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“There is no safe distance in small communities”

As the one-person social services for the remote island of Leros, Popi Emmanouil has experienced first-hand how the lack of a concise child protection system affects the areas of Greece that were never a high priority for the state.

Popi Emmanouil in her office at Leros State Infirmary.

Popi Emmanouil in her office at Leros State Infirmary.

© The Manifold

How many incidents of abuse are recorded in Leros every year?

Incidents per year are few. We do not keep statistics, but it is possibly two to three incidents every year. Other than that, every incident has its own particularities, no two incidents are the same. A professional saying that the same method could be applied to a subsequent incident would be wrong. There are particularities pertinent to the persons involved, the type of abuse and the environment. Usually, the abuse is physical, beatings. The evidence could be overt signs of abuse, or in other instances, only indications. We are talking about repeated limb fractures, overt signs in the sense of bruises, while, at the same time, the investigation can uncover evidence from the family and social environment, which manifest a low standard of living, education, cognition or intellectual development.

How do you come across cases of abuse?

Through the office of the Public Prosecutor. Through someone making a report at social services or the police. A citizen could have reported an incident to the Public Prosecutor’s office on the island of Kos, and the Public Prosecutor is obligated to order a social investigation. The Kalikratis law stipulates that mental health professionals may be used in the absence of municipal social services, the same way that psychiatrists are appointed when there is a need for an expert report.

On the island, I am the only one who can carry out such an investigation, as only the State Hospital has a professional. The same probably goes for most islands. There are no social workers on Patmos, for example. But I do not go to Patmos because I can decline the Public Prosecutor’s order as it is a different municipality. I do not even get paid for the orders I execute within the municipality of Leros, neither by the municipality nor the office of the Public Prosecutor. And yet, the State Hospital bears a certain cost as a result, given that some of my time is spent elsewhere to the Hospital’s detriment.

What is the procedure?

The order of the Public Prosecutor stipulates that a social investigation should take place, and a social report should be submitted to the prosecutor in writing. The investigation is both formal and informal and involves everyone: the family, the social circle, the extended family environment, services, bodies and institutions. I am not subject to any constraints other than the stipulations of family law, which state that I can present myself at their home at any time, day or night, but if they do not wish to let me inside, I cannot force their hand. If that happens, I leave and simply notify the public prosecutor.

What are Leros’ deficiencies in the field of prevention?

A great many deficiencies. There is cooperation with the schools because, in small communities, schools are the most fundamental institution. We work together in a very friendly and informal manner. As you can understand, when cooperation with schools is good, particularly with primary schools, you can notice everything – and prevent many things.

But even there, I believe that teachers operate restrictively. In the past, teachers could enter the family home more freely, talk to the parents more openly; that is no longer the case. I think they are just afraid. For example, they can see that a child needs special education, but they will rarely inform the parents from the outset. There is this fear of “how can I tell the mother; she won’t accept it”. I have discussed this with teachers countless times. Once the situation becomes unmanageable and the child stops making any progress, then they are forced to say, “you should take your child to the “Paidon” Hospital to check if something else is going on.” I think this has more to do with the family rather than a teacher’s competence.

It used to be the opposite.

We have become a little alienated, that is the root of the problem in my view. I have watched new faces join the schools these past five years at least. What I notice is that the warmth is lost, the teacher of old who stood by the child, who was also a protector and an advisor. Nowadays, it is rare. The teacher is more distant, that is my observation. Of course, I do not mean to imply that they are not competent teachers.

Nevertheless, cooperation with schools is very good. School principals have sought our assistance numerous times. Often, our assistance is sought informally; we are asked to give talks on different topics or to talk to a family or to see a family that they refer to the hospital without taking further formal steps because that would mean involving the Public Prosecutor. They call the social worker, the psychologist or whoever is needed to talk to the child and the parents informally. They hope that the family will see sense and things will change or they want to see whether the family will accept therapeutic intervention if the mental health professionals deem it necessary.

That is how teachers approach things, they try to see how they can help because you know, “Office of the Public Prosecutor” sounds a little scary (laughs).

So, in essence, you have personalised cooperation that is not governed by any protocols. You are under no obligation to act if you do not want to.  

That is so, but we always act. Personally, that is always my starting point. Regardless of the course events will take and how the case will develop, my first thought is what the appropriate therapeutic intervention is. Unless it is very clear from the start, in which case you know what needs to be done. When things are not clear, that is your starting point until you find out more. Things may change in due course, naturally. You could start by filing a social report “requesting that parents attend counselling sessions with a psychologist, that the child be supervised every week, that the school keep me informed” etc. and everything could change in the course of a weekend; the child could be at the “Paidon” Hospital for psychiatric evaluation, the parents at the Office of the Public Prosecutor, and everything could be different. You cannot know this in advance. People can hide things from you during the first and second social investigations if they wish to do so. You are not a detective, let’s not kid ourselves.

How would you describe the job of a social worker in this kind of cases?

It’s a multifaceted job. Part of it is outside the office, in other words, there is the administrative work, drafting reports, cooperating with various bodies and services, but there is also the investigative aspect where you are acting as a detective.  For example, you receive some information, unofficially. You will not pass judgement, but you will visit the bar or the coffee shop or people at another house, the neighbourhood, the recreational space and gather information. Then you record all the information that you have gathered because it is impossible to retain the details of everything you hear over a couple of days. Only then do you compile the report, because you need to provide an objective picture in the eyes of the Public Prosecutor.

In terms of institutions and services, what have you found lacking when dealing with incidents?

We are missing a child psychiatrist, who is the be-all and end-all. The region has never had one, nor has the island of Rhodes. They are only available at the “Paidon” Children’s hospital and, despite its failings, “Paidon” 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…

Let me share a complaint I have about all child care institutions in general. Whenever we try to find a place for a minor, no institution has availabilities.  It is impossible, because we are subjected to interrogation about the condition of each child, each minor, and children who are not psychologically, intellectually and cognitively “perfect” are rejected. What is the point of having these institutions? The reply I have been given in recent years is that “our personnel cannot support a child at these institutions”. Why are you even in operation then?

What were those cases?

They usually involved minors with behavioural disorders, discipline issues, who usually came from family environments where the parents had mental health issues, were usually divorced, one parent would be absent, and the wider family environment was also not stable. So we were forced to remove the child from the family. Had there been at least a grandmother or a grandfather who were “well” they could have supported the mother facing mental health issues. But these issues are also somewhat hereditary, someone raised that mother, and as no one has intervened to assist the mother in handling her issues, she will also raise children with mental health issues.

Once that happens, however, it is not easy to keep a safe distance in a small community…

There is no safe distance. Someone could come outside and scream and shout at the child you have just removed. We are a community where 16km separate us at most. Usually, we are talking about distances of two to four kilometres. In that case, there is no safe distance. Even if someone takes out a restraining order; restraining orders do not work. Yes, legally there has been a prohibition, but if the other person comes to attack you, the police will not have enough time to save you. By the time you call the police, and they get there, the other person will have battered you. So, what restraint do these measures provide? They do not have the power that they ought to have.

I think it is best if the children leave. In any case, even if a child with a disorder is placed with a foster family, which is the lightest consequence of psychological damage inflicted by the parents or the wider environment on a minor, the child cannot be supported by the foster family alone. Even in foster care, there should be specialists attending to the child and advising the parents.

When I come across such a child, I consider that I am not equipped to handle the case and should not be responsible for it.  I cannot know what will come up in due course or what the child’s reaction will be. Such cases should be addressed by interdisciplinary teams, not single professionals. Like in the past, following the mental health reforms, when we had inter-disciplinary teams comprising a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a nurse, a social worker, all of the health professionals in general, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist and the appropriate referrals would be made according to the needs of the case. Our job in such instances is to carry out an interview, identify where the problem lies and make a referral to a psychologist, a child psychologist, or whoever is best suited.

Do you think that the island of Leros has certain particularities as far as abuse is concerned?

No, nothing that is particular to Leros as far as abuse goes. I think you can encounter the same things everywhere. If it has become notorious, it is because things become intensified in a small community. In Athens, dozens of similar incidents could be occurring and not make the same impact. In a small community, even divorce will stigmatise a child, despite this being 2018. If the father is unknown, the child is stigmatized. Do you know how often school children will say, “so and so has no dad”? They say it even if the father has passed away, this has actually happened.

There is an introversion in small communities. There is also concealment, an attitude of only showing the family’s good face outside the home. There is also unsociability. For a start, professionals in the field are not easily accepted, even today. In a high-conflict divorce, I received an order to carry out an investigation. When I asked the mother to come see me, she nearly fainted. She was a young woman who had no reason to be afraid, as my subsequent investigation led me to believe. And yet, when she heard she had to see a social worker, she nearly fainted, she started crying, asking me “What have I done wrong? Why do you want to take my child away?”

The first time I went to Athens to sign up at the School, I shared a cabin with a mother from Patmos and her young child. She asked me what the purpose of my trip was. I explained and then the child asked, “What will the lady graduate? Like Lilo and Stitch?” In the animated film, Lilo’s parents are dead, and she is looked after by her sister, who struggles with it. Every now and then a tall man turns up at their house, saying he has come to take Lilo away. I had watched the film with my children, we used to quote “Family means nobody gets left behind”. So I could fully grasp what the child meant; it was rather discomfiting.

Have you ever felt any hostility from the people on Leros?

I try to think that it is just my impression. I have good relations with people, I just know how to set boundaries. In other words, other than the friends I choose, I will not foster contact outside of my working hours. And if I do, I will be polite and set boundaries in my own way. If the other person displays behaviour which I consider inappropriate, well, they are the ones who should be ashamed of it at the end of the day, and not me. I am just doing my job.

Sometimes I might feel bad, think that “I have to be the bad guy again”, but there is no other option. The good thing is that I can express it. Then, there are the physical dangers. All I try to do is train my children well so that they can protect themselves because there have been many instances of drug addicts showing aggression. The police are there for me, we have cooperated many times, and they advise me, but I could not pull back just because I am afraid, I would not do that. Worst case scenario, it would be very easy to torch my car, and I would lose my car. And suffer a financial cost.

Is there a framework for the protection for social workers?

No, there is no framework for our protection, none. But I always have a back-up plan. In such incidents, say the father is an alcoholic… a father has actually pulled up beside my car in the street and started swearing at me. I know how to act; I will leave quietly and distance myself. I do not give off any signals that could provoke someone, but I always have a plan and take precautions.

I left and went to the police department, I reported the incident, they recorded it in their incident log, and the father did indeed require hospitalization at the psychiatric clinic and received treatment. He then calmed down. I try to learn what the legal framework is, but in practical terms, I am aware of how to protect myself and my children. They have learned not to answer the door to anyone because I deal with drug addicts, alcoholics who would come knocking on my door at any time. I would never leave my son alone in an area where they know who we are, and there are such incidents.

But I do not think we are dealing with dangerous people. The incidents I have been describing, alcoholics or drug addicts, they usually display cowardice. They might be screaming at you on the spot, but they will not take any further steps. They usually have low self-esteem, so if you manage to project that you are not afraid and that you will gain the upper hand if you want to, they think twice. I believe that they fear me because they know that I collaborate with the Public Prosecutor. My leverage is that I will request the Prosecutor’s intervention, and when they hear that they fall in line.

Is it not a problem that there is a new Public Prosecutor every year?

It’s a good thing because sometimes the Public Prosecutor is not what we would like them to be. Some Public Prosecutors, in my view, simply do not do their jobs as they should. There are exceptional public prosecutors. But some show indifference, I don’t know why. I don’t know whether it is indifference or something else, which they cannot handle and manifests itself as indifference. However, whenever I have needed a Public Prosecutor for a minor, the collaboration has mostly been excellent.  

When I say the collaboration has been excellent, I mean that whenever we have needed personal advice or guidance in a case, the prosecutor has been available. We often need to contact the public prosecutor for personal legal issues, because there is no legal counsel at the service. We seek advice on whether we can take such and such step or on how exposed to a parent’s lawsuit we might be.

If I, as social services, submit a formal request that I need a legal counsellor and my request is approved, then a legal counsellor is assigned here but then stops. In other circumstances, other professionals also need to make a similar request. In most cases, we work with our own legal advisors. I just happen to have some cousins who are lawyers and every once in a while… (laughs) Of course, I think that when our administration needs a legal counsellor, they can find one, but that legal counsellor cannot address our issues, they are here for specialized matters that concern our administration.

How have the police been?

We have had no problems with the police. Whenever I have needed them to protect me or accompany me, they have been impeccable. Other times, they will ask for assistance themselves. In other words, they will call me if it is the weekend or when an incident has gone straight to the police without admission to the hospital having been made. They will call and ask if I can go help them. I will go and be informed about the case in person and then talk with the public prosecutor, who will have already spoken to the police. They also work more informally if they want to diffuse a situation on the spot because it is a small community.

How likely is the child protection situation in Greece to change in your view?

I believe that some things in Greece can’t change because Greece is not just Athens and Thessaloniki. Greece is made up of villages and islands, and that is where the bulk of the problem lies. We have not managed to resolve basic issues. An order of the Public Prosecutor is issued, we go, we ask for the child to be removed, all public services close at 3 p.m., and the only thing we can do is ask the office of the public prosecutor to send a fax to the police station, and then the policeman has to come find me to formally deliver the document. We do not even have a fax machine.  

Let me tell you something even more basic: the equipment you see here does not work. Next door, there is a printer and a scanner that I brought to the office so I could do my job. If this equipment breaks down, I cannot do anything. I had a PC, but management took it away because they consider that the administration department is much busier with admin work than I am, and they left me with this one, which does not work. Which is more than I had before because I worked on my own laptop until 2013.

So you can understand that things are not easy. Then, let’s assume you get the Public Prosecutor’s order. How will the professional accompany the minor to the “Paidon” Children’s Hospital? I have ended up arguing with the mayor over things that should be a given. The funding issue was ultimately resolved by the public prosecutor, a quick-witted prosecutor who took it upon herself to secure the funds through the archdiocese. Just great.

Why did you argue with the mayor?

I called the mayor to tell him to fund the tickets. Where else would the money come from, is the Leros Hospital to assume those expenses too? The Leros Hospital could make a decision and go to the commissioner, but the commissioner will say that they cannot justify the expenses. When we call Blue Star Ferries, they tell us “I don’t care, you find a way to pay for the tickets.” We are talking about instances that fall within social welfare.

If I accepted every single time, this would happen in every single instance. We are talking about minors. So, in most cases, 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? Besides, for as long as the biological parent has custody, no one else is allowed to accompany the child. However, 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.

Are there inherent legal risks?

There are legal risks in the sense that you are responsible for a minor for that time, with everything that that entails. For everything the child does during transportation, be it their behaviour or illness or running away or hurting themselves, something as simple as that.

Mrs Kafasari spoke to us about the journey during which you both accompanied children. What became of them?

You know, when we leave, we lose touch. And that is a principle I adhere to; I will never call and find out what became of them for purely emotional reasons. It is also to protect myself emotionally. When children enter a social welfare framework, no one is allowed to contact them at first, so that they are given a period of adjustment. A person from their past could trigger a regression. To this, one could say that I could always call the professional charged with the child. As I told you, this is purely for my sake. I tell myself that it is a case and it must be forgotten, must be left there.