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Interview

“Sexual abuse cases are on the rise”

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Ms Kolovou is a social worker and coordinator of House of Arsis, a Thessaloniki shelter for mistreated or neglected children and teenagers, as well as children victims of trafficking and exploitation. The shelter accommodates boys and girls aged 5 to 18 years old, on a short-term basis. It is run by NGO Arsis, which specializes in the social support of youth that are in difficulty or danger, and in the advocacy of their rights.

Thessaloniki

Courtesy M. Kolovou

What do we mean when we say that a child is abused?

Abuse can take many forms. When I first came to the shelter, in 2011, we saw many children from dysfunctional families, many off the street, and many children street beggars. We had many physically abused children, beaten up. All sorts of beatings, belts, iron bars, some with scars beyond belief. 

We also had many neglected children. I remember one time, one of our street work teams went to the east of Thessaloniki, near Kodra former army camp, and they found three kids in some cardboard boxes. Their mother and her partner were drug users, so they left them there, hidden away, until they got back from whatever they were doing. Kodra camp is a huge area. There are some derelict buildings. They were obviously staying there, after getting kicked out of their flat. At some point, the kids ventured out and they were spotted by our team. 

We also had trafficking victims, who turned up whenever a trafficking ring was dismantled. There was one girl who was a victim in one court case, and a perpetrator in another. It turned out that she had reached out to a girlfriend through Facebook and invited her to come over, so she was both a trafficking victim herself, and accused of being responsible for getting the other girl into it.

How old were these children?

The little boy in the cardboard box was a little over two. His two sisters were six and nine. The trafficking victim was maybe fifteen when she came to us. 

She was actually prosecuted?

Yes, she was taken to Minors’ Court. Not that cases like this are frequent, this was a really difficult one. But it is clear that the inability of the different people involved to coordinate with each other further damaged the child. 

This girl was staying in an institution in her own country. It happened in one of the usual ways: she fell in love with someone, he said he would be working in Greece for the summer holiday season, she came with him, he sold her for 1000 euros. They held her on an island — I can’t give you specifics, you understand, but it was a small island. They made her prostitute herself for two and a half years. You get the picture. It is a really small place. The whole island knew.

Could one tell her age, or did she look older?

No, there was no way you could not tell she was underage. She was around thirteen when it started. And she was in a bad way, there were a lot of drugs, I mean, they gave her drugs. So, what happened was that the other girl, the one that was invited through Facebook, was having serious gynecological problems, which were getting worse, because the people that held them started giving her various drugs themselves. In the end, she got so sick, they took her to the island doctor. Thankfully, he called it in immediately. 

But, then she was first taken to a shelter for adult victims. From there, they started looking for a more suitable institution, but couldn’t find a spot. They sent her to a shelter operated by Mother Teresa missionaries. No one else would take her. They had also contacted us, but we did not have a place. Eventually, a place did open up, though, and she came to us. This was a really hard case, they had messed her up badly. She was having fits, she was cutting herself. And then the consulate of the country she had come from demanded that we return her. We wanted a social inquiry into the institution she was taken from. We put up a big fight. But they were having none of it. 

Anyway, these are extreme cases. We also had adolescents, whose families for any reason cannot handle them, teenagers who had run away from home many times. Overall, though, we used to have many physical abuse cases. Sexual abuse cases did not turn up as frequently. Now they are definitely on the rise.

So, what does House of Arsis do?

House of Arsis is a shelter for children and adolescents, run by NGO Arsis. We can host up to twenty children at a time, victims of abuse, neglect, trafficking and exploitation. We take girls up to eighteen years of age, boys up to twelve, and no children younger than five. Some of these rules are flexible, for example if we don’t want to divide siblings and if their stay is expected to be quite brief, then we might take in a child younger than five. We certainly don’t take in children older than eighteen, we try to find other solutions for cases like that. Generally, we try to adapt to conditions. 

How do these children get here?

Mostly, when a state prosecutor for minors orders their removal from their families. If their age and gender are a match, and if there is a place available, then we take them in. 

And how does a case, say, of a neglected child, get to the prosecutor? 

With a report or a complaint. Anyone can do it. It can be a teacher. A neighbour. It can be anonymous, though generally that is a bit of a problem, because it is hard to know the motive behind it, so it needs quite a lot of looking into. The complaint sometimes goes directly to the prosecutor, but even if the complaint comes to a social worker, like me for instance, or a hotline like the ones that Smile of the Child or EKKA run — whoever gets it is obliged to take it to the prosecutor. And they, in turn, have to immediately order a social worker, who is based at the municipality where the family resides, to conduct a social inquiry.  

How does that work?

The law says that in order to conduct an inquiry following a prosecutor’s order, the social worker must be accompanied by the police. Now, I don’t know what the police are doing, but usually a police precinct will just reply “we can’t”. You could go to the Minors Department at the Police Directorate, but there’s just a few people there, and they are handling all the pending investigations. I mean, every single authority is understaffed. As a result, the social worker might try to take a colleague along, or they will just go alone.  

There is no one way to do this, I mean, every case is different. If you know, for example, that a father is an alcoholic and gets aggressive, then you will probably not go to the house the first time. You will ask them to come to your office, especially if you can’t take someone else with you. And please bear in mind that we are now talking about Thessaloniki, where there are actually social workers in the municipalities. If you go further out, then maybe each municipality will have one social worker who is there for the elderly. And they will probably be local, from the same village, so now they have to go to a family and conduct an inquiry. That’s tough.

Anyway, in one way or another, they have to go. They also have to talk to the neighbours, if they manage to find them, to the school the child goes to, and compile a report on living conditions. Then, they reach a conclusion. If the conclusion is that the child has to be removed, because they are in immediate danger, then the prosecutor will just go with that.

Weren’t the state prosecutors for minors supposed to have their own team of social workers?  

Yes, there was a law that was never implemented. There is supposed to be a social service attached to the prosecutor’s office, but it never happened. So, unavoidably, the prosecutor will put a lot of weight onto what the social worker who conducted the inquiry says. 

Who actually removes the child?

The Minors Department of the police is alerted. This is in Thessaloniki. In the areas further out it will be the local precinct. Either way, it will be a social worker, along with the police.

Uniformed police?

Well, no, thankfully. But there were cases where the patrol car was waiting outside. There have even been removals straight out of schools, straight out of the classroom. Terrible things have happened. 

Where do the police take the children?

They take them to hospital, to any pediatric clinic that is on duty, and the prosecutor issues an order for a medical check-up. After that, if there is already a place available in an institution, the child will leave right away. If no place is found, sometimes we at the House of Arsis can help.

How can you help?

Most institutions have long procedures for admitting a child. They are a kind of evaluation, to see who will be the child’s primary person of reference, for example, or which group it will be placed with. These procedures are reasonable, but they can take quite some time, and there are no places for the children to stay while they go on. That is where we step in.

So, you do not have a lengthy procedure?

It depends. We are more flexible. If a child is in the street, we will just have the few tests at the hospital to make sure if the child needs anything, and we’ll take it in — as long as there is a place. For example, a prosecutor called me recently, she said, look, we have two kids, their dad kicked them out of the house, they are in the street, we have them at the hospital, can we bring them to you? I checked age, gender, places. Bring them in.

On the other hand, when we are faced with harder cases, like psychiatric issues, then we need more time. Or if we have a chronic illness, which requires management, or regular administration of medicines. It can be diabetes, it can be HIV. Then, we need to prepare our staff, see how we can manage, and who is going to do what. We also need to prepare the other children, who are already staying here, have a talk with them. In those cases, the child will stay in the hospital longer. I will go every day to visit, and prepare the child, and at the same time make preparations at the shelter.

Of course, if we don’t have a place, or another short-term shelter, then the children may end up staying in hospital for a lot longer.

What kind of support can a general hospital provide?

According to the law, minors must be under protective guard, which means there must be a police officer present. Especially if we believe there is a possibility that someone might try to remove the child. On the other hand, often there are no officers available for this, so volunteers do it. Some from NGOs, some from different associations. They come and keep the child company, and give it some support. But all this finishes around nine in the evening, because, theoretically, the child will go to sleep and the nurse will be there… 

But if someone tries to take the child away? What will the nurse do?

The child could actually just run away on its own. It has happened to me. We went to the hospital to meet a girl, and as soon as she realised what was going on, she started running. Nobody could catch her.

Practically, it is impossible to have protective guard for every child. Sometimes the hospital may not even ask for it. At other times, the prosecutor will say, sorry, we just don’t have anyone to send. Police precincts are also understaffed. 

So, the next step after the hospital is, when a place becomes available, an institution?

Yes. Of course, we have to investigate together with the child’s family, speaking with everyone in its environment, teachers, relatives, to see whether someone close to the child can take it. So it can be spared the process of going to an institution. Still, the main thing for the child is to not stay in an institution forever. Because, as good as you can make an institution, it will still — I mean, there are countless reports on this, it is not just me saying it, right? After eight years in this field, it is totally clear to me what happens to children in institutions. 

Sometimes, some children might need systematic support for many years. But, certainly, I would say, most cases of neglect are no reason to put a child in an institution. These cases can be addressed in the community. Even if, for any reason, there is a need to bring a child to an institution, this has to be for a short time, until it goes to a foster family. And then its biological family must be supported, so the child can be reunited with it.

Let’s say a child is not going to school. That’s an effect. We have to look into the cause. Why is it not going to school? Can we be sure? Because once the child is removed and taken to an institution, what it will see may be more abusive than staying with its family — provided the family is supported. A child that was neglected, but not abused in the sense of being beaten, or prostituted, a child that was, say, left on its own for very long hours, will go into an institution and likely see other children with serious difficulties. Some might have seizures, some might be self-injuring, some might be aggressive. It will be confronted with situations that there is no reason for it to face, in my opinion.

Foster care is a kind of child protection that we have seen work. Children change. They blossom. Many gaps are filled, whether emotional or cognitive. 

So, why is foster care not implemented more widely?

Look, we can connect the child with a volunteer, an approved family of volunteers, who can accompany the child on exits and recreational activities. This may gradually turn into hosting the child overnight every second weekend and, of course, they may host the child on Christmas, Easter and summer during holidays or vacation periods for some days at a time. That is something we can do relatively easily.

But when we are talking about foster care, then we need a different kind of preparation, supervision, and control. The process needs time, it needs research, and it needs people. You need to have teams set up to provide support and safety for the child. We try to work with the Prefecture, but we can’t do this alone, we don’t have the staff for it.

This interview has been edited from a conversation that took place in September 2018.