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Case Study

The Haunting of Leros

An infamous case of abused children on a remote Greek island shows just how authorities, welfare services, and local societies are failing to provide a safety net even after allegations of abuse have been made and professionals have been consulted.

Athens, Kos, Leros

© The Manifold

It was a Tuesday, in late May 2018, when Panayiotis Avrithis, a lawyer and active member of the community οn the island of Kos, had a surprise visit from a client. The elderly man, who lives in the neighbouring island of Leros, had no legal matter pending, and had not scheduled an appointment. The reason for his visit, he said, was “to say goodbye”. He did not explain further.

About a week later, Avrithis would realise what his elderly client had in mind – and so would the rest of the country. The elderly client’s son and daughter-in-law had been arrested, after confessing to a series of acts of sexual abuse against their children.

The Monster

When we visited Avrithis, who had undertaken legal representation of the victims, the case was still with the Examining Magistrate. The noontime TV shows, never eager to pass on opportunities to sensationalise, reveled in the scandal. There were headlines about a “Horror without end in Leros”, “Revelations about the Parents-Monsters”, and “Shocking Details on the Parents-Monsters of Leros”. Online news outlets were continuously updated with “new revelations”, “twists”, and opinions by just about anyone willing to comment.

Avrithis also used the word “monster” in one of his interviews. But the term wasn’t his choice. He was quoting his client, the grandfather of the abused children, who used the word referring to his son. He gave statements to “one in every twenty journalists” who called him, he told us, “whoever was the lucky one”. The phone lines of the Police, the Public Prosecutor, the City Hall, the State Infirmary, the Community Centre, were inundated with calls.

The parents have four children. The oldest, a son, had left the family home as soon as he had reached adulthood. According to statements in the case file, he had suffered frequent physical abuse. The other three still lived with their parents: a son, twenty two-years-old, who has a mild intellectual disability; a daughter, fourteen; and another son, nine. The abuse, according to the case file, had been taking place since 2015.

Both parents were convicted on multiple charges of abuse, in October 2019. The father was sentenced to 24 and the mother to 13 years in prison.

Strange Decisions

After the Leros case had become known, it emerged that about a year earlier, therefore during the time that the abuse was taking place, the girl had been admitted to the Aghia Sofia Pediatric Hospital in Athens. The hospital issued a statement, where it claimed that the girl was admitted on the grounds of a prosecutorial order for a “psychiatric evaluation”, and a report by the Social Service of the Leros State Infirmary for a “complete medical evaluation”. The medical evaluation found nothing pathological. The psychiatric evaluation, according to the hospital, found “conditions of family dysfunction, unrelated to indications of sexual abuse”. Therefore, the child was returned to its family, on the condition that she was seen by a psychologist on a regular basis, and the family was under the supervision of the Leros Social Services. The hospital statement stressed that this was done “with the agreement of the Kos Public Prosecutor”.

The statement made no mention of the fact that it was the parents who had accompanied their daughter to the hospital. Also, according to several sources, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, they had brought their youngest son along, too, who was to undergo a “preemptive examination”.

“In all cases, the Prosecutor acts in the best interests of the minors.”

The boy’s presence at the hospital was also referenced in a statement issued by The Smile of the Child, Greece’s most influential child protection NGO. The Smile of the Child acknowledged it had received allegations, in May 2017, that the children were being abused, and had immediately informed the relevant prosecutorial authorities. The NGO further acknowledged it had been alerted by a relative of the family, in July 2017, that both the girl and the boy were in Aghia Sofia, and that the girl had fled, fearing that she would be returned to her family, before she was located and returned to the hospital.

According to the sources mentioned above, whose identity we have chosen to protect, it was the boy who returned immediately to Leros with his family. The girl, contrary to the hospital statement, remained in Aghia Sofia for a period of two months,1 and was subsequently transferred to a Church-administered institution for children, in central Greece.

The rationale behind the decisions to return the boy to its family, while removing custody of the girl — which can only happen by prosecutorial order — has not been made clear. A few months later, however, in the autumn of 2017, the girl inexplicably reappeared in Leros. How she left the institution and how custody was returned to the family — which, again, can only happen by prosecutorial order — has also not been made clear.

“Returning the children to Leros proved to be a mistake,” Michalis Kollias, the Mayor of Leros, told us. “The psychologists, the doctors there who examined her should have known what is going on.”

To our question if this meant that the Public Prosecutor was responsible for the mistake, the mayor replied: “The Prosecutor is not a psychologist. They should have known at the hospital in Athens. The Prosecutor acted on the basis of the doctor’s report.”

We asked the office of the Public Prosecutor of Kos on what basis they had decided to return the children to Leros, and in particular why they had not ordered a social investigation into the family. They replied that “minors’ files are confidential,” and “in all cases, the Prosecutor acts in the best interests of the minors”.

Exam Anxiety

In December 2017, the girl began seeing a psychologist once a week at the Municipal Community Centre. This went on for several months.

“The daughter had been removed from the parents’ custody a year ago, and then was brought back to the wolf’s den… Isn’t there someone who should apologise for that?”

“I didn’t have any contact with her, apart from the brief time I saw her in the waiting room,” Vaso Evaggelou, a social worker at the Community Centre, told us when we visited the island. “I knew she was coming out of a case handled by the Public Prosecutor in Kos. Even if there was any suspicion of something going on, there was nothing that could be done. No one could approach the Public Prosecutor, since the case had already been examined, and they had decided to send the child back to Leros.”

Then, one day in May 2018, the father suddenly showed up at the Community Centre. He asked for the psychologist that his daughter had been seeing, but she was not there. He spoke to Evaggelou and told her that his daughter, who was outside, in his car, was not feeling well.

“The girl had almost fainted in the back seat,” Evaggelou told us. “I helped her stand up so that we could talk and asked her what was going on, if there was something happening at home. Exams were coming up at school and we knew she was anxious. She said nothing happened.”

Evaggelou told the parents not to put any pressure on her about school, and sent them away. The next day, however, they came back. The father said his daughter was not eating or drinking water.

“I didn’t even go to the car this time,” Evaggelou said. “He left in a hurry and they ended up in the Infirmary”.

While the girl was at the State Infirmary, the children’s aunt showed up at the Leros Police Precinct, and made a statement against the parents. Soon after, the girl went to the Police and made a statement, too.

A local journalist, Nikos Ignatidis, who followed the case closely at the time, praised a local officer, Panos Alexiou, as the one who “finally broke the case”. “He is new at the job,” Ignatidis told us, “very eager and has no strings attached to the local community.”

At the same time, Ignatidis is very critical of the Public Prosecutor. “The daughter had been removed from the parents’ custody a year ago,” he said, “and then was brought back to the wolf’s den… Isn’t there someone who should apologise for that?”

As soon as the parents had been arrested, Xeni Dimitriou, the Chief Prosecutor of the Supreme Court, who had previously served as a Prosecutor for Minors for many years, ordered the Kos Prosecutor to immediately remove the children from Leros and have them examined by a qualified child psychiatrist.

In September, the aunt filed for custody of the children, but she was unsuccessful. The children were initially moved to a hotel in Kos, and then to an NGO institution, where they live until today.

Silence

While in Leros, we attempted to collect some views about how it had been possible for everyone who had a responsibility to protect those children, including the Public Prosecutor, the Social Services, hospitals and psychiatrists in both Leros and Athens, as well as one of the country’s biggest NGOs, to have failed them for so long, despite the fact that there had been allegations, and professionals had the children already in their care.

Our attempts were met mostly with silence. A permission for an interview with the police officer who handled the initial interrogation were denied. Also, according to the headmistress of the local Middle School, the Federation of School Teachers had prohibited any discussion of the issue, especially with journalists.

During our visit, we were made aware that Popi Emmanouil, a social worker in the Leros State Infirmary, had played an important role in the case of the abused children. Emmanouil is the only member of the island’s Social Service, meaning she is the only person who can receive an order by the Public Prosecutor, conduct social research into an issue, such as alleged abuse, and file a report. She is often called upon to do the same for the neighbouring islands.

We were, however, prevented from discussing the specific case with her. The State Infirmary never replied to our repeated requests for official permission to speak with Emmanouil, and so we were able only to talk with her about the challenges of her profession in general.

“We are missing a child psychiatrist, who is the be-all and end-all,” she told us. “The region has never had one, nor has the island of Rhodes. They are only available at Aghia Sofia Children’s Hospital, in Athens. Despite its failings, Aghia Sofia is still the only hospital to cover the whole of Greece. I cannot fault them, I excuse them even if they make mistakes, even if those mistakes affect lives. They are not Gods. Doctors are human beings too. Faced with so many incidents, it is only to be expected…”

During our conversation with Emmanouil, it became clear that the effect that the lack of a child psychiatrist has on children’s welfare is exacerbated by difficulties with transferring children to Athens for examination. Difficulties stem from the fact that the State Infirmary is the institution with the responsibility to carry out a Prosecutor’s orders, but the Municipality is the one with the funds.

“I have ended up arguing with the mayor over things that should be a given,” she told us.

In the past, Emmanouil has resorted to asking Blue Star Ferries, the ferry company that connects the island, for free tickets, but was refused. Another time, a Public Prosecutor had to ask the Church to cover the expense. The Church obliged.

“So, in most cases,” Emmanouil said, “if we have a minor who is only going for child psychiatric evaluation, they travel to the clinic accompanied by the parents, because the father has not been deemed unfit, so why should he not accompany the child?”

“However,” she added, “when we proceed to the immediate and somewhat abrupt removal of the child, and we remove the minor from the family because the child can be with neither parent, then the child must be accompanied by a social worker and the police, by law.”

Salvation

“The greatest source of anger,” Mayor Kollias told us, “is that we didn’t realise earlier. Because if all the relatives that finally spoke, had spoken before, things would have been certainly better. I cannot know what is happening in your home, or you in mine. It is not possible that nobody knew anything, or the child had not said something that was discussed in some circles.”

The few residents of Leros willing to comment on the case agreed that the children were “saved”. Although there is little doubt that the end of these particular children’s ordeal was a salvation of sorts, the system’s prospects for “saving” other children in Leros a little more efficiently in the future remain low. There is still no municipal social service, no trained or specialised personnel in the schools, and no child psychiatrist.

Ignatidis did not mince his words: “Small communities are a bit hypocritical when a family is somewhat big and can bring a lot of votes in local elections,” he said. “Τhe authorities always tend to turn a blind eye. Their attitude is along the lines of ‘come on, we can help him’, ‘let’s not take him to the Public Prosecutor, he’s a good person’, ‘he won’t do it again’, and so on.”

After the incident, according to Evaggelou, the Labour Inspectorate began an investigation on all services involved in the case, but they also sent someone to “inform us on the possible indicators of abuse on a person”.

“If we had known earlier about the things she taught us,” she said “there is a small chance we might have caught something earlier. I have to tell you, though, that if you ask me now what these signs are, I won’t remember. I read the Guide she gave us on child abuse once and never dealt with it again. I’d like to have gone deeper into them, but I’m not sure if I can do anything to turn the guidelines into action. We have no training.”

The family’s house, vacant by the time of our visit, appears like a hermetically sealed citadel on top of a mountain village. There are no squares or cafes. Two elderly ladies sitting in the balcony on top of the village’s only shop – a hairdresser’s salon – are the sum total of its street life. Despite the good weather, all other residents of the village are locked in their houses. Cars and trailers are parked outside, but no window blind is open.

Suddenly, the claim that if anything bad was happening, local society would not want to know about it, seems chillingly convincing.

This story was updated to include Mayor Kollias’s view on the children’s return to Leros, as well as the Kos Public Prosecutor’s reply to our questions.