-right, on whether this was a humanitarian operation or recruitment.
A year earlier, Paul I had ascended the throne of the Kingdom of Greece and his wife, Frederica of Hanover, had become Queen. More than any of her predecessors or successors, Frederica was actively involved in politics and was often in the public spotlight.
Τhe Royal Family of Greece had patronised all sorts of high-society philanthropic societies since the 19th century, among which several devoted to children, with a special focus on juvenile delinquency. Frederica combined the Royal Family’s tradition of philanthropy with her own penchant for politics, and began an operation parallel to the guerrillas’ paidomazoma, thereby removing children from conflict zones and placing them in special institutions that she founded, called Paidopoleis (“Child cities”).
This operation, introduced by Royal Decree in 1947, was named the “Charity Drive ‘Welfare for the Northern Provinces of Greece’ Under the High Authority of Her Majesty, the Queen”, although everyone would refer to it simply as Charity Drive (Eranos in Greek), or after 1955 as Royal Welfare. It was carried out by the National Army. Fifty-two such Paidopoleis were opened all over Greece, all working under a similar model: a strict upbringing, and a daily military-style regimen that would inscribe “proper values” to children.
During her youth in Hanover, Frederica had been a member of the Hitler Youth, and in Greece she was considered sympathetic towards the Nazi regime (as well as the United States). In his book on the children of the civil war 6, historian Loukianos Hasiotis claims that the Charity Drive was at least partially modelled after the Franco regime’s Auxilio Social, which employed similar messages.
Since the Greek Civil War is now widely accepted as the first episode of the Cold War, it should come as no surprise that the conflict over children was also played out on an international level. The Greek government branded the removal of children from conflict zones by the guerrillas as a “genocide”, a position accepted by the United Nations Special Committee on the Balkans (UNSCOB) in its 1948 report. The idea was also promoted by officials with prominent positions on the international stage, like the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul. The United Nations Committee was tasked with investigating what the guerrillas were doing — but, naturally, not what was happening in the Paidopoleis.
Thus, until historical research caught up, what is known about the Paidopoleis of the era mostly came from oral narratives of the children that grew up in them. In 2007, when a popular historical programme on Greek television, The Time Machine, aired two episodes about the children of the Civil War, the testimonies of people that had lived in the Paidopoleis during their childhood were divergent even within the same episode. This disagreement in testimonies of the children, now in their old age, persists in the popular press to this day.7 Some reminisce about their time in the Pedopoleis with nostalgia and others with a more critical view, even sparking literary debates: in his 2009 book, The Blurry Deep 8, author Yiannis Atzakas recalls his time in a Paidopoli as trauma haunting him well into his middle age, while Antonis Venetis, in his 2014 book Letters 9 considers Frederica’s Drive beneficial to children and states his belief that “the ‘blurry deep’ can only be found in fixations, prejudices and obsessions”.
Under Frederica, the PIKPA became the second pillar of childcare, a sort of supplement to the Paidopoleis, housing children that had been orphaned in the war. PIKPA structures followed a similar regiment of strict, military-style upbringing and carried out adoptions, as well as absorbed some of the prominent figures of Frederica’s Charity Drive. Lina Tsaldari, the widow of former Prime Minister Panagis Tsaldaris, was one of the aristocratic “Appointed Ladies” who actively participated in the Charity Drive. Ιn 1950 she became the President of PIKPA.
The third pillar of Frederica’s childcare initiatives was the “Houses of the Child”. These were small daycare centers in the villages of rural Greece (mainly in the north) that after 1950 started taking in children while their parents were working. Without a public education system in place, especially in these remote areas, the Houses of the Child, 140 in total, acted as a nursery or elementary school — with a twist. In them, children would be taught farming and technical skills, while also being indoctrinated with “religious and patriotic values”.
The Eranos might have been Frederica’s personal project, but its funding was very much public. Royal Welfare was funded by special import taxes, tariffs on cigarettes (two cigarettes in every pack), percentages of cinema tickets, a part of workers’ wages, and other measures. Researchers have calculated that between 1949 and 1956, the Royal Welfare Foundation took in more than 186 million drachmas — and a lot more after that.10
For the majority of children that were taken to Eastern Bloc countries, it wasn’t until the 1980s and the campaign of the centre-left PASOK government for the right-of-return of political refugees that they would see Greece again.
Leftists and progressives have been claiming for decades that the Charity Drive was the real paidomazoma. In any case, after the Democratic Army’s defeat and the end of the Civil War, only 14 of the paidopoleis continued to operate. Nowadays, four of them are still working as institutions for children without families.
Searching for Roots
Mary Theodoropoulou runs “Roots”, an NGO, from a small apartment in Kesariani. Historically known as the place where in 1944 the Nazis executed 200 communist political prisoners that had like many others been handed over to them by the collaborationist authorities, Kaisariani is a working class neighborhood in Athens, where the Communist Party still gets one of its highest percentages.
Abandoned as a newborn in the Athens Municipal Nursery baby hatch, Theodoropoulou has often appeared in the media talking about her quest to find her biological parents, after she discovered in her twenties that she had been adopted. Her efforts to date have not been successful. She and seven others, all of whom had also stayed at the Municipal Nursery as children, founded the NGO in the late 1990s, to help people search for their biological parents.
Theodoropoulou has done extensive work on institutions. Not only did Rizes produce the only comprehensive study that looked into the state of Greek institutions for children in 2015, but her work on tracing the roots of adopted children means she has heard a massive amount of personal stories about what has been happening inside these institutions.
After World War II, according to Theodoropoulou, there was a further, major shift towards institutionalisation. “The practice of trofoi, foster mothers that were paid to breast-feed and take care of babies, had been in place since the late nineteenth century,” she said. “A shortage of milk and absolute poverty meant that babies would die otherwise”. State institutions mostly acted as halfway houses that would assign a newborn to a trofos after a short stay. Later, after the War, the trofoi acted as a means to relieve the institutions from the strain caused by the huge numbers of children.
Theodoropoulou told us how, after the war was over, the trofoi framework was expanded. PIKPA, which took care of many of the orphaned or abandoned children, would now hand them over to families, some of whom took in numerous children. “But there was no framework,” she said. “There were no rules on hygiene, no supervision and the remuneration of foster parents was low and infrequent. A trofos would bring back the body of a baby she had taken in and say to the Nursery staff that ‘this is frozen’ — meaning dead. In other cases, foster families abandoned children all over again. There were also cases of abuse, even rape. All these things undermined foster care and institutions gained ground.”
The suffering of children that went through the foster care system unsupervised could be prolonged even after they were out of it. Theodoropoulou told us the story of a boy who tried to report that his foster parents had sexually abused him. He was deemed mentally ill and forcibly committed to a psychiatric institution. In other cases, disabled children, and children with mental illness or developmental problems, would end up in the PIKPA of Leros, founded in 1963 to take in children from the Public Pediatric Neuropsychiatric Hospital “Daou Pentelis”, as part of the overall project of transferring — and isolating — the mentally ill from all over the country to Leros. The PIKPA of Leros formed part of the so-called “Psychopath Colony”, established on the island in 1957, and now known as the infamous kolastirio (“hellhole”). Many of those committed to the kolastirio would not leave until an international deinstitutionalisation initiative in the 1990s, funded by the EU, after a series of stories in the international press and a documentary had revealed the horrible conditions to which patients had been subjected. 11
Since 1939, when it came under the authority of the Ministry of Health, PIKPA has gone through a great number of changes in administrative structure and oversight, but by the 1950s and 1960s, it expanded almost to the size of a full healthcare and welfare system for minors. At its peak, its services included everything from schools for medical personnel and mobile medical units to clinics, hospitals and nursery schools. Since 1925, it had also been operating summer camps from June to the end of September for quality time and healing for children suffering from tuberculosis. The “exoches”, as they were called, stopped during the war, but began operating again after 1945. In 1948, their mandate was expanded to accept impoverished children with problems in development, or any chronic disease, and in 1951 to include working children, and all children monitored by doctors. In 1956, PIKPA put together its first structure for disabled children in Voula. Gradually, it would end up running most of the institutions for disabled children in Greece.
Institutionalisation in the Paidopoleis, the orphanages and the nurseries gave rise to a different problem that haunts families until today: illegal adoptions. In her memoirs, Frederica had claimed that communist women had been abandoning their children and even that she witnessed a woman literally throwing her baby away, which was supposedly picked up by an army officer and handed over to her. After the military junta of 1967-1974 fell, communist guerrillas that had been exiled in camps in the islands reported that their children were abducted from there. In fact, the children were taken to the Paidopoleis or the PIKPA, and were then sold to foster parents in the United States, often assisted by officials in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, as well as Greek-American Organisations 12. Although the Greek press had published stories on the issue since the 1960s, it wasn’t until 1996 when U.S. media would start digging into the story and get to the bottom of it, that the full extent of what had happened would be revealed.
Discovering the Victim
After King Constantine’s failed counter-coup attempt against the Military Junta, in December 1967, the Royal Family was forced to flee the country. So, in a strange twist of fate, it was the dictators who brought welfare, including child protection, under the purview of the State. With a Law Decree, in 1970, all the Royal Foundations and Charities — along with their funding provisions — were absorbed into the National Welfare Organisation. Their role did not change significantly for the next decade, although Greece’s evolution into a more advanced economy, after the long and tumultuous process of post-war reconstruction, meant that the numbers of children in peril would gradually start to decrease.
It wasn’t until 1981, when centre-left PASOK came to power, that the welfare system would advance into the next phase. One of PASOK’s most important and enduring achievements was the creation of the National Healthcare System, or ESY, in 1983, which put in place a concise framework for healthcare that also included aspects of welfare. The Ministry overseeing it was now renamed the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The first eight years of PASOK in power, from 1981 to 1989, included many decisive progressive reforms in worker’s rights, civil rights and education, but welfare was still mostly understood as benefits, and were lagging behind the drastic changes overtaking Greek society. Not only did the National Welfare Organisation go through no significant change in the 1970s and 1980s, but especially with regard to child protection, the idea of preventing victimisation and abuse, although gaining traction in Europe, was not present in any sector of the Greek state.
Xeni Dimitriou, the former Chief Prosecutor of the Greek Supreme Court, has served three tenures as a State Prosecutor for Minors over three different decades. She has gone through thousands of pages of legal theory on children, attended hundreds of conferences and exchanged opinions with dozens of other prosecutors all over the world. When we met her, shortly after her recent retirement, she spoke to us about her firsthand experience of what Greece’s long refusal to acknowledge the victimisation of children had led to. In her early days as Prosecutor for Minors in the 1980s — ”an unprivileged position, almost a punishment back then” — she witnessed time and again policemen marching into her office with arrested children that had been severely beaten. One boy came in with massively swollen ears. He told her that they had put clothespins in his ears to interrogate him and had hanged him upside down from the precinct’s balcony to scare him into confessing. In other cases, following the letter of the law, she was forced to put six and seven-year-old kids on trial, or send underage lawbreakers away in institutions that were practically prisons.
Dimitriou referred to Kalliopi Spinelli, a well-known criminologist as her “teacher, the teacher of all of us”. Spinelli is credited, among many things, with proposing the replacement of the term “juvenile criminals” with “juvenile offenders”, and with advocating for a pedagogical instead of a penal approach to justice for the underage. A few other prominent legal theorists and professionals gradually began to advocate for a different relation between the children and the State.
Modern international ideas on children’s rights speak only of “victims,” Dimitriou insisted. “We were not aware of it in Greece, but the protection of victims was not a new topic internationally speaking,” she said. “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 took 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 aspect. Subsequently, we asked that the police follow suit and they did. Everything coming through the judiciary and police services should have a twofold aspect. 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.”
In a conference speech Dimitriou gave in 1991, in-between her tenures as Prosecutor for Minors, she said that a bill for “Units of Care for Minors” had been drafted since 1984. The purpose of the plan was to set up a structure so that “juvenile offenders until 12 years of age would not be involved in any way with suppression mechanisms such as the police, the Prosecutor and the Court for Minors, but would be taken care by welfare services instead”. She then went on to describe best practices found in existing institutions — stopping at one point to wonder whether “it’s time to legislate that juvenile delinquents could be placed into foster families. The society responds positively. Why delay any more?”
Dimitriou’s 1991 speech echoed the ideas that would start to shape new concepts of child welfare. In 1985 and 1990, the UN had published guidelines on handing justice to juvenile delinquents and the prevention of delinquency in minors respectively. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was also signed at the time.
Things were changing, but in the case of Greece, the pace was and remains slow. The Greek governments of the 1990s made a few attempts to modernise the welfare system, or rather to establish one, since throughout their evolution the various services had operated independently. In 1992, a law practically dissolved the National Welfare Organisation and the PIKPA, in an attempt to create a unified system that was placed under the authority of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Another law, in the same year, introduced legal procedures for foster care and was amended in 1996, by adding a stricter framework for the role of social investigations in adoption and foster parenting procedures. That law also took an important step by changing Metaxas’s laws to introduce social services in the courts and the State Prosecutor offices, although their mandate remained to handle the delinquency of minors.
Probably the most important step at the time was taken in 1998 by another PASOK government, this time under Prime Minister Kostas Simitis, when the creation of a National System of Social Care was attempted. In the following years, the former PIKPA units were successively centralised, then decentralised again. Generally under the oversight of regional administration, these units followed divergent courses. One post-PIKPA incarnation, the Lechaina unit for disabled children, achieved world-wide notoriety for its horrific conditions.
The new system gave explicit roles to regional governments, but also cleared up the terms under which private NGO’s could carry out welfare programmes. Thus, the 1990s was also the decade when NGOs would increasingly start to step in and cover for the shortcomings in child protection. The Greek branch of SOS Children’s Villages had been active since 1975, but now non-government care for children would diversify. The Smile of the Child was created in 1995 and The Ark of the World would follow in 1998. All three of these organisations would grow in the years that followed and actively supplement state welfare.
The decade ended with a presidential decree in 1999 that attempted to contain illegal adoptions by also giving all oversight responsibilities to regional welfare services — Regional institutions and Directorates of Social Care. With an amendment in 2003, even more welfare responsibilities would be directed to the Regional Health Services that had been created a year earlier. According to the explanatory report that came with the draft of the bill, this would allow for “better coordination, monitoring and evaluation” of social welfare services. The UN Committee overseeing the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child noted this attempt, but still found it fell short of a coherent Child Protection System. Some of the problems highlighted by the Committee included the lack of a clear mandate between authorities and a central body that would coordinate all services, problems that are still partially present to this day.
Xeni Dimitriou’s 1991 speech ended by saying that “maybe it is time for juvenile law to grow up”. It marked the beginning of a period of intense pressure by child protection professionals for a proper children’s welfare system to be designed and implemented. But in the 1990s, a welfare system that would address problems that could not be solved with benefits was still a challenge. Also, the word deinstitutionalization had just been popularised for the first time after the attempts to change conditions in Leros, but that programme, which continued for the best part of the decade, would suffer setbacks. Voices of experts speaking about the need to address different vulnerabilities or how institutionalised child welfare could actually be harmful, were only just beginning to be heard.
As it happens, the regressive character of children’s welfare was officially, albeit mostly symbolically, challenged in 2010, by an amendment to a law of the Metaxas regime, mandating the Societies for the Protection of Minors to not only deal with “delinquency”, but also the “victimisation” of minors.
However, just as the need to shift the focus of the child protection system was becoming obvious to policy-makers, Greece found itself in the throes of a terrible financial crisis. Successive governments have since then introduced a variety of “plans” for children’s welfare, which have one thing in common: almost none of their provisions have been implemented.