When a child is abused, the perpetrator most often is not a stranger lurking in a street corner or outside a school. It is not the proverbial kidnapper with the lollipop, or the serial rapist of films and pulp novels.
The abuser is commonly dad. Or mom. Or both. The abuser is a relative, a teacher, a coach, a priest, a neighbour, a family friend. It is someone really close. Someone that children trust.
It is also the last person they will ever trust again; unless they are carefully and painstakingly supported through a long process of recovery.
Abuse, whether sexual or physical, is of course only one of the reasons children might need support. Other reasons might be more prosaic, yet their consequences might be just as severe. Some parents are unable to care for a child, because they are struggling with addiction, or mental health conditions. Others commit crimes and get sent to prison. And still others refuse to cope with the level of care needed to raise a disabled child.
Children, particularly disabled ones, may sometimes be ostracised by communities, even when parents care for them. Some children may slip through the cracks of communities that face issues of displacement, discrimination, and extreme poverty. And, sometimes, children will get entangled in the justice system, because they have themselves committed an offence.
For nearly a century, it has been decided tacitly — or sometimes less tacitly — that the State must protect the vulnerable. What we call “welfare” means exactly that: the State, as an expression of our collectivity, undertakes the task of supporting those whose support structures have been lost.
And yet, in Greece, just when the State should have spread a protective net to break the fall, the exact opposite has been happening: after being abandoned, neglected, or abused by those closest to them, children continue to be violated; this time by those who are supposed to protect them. Overlooked by politics and rejected by the law, the welfare state leaves them helpless and the rule of law unvindicated.
The Greek State is hardly devoid of public services that bear some degree of responsibility for child protection. But they are disjointed, disorganised, mostly untrained, understaffed and underpaid. They share no coherent protocol for dealing with child abuse and neglect, which means that child protection procedures run the danger of at best being haphazard, or at worst revictimising abuse survivors. It not at all uncommon for children who are removed from families to be further traumatised by the procedures followed by State Prosecutors, the Police, the Courts, hospitals and medical staff, and lastly the institutions where they inevitably end up.
Excessive institutionalisation is a particular concern. Greece is not the only country to have children’s institutions, but it is the only European country to rely so heavily on them, while having taken so few steps towards deinstitutionalisation. Moreover, official oversight on institutions, which can be run by the State, the Church, or NGOs, is limited, as until very recently there was no integrated way to monitor children going through the system. Unsurprisingly, conditions and practices in some institutions are not just divergent from established professional norms, but are so dismal that they should be addressed within the purview of criminal law.
Greece has been under pressure, not least by international bodies that monitor treaties that the country is a party to, but also by professionals who battle against official indifference against all odds, to improve its child protection system. Since 2009, governments have come up with a series of “action plans”, which have one thing in common: almost none of their provisions have been implemented. The few tangible improvements, notably by the PASOK (2009-2011) and SYRIZA-ANEL (2015-2019) governments, are not nearly enough to counter lingering problems in child protection.
The Children and the State, the first investigation in The Manifold Files, exposes the ways in which the Greek State revictimises the children it has a duty to support, shelter and protect. In the same way that the proverbial stranger in the street is rarely the person from whom a child is most in danger, there is no single archvillain responsible for the shortcomings of the Greek child protection system. The reader of this File will rather discover a mesh of endemic bureaucratic intransigence, political cowardice and ineptitude, and downright institutional savagery, which all combine to create and perpetuate this shameful state of affairs.
The Manifold Files will continue to update this File with developments, whether they be steps backwards or forward, until the child protection system in Greece rises to the level that is appropriate for a developed country in the 21st century.