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Interview

“When you first walk into an institution, you are confronted by a multitude of spectres”

The former Children’s Ombudsman, who served in the position from 2003 to 2018, speaks about

Athens
Giorgos Moschos during a presentation at the Children's Ombudsman office, October 2008

Giorgos Moschos during a presentation at the Children’s Ombudsman office, October 2008

© K. Katomeris / Eurokinissi

How did the institution of the Ombudsman on Children’s Rights come about?

Over the years, the institution of a Children’s Ombudsman was established in a number of European countries, particularly after the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. Towards the end of the ‘90s or possibly in early 2000, the need for an equivalent institution in Greece was discussed. The office of the Citizen’s Advocate (Ombudsperson) had just been established in Greece, so Parliament and the Greek authorities opted against the creation of another Ombudsman’s office, even though in most European countries the Citizen’s Ombudsman and the Children’s Ombudsman are two separate entities. Here, the Children’s Ombudsman is a Deputy Ombudsman on Children’s Rights.

Giorgos Kaminis became the Citizen’s Advocate in 2003, having served as Deputy Ombudsman for Human Rights. As Citizen’s Advocate, he looked for someone to fill the post of Children’s Ombudsman. He approached me as someone with a legal background and work experience in the field and asked if I would be willing to take on the post. I explained that I was well versed in the European system and told him, “Yes, I accept. Under the condition that I will keep you updated, I will work in full coordination with your office for as long as I remain at this post, but the department of the Children’s Ombudsman must be set up along different lines.”

That was the agreement from the start: to meet regularly, focus on communication and employ a multidisciplinary team. At some point, we had a scientific team of fourteen. I recently saw that that number has shrunk to six.

How was the office staffed?

Mr Kaminis was not familiar with this field. He had an open mind and a broad approach. Initially, he proposed that we begin with an office of “three to four specialists and take it from there”. I explained that I disagreed, that I wanted a strong scientific team so that we could do our job properly, both domestically and internationally, following examples from other countries. For example, the Polish Children’s Ombudsman, the best and most powerful Children’s Ombudsman in Europe, is an independent institution with a staff of forty. Wherever the staff is two to four people, the office genuinely underperforms; much less is done.

So, I pushed for it from the start, and we agreed. We built the office up to a staff of fourteen, that included lawyers, psychologists, social workers, educators, a publicist—an interdisciplinary team. It is a prerequisite if you also want to enjoy a good reputation in society as an institute doing serious work. You can’t cover everything, of course. In some fields, you need to know that other specialised institutions are operating too; but you listen and have a global overview. That is what we tried to do during my fourteen and a half years at the office of the Children’s ombudsman: have an overview and advocate for children.

Why did the staff numbers dwindle?

Some left and their post could not be refilled during the difficult years of the crisis. Some transferred to other departments of the Citizen’s Advocate office, some were seconded to postgraduate courses and so on. It could possibly be attributed to current leadership choices. This field might not necessarily be as visible, as powerful.

What actions did the Children’s Ombudsman undertake during the fourteen years of your tenure?

Firstly, we handled cases, reports. A letter or a person would arrive at the office. Reports by the children themselves are very few, internationally. Worldwide. Children do not easily approach a person in this institution. Where you might receive reports, complaints and so on is after you visit a children’s space, either by post or email.  

The Polish and the Dutch also consider verbal reports made by children, that such and such is happening, as formal reports. The child does not need to put their concerns in writing. Moreover, actions are not confined to written forms of communication and mediation. They can take other forms, like what we used to do regularly. Every year, we would visit around sixty schools. I was often present during those visits. We would visit a school, see one or two grades. By talking with the children, we would get a feel for them.  We would listen to their opinions. Frequently, they would express complaints. Teachers would not be present at these meetings. Children would say things like “this teacher does such and such”. We would tell them to leave it up to us to investigate what is going wrong. We did not confine ourselves to identified reports. Very often, children will tell you what is going on. They will say things like, “When I have a problem at home, who do I speak to?” or “I need to see a psychologist”.

Would they actually tell you that?

Very often. The children would either speak up in public without giving away that it concerned them personally or find us during the break. During those visits, we would have a two-hour break. A child would come up to you during the break and say, “Can I tell you something?” because we had established a relationship of trust during the visit.  

What ages did you see?

We visited third graders to twelfth graders. We would have a general discussion, and through that general discussion, we would broach the topics of children’s rights and abuse. We would ask them, “What do you think? How are things working? What should be done?” I always liked to give examples, short stories during the discussion. “There was a child somewhere, something happened to them, their parents did or did not do something, the child needed help” and so on. When children hear a story, they identify and then they ask you questions, tell you that they too know a child that this or that happened to. Then, during the break, they will approach you to share a personal story. They say, “Please don’t tell anyone, but I need to talk to you about this…”

Therefore, in those situations, you are handling an issue. It is not recorded as a report, but you know it is an issue, which you will address, and which will sometimes call for an intervention.

For example, I remember a child confessing that his family was putting a lot of pressure on him about a sporting activity; he was very good at it, and the family was pressing him to become an athlete. The child expressed that he was under a lot of strain and wanted to speak with someone. With his permission, I immediately informed the teacher and the school addressed the family issues.

I now recall a teenage girl at a school who told me during the break, “What you say about abuse is all well and good, but my father is a policeman, and an alcoholic and nothing will be done about it. I’m just waiting to turn eighteen and leave. I just wanted to tell you that, so you don’t think you are actually solving any problems.” We talked to her and found a way for her first to start seeing one of the teachers and then sought the assistance of the support coordinator at the Ministry of Education, which runs Youth Support Stations, to help her process and manage her feelings. Sometimes it is not possible to escape the abuse but processing the emotions is too much to handle; the belief that “nothing can change and I will keep getting beaten up” or “I will watch my mother get beaten up until I turn eighteen”.

Do you first bring the child into contact with a person of reference at the school?

You enter the school and listen, and then you manage what you hear depending on the situation and its gravity. Sometimes you give advice first; do this or that. Secondly, you may make a connection with a person of reference within the school. Thirdly, you can recommend that the child writes to you, that can also happen sometimes. You tell the children you can write to us at this email address and then the children do write. Fourthly, you can follow an empowerment process; you ask the child, “Do you have a relative or someone you can talk to? How will you talk to them?” In other words, you respond to a request initiated by the child.

I remember that in 90% of the schools we visited and possibly more, children came to us during the breaks to report certain issues. The issues they raised spanned the full spectrum of children’s rights.  From very serious to ostensibly simple incidents, like a fight, for example, which is nonetheless an issue to the child that approaches you. Through this process, you learn, and you gain information about how the support system works. You implement the action at the school. You see how the school community responds and you bring that knowledge back to the office, so you are pooling information. This process might not be a reporting mechanism, but you gain a full picture which allows you to intervene subsequently, allows you to say that this important issue must be addressed.

So, as I said, firstly, we handled reports and, secondly, we made visits, a great many visits. The latter allowed us to gather information, based on which we could intervene and instigate change at various levels. Let me give you an example since we are discussing abuse today. In the early days, during a visit to Kos for a case I was attending, teachers expressed their concern about whether they would enjoy legal protection for alerting the public prosecutor. They wanted the law to state somewhere that they could report to the public prosecutor and be legally covered. That was one of the reasons why I, as a member of the legislation drafting committee, insisted that Parliament Law 2500/2006 include an article covering such reports. This became Article 23, according to which teachers are obliged to inform the school principal if they are informed or realise that a crime is committed and so on. The wording might sound extreme or shall we say, magisterial, but it is there to protect teachers.

In my view, what is needed is for the incident to be put in writing. That is what I tell teachers: if you put it in writing, the responsibility then also lies with the school principal, who might do nothing. There is not a school in the country that has not received information about many, many instances of domestic violence. And still, legal recourse is rarely taken, as you know. What is it that we want? Do we want every school to make reports to the public prosecutors? We do not have a system in place to handle that. No. I am against such an approach. The reason we want the law to state “obliged to” is to legally cover teachers when they need to take this course of action.

But this only applies to teachers who want to take action.

Look, a teacher who hides and fails to address an issue should indeed be held accountable. I totally agree. And that is one of the great challenges facing us: how can we monitor teachers who are informed and do nothing. But, in my view, the biggest challenge for our country is how to handle issues extrajudicially. In other words, for the teachers to have specific instructions, for the system to have clarity and the ability to find solutions of another kind.

That is what a Children’s Ombudsman is for. To spread this kind of message. For example, a teacher, who had attended some of our training workshops, called me about a student, a girl of around thirteen or fifteen. The teacher told me, “I am dealing with an issue at school, related to the training you gave us, and I need advice on how to handle it. This student came to school injured, and I asked her what happened. At first, she did not want to say. Then, in private, she told me that her father had hit her after discovering she had been out with a male friend rather than a female friend as she had told him.” Those were the facts of what happened, which are grounds for making a report to the public prosecutor.

The teacher then asked me, “should I go to the public prosecutor, or should we find another way to help the child and the parent and find out what is going on?” I replied, “Can you try the second option? It is harder but more effective in my opinion.” With our guidance, she did speak to the child, and with the child’s consent, the teacher held a meeting with both the student and the parent. The teacher told me that at the end of the meeting all three were in tears, because the girl said, “Yes, I did lie, but I did it because I know my father does not like me to go out with my male friend”. And the father said, “Yes, I did hit her, but I am unemployed, I have lost my job, I’m having a difficult time with everything and I need help to cope and I need honesty.” The teacher told them, “I am not a psychologist although I am acting as a psychologist right now. Can you promise me that you will seek counselling because I cannot continue to be responsible for this?” They made a commitment and then they were referred to a family therapist. What I am trying to say is that this approach is more appropriate and effective, because the teacher in question decided not to turn a blind eye, not to ignore what is happening, but to do something. I believe that is what teachers must learn to do.  They must learn to make referrals. To know who the psychologist is.

There is also another concern. There are instances where a well-intentioned teacher makes a report about an incident that is subsequently not proven, then got the teacher into a lot of trouble. The teacher becomes involved in a lawsuit, and they are the only ones with any evidence, they do not have another professional who can back them up. I advise teachers, “Do make the report when you feel that the child needs recourse to justice but also gather other kinds of evidence, witnesses. Do not act alone.” It is not enough that the child came and told you something at a given point. Every school should have access to a psychologist and a social worker.

Can the Juvenile Protection Teams help?

They cannot intervene in schools and the provision allowing Juvenile Protection Teams to investigate a matter without a public prosecutor’s order has fallen into disuse, unfortunately. Initially, the ministerial decision stated that they could investigate without the need for an order from the public prosecutor. Some did, but then the parents took legal action against them. Subsequently, a stop was put to this practice because it was considered that the Juvenile Protection Teams did not enjoy sufficient legal protection when undertaking investigations without a public prosecutor’s order.

I have received reports from Members of the Greek Association of Social Workers (SKLE) that, in the early days of the law being implemented, some of the social workers who performed investigations without an order from the public prosecutor as stipulated by the ministerial decision went on to face disciplinary proceedings. The provision may have been enshrined in the ministerial decision, but it was not in absolute harmony with other legislation. In any event, the use of that measure has somewhat subsided.

The Committees for Diagnostic Educational Evaluation and Support (EDEAY) have now been instituted. The EDEAY is an institution comprising an integration department and an interdisciplinary team, with a psychologist, social worker etc. Each Committee is supposed to cover five schools.  Their mandate is to visit the five schools in their area once a week, ask “what cases are you dealing with?” and assist parents or children with the necessary intervention. As announced by the Ministry of Education, the EDEAYs are the ideal tool, but they do not exist yet. They are supposed to provide schools with at least the possibility to access a psychologist, a social worker, once a week.

When were the EDEAYs set up?

They started as a pilot scheme around five years ago, but now their operations are expanding. I am increasingly hearing about some positive outcomes in places where they are in operation. Some, not everywhere. I was visiting a school the other day (hesitates) the school principal knew of them, but the teachers did not. There is still some way to go.

Do teachers receive some training on how to recognise the signs of abuse?

There is the work of the Children’s Ombudsman’s office, which published training material etc. quite a few years ago. The training varies according to the type of abuse. A lot of work has been done on how to handle bullying and violence in schools, and I could tell you a lot about that. That is not the case for domestic violence, or violence outside the school if you like, because the violence could also be occurring elsewhere. There is some material to address that, but training is not systematic yet. That is a fact.

In elementary schools in particular, where children are younger and more vulnerable, and abuse can begin more easily at that age, I would appeal to the teachers to make the following statement during the first parent-teacher meeting, particularly to the parents of first-graders:  “Welcome. Our school subscribes to these principles. Our school is responsible for the children’s wellbeing too. When we see that a child is not doing well, is not having a good time, shows signs of violence etc. you should know that we will notify you and, if there is a serious issue, we might request the intervention of the courts. We do not wish to involve judicial authorities. First and foremost, we want to work with you. However, we have a responsibility. Do not think that the family falls outside the scope of our mandate.” Parents need to hear the school principal state that.

But can they take such action?

One of the problems is Greek law as it stands. Let us say that a child approaches a teacher and insinuates that something might be wrong at home. The teacher might have received training, might be informed, but they cannot address it on their own, and the child says, “I want to speak to a psychologist, a social worker.”

In this instance, the law is flawed because it does not permit a specialist to see a child without the consent of the parent. This must end somehow. One of the things we did, one of the actions we took, after handling several cases, was to address a formal opinion to the Ministries of Health, the Interior and Education. The opinion stated that when a child of any age requests to see a mental health or welfare professional about an issue that preoccupies them and makes the request without the parents’ knowledge, the professional receiving the request must accept to see the child, provided the professional works for a public body responsible for children.

Rather than saying “I cannot see you”, the professional can see the child, listen to them and then decide on the appropriate course. Notify the parent. Ask the child to speak with the parent. Report the matter to the judicial authorities. Or any other option. But it is inconceivable for children not to have access to health and welfare professionals.

The Ministry of the Interior accepted our opinion and distributed it to the municipalities. The Ministry of Health initially rejected it, but we asked the Council of Mental Health to give its opinion on our opinion. The Council was positive, but the Ministry never forwarded our opinion to hospitals.  The Ministry of the Interior forwarded it to the municipalities. The Ministry of Education never replied.

So, a significant flaw in our system is that a child at a Greek school has no third party they can speak to other than their teacher. Unless it is a school for special education, which has psychologists and social workers. Or the school is covered by the EDEAY for some reason. But in all other cases, the children cannot, and that is a problem.

How child-friendly is justice?

One of the great obstacles preventing children from coming forward is the awareness of the possible consequences. Of the number of times that they will need to make a statement to various people on the one hand, and the publicity that will surround their case on the other. Particularly the latter. They do not want others to know. That is why we are fighting for the Council of Europe’s guidelines for a child-friendly justice to translate into concrete measures. I am sure you have also heard this from Giorgos Nikolaidis in the context of our efforts to establish a level of protection, especially for child abuse cases. And the new legislation for the Children’s House is inadequate.

Unfortunately, for financial and organisational reasons, the Children’s House legislation was assigned to the wrong service. It was assigned to the probation service, the Supervisors for Minors. I have great respect for that service, but they are not in the field of victim protection. They are there for perpetrators and those at risk, according to the law, but it is a different kind of approach. The Children’s House should have been set up as it was done in Cyprus, with an interdisciplinary special council including a psychologist, a social worker…

Giorgos (Nikolaidis), Ms Themeli and I had submitted a comprehensive proposal, we had raised these issues in Parliament when the discussion was held, but for financial, organisational and other reasons they opted for this model. I do not want to stand against it. I want it to be implemented, I want us to support it as much as we can. If it begins to be implemented, we will support it. But assigning it to the Supervisors for Minors was the wrong decision.

I gained a good understanding of the Children’s House in Sweden because I visited it there, and I have read about its implementation in many other countries. As you know, it is a place that can also accommodate a child for a few days if need be. However, its primary focus is interdisciplinarity and connecting the interview with the court case underway, reflecting the participation of the public prosecution and the justice system, the police, the social worker, the psychologist, the supporting doctor, where needed. Therefore, it is an all-in-one model that allows you to record and make an assessment through a process where the child does not need to see a multitude of people. That is very important. I do not know yet how it will be implemented here. There is a provision for a Children’s House, and I am waiting to see, hoping that it will be implemented and willing to offer my assistance if it is sought, but the provision is not what we would have liked.

For example, the provision that statements made by minors should be filmed is rarely implemented. Neither the police nor justice has paid sufficient attention to this and there is certainly a deficiency there. As a result, a couple of these cases have become public knowledge, that so and so is being depicted by the child or gossip spreads about who was taken where, and the rest of the children become discouraged.

It is very common for photos of the accused to be made public, especially in child sexual abuse cases.

I disagree with the publication of photos. First of all, these are people who have not been found guilty yet. This gives rise to an ethical issue because the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is a fundamental tenet. Secondly, one must consider the families of the accused. The people whose photos are made public could be parents, and who thinks of their children? Because you can imagine what follows. Thirdly, the act of publishing one person’s photo snowballs to include many other people in their milieu and gossip that follows. I had expressed the view, even back then, that the publication of photos serves other purposes, media voyeurism so to speak and competition among media outlets and is not necessarily the most desirable measure for the protection of children.

Let us return to the training provided to teachers. What did the Children’s Ombudsman do about that?

We did everything we could. We had made a proposal that the National Centre for Public Administration and Local Government run some training programmes. They did run one in the past. Another one is currently underway. The ideal scenario would be for all teachers, every single one of them, to be able to attend three-day workshops at the beginning of the school year covering some basic matters. Child protection is one such matter. Another matter is knowledge of the services available and which service should or should not be used.  The third matter is the law and judicial services. In other words, there are some matters that need to be constantly revisited.

In practice, however, it is not so easy. I was recently talking with the president of the Institute of Educational Policy, Mr Kouzelis. I was saying how training programmes on school democracy must be run. About how you approach organisation because that also has an impact on bullying. His response was, “I wish we could. Where will we find the resources needed? How do you organise this for the whole of Greece?” The system for teacher training is very weak. They receive some NSRF funds on specific issues and so on and provide training for groups, not even every teacher.

What is the role of the teacher in your view?

Often, it is the teacher who first hears something and then makes the referral. How do you build this relationship of trust? Unfortunately, the traditional tools at our disposal do not favour such a relationship. It requires greater investment on the part of the teacher. To be open to discussion, be available to students during breaks, inform students that the door to their office is always open, that matters falling outside the scope of education also form part of the school agenda. That the teachers are not there simply as instructors but as life guides. In other words, there are a number of things that must become part of school philosophy.

The same applies to institutions. Child protection institutions, unfortunately, are plagued by a multitude of errors in the way that they operate. But it is also the case that often the people working there do not approach the inner world of the child in a way that builds trust. They stick to the rules of what “must” and “must not” be done. “I am here to make sure you sleep, eat, come, go, do this, do that. Let’s look at your record. What will you do? What did they tell you? What is going on with your family?” And it ends there. There is a whole other, very important, aspect however: how the child feels on an everyday basis, what the child sees, hears, feels. Unfortunately, only a few people touch upon this most important aspect.

We visited many institutions multiple times. In my estimate, we made more than 150-200 visits to institutions of every kind. When you first walk into an institution, whether it is the best of its kind, along the lines of the SOS Children’s Village that is the best model, or the worst kind, which are some large church institutions with too many children and a few ladies who are supposedly looking after them, when you first walk into an institution then, if you care about children’s rights and hence care for the children before you, you are confronted by a multitude of spectres. You see the image of the child standing before you and the spectres hiding behind it.

So, you need to investigate the spectres surrounding the child. In a school, the spectres are not so many. Institutions are haunted by them: the child’s anxiety. The child’s guilt. The absence of the birth parent. Worry about the future. About what is happening in the present. Abuse, neglect. To investigate all that you need a different set of tools. You cannot do it in a visit. So, we need to have more systematic training and regulation, too. There needs to be a mechanism that can enter institutions, stay there and come out somewhat better informed.

In schools too, it is often the case that a teacher is good at instruction but a deficient communicator and misses fundamental things. There was one such instance, a very good instructor, an excellent instructor at an elementary school. The children told us during the break that they were being blackmailed by some other students, threatened to have their money stolen if they went to the square and so on. I asked them why they did not tell their teacher. “Because we are afraid that he will tell the bullies off in such a way that they will take revenge outside the school.” So there was fear in the school. A teacher must not let children be afraid. A teacher must embrace them in a way that dispels fear. That takes work. In essence, that necessitates a change of priorities. A shift where the drive to provide knowledge, to spur children on to distinguish themselves and become somebody in a way that fosters competition and a focus on the future gives way to the present and the community.

However, schools do not appear capable of making that change.

It is a philosophy, nonetheless. Some are making efforts in that direction. I think my ideal situation would be one where we learn from one another as much as possible. Of course, you need further training, you need laws that safeguard those involved. At the school in Kos back in 2004, the staff felt legally exposed, abandoned by the law with regard to actions that could be taken. They were afraid. We need stronger laws that tell teachers, “I have your back. Take action.” Of course, laws need to be accompanied by services that support the legislation, ensure its implementation. I would like there to be a system that provides training on the one hand, that this is what you can do, and the legal reassurance that the persons involved will not get into trouble for doing what they were trained to do. The latter is essential.

I had far too many teachers call us and tell us after seminars we ran during school visits, “Yes, we would like to go ahead, but we are scared. We know of colleagues who did that and then went through hell.”

I imagine that there is also a financial consideration, given the crisis.

Of course. If you don’t have a lawyer to defend you, you have to pay out of your own pocket for something that should be a given. Should not the state be telling you that if you get sued in the course of carrying out duties imposed by the law, the state will provide your legal defence?

During my travels all over Greece, I had some very interesting experiences. I recall one such experience in Larissa, where we were running a seminar for teachers with the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Minors. We ran such seminars elsewhere too, but this is a scene that stayed with me. I gave an introduction on what the law says, what the obligations are etc. and welcomed the public prosecutor. I said that in my view, it was important that they meet the public prosecutor and hear from her how and when you can use her services.

At that point, the public prosecutor rose and said, “You should know that the school principal should call me even if they are afraid. If I sense fear, I will act ex officio without a written report. I am on your side. You should know that we share a common goal to protect the children.” The teachers were greatly relieved when they heard that. They came to me afterwards and said, “That was great. I wish public prosecutors would come to meet us more often, become a familiar face rather than a stranger, and reassure us that they will collaborate in difficult cases and start proceedings.” So many school principals do not act because they know the person concerned has a gun at home or is mentally unstable and could harm them in some way.

Assuming a child is subjected to any kind of abuse in Greece. What steps can they take?

First and foremost, children must know and understand their rights. I always start with a talk on rights. When I was first appointed to the post, I went through the textbooks used in elementary school. The word “rights” appeared in the fifth grade. Now we have started to talk to children about rights at nursery level, thankfully. But the word “rights” was missing from the textbooks. In 2003, you started fifth grade, and the textbook spoke of children in Africa, children… far away.

And at present?

At present, it is increasingly used. It is part of the curriculum, but teachers are also learning how to train the children. Steps have been taken; more schools run theme days on World Children’s day, increasingly raising awareness. Of course, formal education on the subject is provided in fifth and sixth grade when children study ‘social and civil education’.  Children’s rights have been incorporated in that curriculum.

Secondly, you must start with the parent, even where the parent is the abuser. Communication with the parent, both the parent and the child must learn that they are starting to talk to one another. Not that you start by going elsewhere but that they work together.

The next step is the people in the educational environment. School, nursery, elementary and secondary schools and so on. They need a support mechanism to assist them in managing situations, but they are the first persons of trust after the family. Children need to know that.

Then there are the services that can be found in the community, the services close to the schools, the services run by the Ministry of Education and the services run by the community. Municipal social services, mental health services, where available, and so on.

Then there are the helplines. Then NGOs, which substitute the state because of the latter’s deficiencies. According to some, they, or one in particular, have overgrown, but that happens because the state is ineffective, it leaves room for someone else to come and supplant it.  

However, I believe and have stressed vehemently over the years that the work must primarily be done in schools. Schools are the key. That is why we ask for psychologists and social workers inside the schools and for support for schools. Schools must make the parents listen. Tell them that the school has a duty of care under the law and will take legal action if parents do not cooperate with this or that.

And you recommend that this conversation take place when you first meet the parents. You do not need to have an indication that something is amiss. That you also address those who may be excellent parents.

It must happen from the start. Addressing everyone. And it must extend beyond that, the information given to the parent must be that we, as a school, are not only responsible, but we deeply care. Not that we are responsible and fear falling foul of the law, but that we care. That the progress of children must also include progress in their wellbeing. And that if there is a problem at home, an alcoholic, someone with mental issues, we need you to inform us so we can help, not so that we can gossip. That we will not handle issues publicly, but by providing support for the child and understanding. That must take precedence over getting top grades for neat handwriting. What use is neat handwriting to us when the child is emotionally distraught?

What do we do if we learn that a child is being abused or suspect abuse?

First of all, we report it somewhere. We could report it to the public prosecutor. Secondly, because some people might not have easy access to the prosecutor or be afraid and so on, they must seek out the municipal social services in their area. This is where the Juvenile Protection Teams come in. Normally, the municipalities are the service providers. The Region has different responsibilities, it forwards cases to the relevant bodies. But the municipalities, municipal social workers, upon receipt of the report, investigate and assess the evidence.

There are also the relevant bodies and institutions, which should be strong and so on, one of which is the Children’s Ombudsman. The Children’s Ombudsman is not the body where a first report should be filed, although we receive many such first reports, but from people who do not know that, because there are no services in their area and they do not know what to do. In that case, they contact the Children’s Ombudsman. That could be the case depending on which region of the country you are in, for example, if you live on an island with no services then you are obliged to address someone else.

The most important thing is to refuse to tolerate any situation that involves violence and children. In my view, citizens must understand that they have a means of influencing a situation as neighbours. They can act, they can talk, they can say, “Come here, do you need anything? Do you need me to help you as a neighbour? Is there something I can do, someone I can alert, someone we can find together? The child I hear screaming and weeping all the time is a suffering that I, as a neighbour, must address.”

The law does not impose a duty of care on the neighbour, but when the neighbour witnesses a crime that can be prosecuted ex officio, there must be a mechanism that allows them to report it. That is the main function of ex officio prosecution, it does not simply describe a means of action for the prosecution, it calls on any citizen who has been a witness to act.

So, the neighbour goes to their local police station…

Starting with the police makes things harder. The police do encourage people to come forward with reporting incidents in Greece too. “File a report, and we will see how we go about examining the evidence.” However, because of the differences between police stations in each area, I cannot advise citizens to go to the police. There are police stations staffed by officers who have been suitably trained and handle things very carefully. So when you file a report, they will investigate matters and not make the situation worse.

But I am for social services being the first port of call prior to the intervention of the police in all matters that concern the violation of children’s rights. Social services can get the full picture and see where the family needs support, they do not start by focusing on the member prosecuted. Of course, by law, the police can also intervene in an advisory capacity too, not just as an enforcement agency.

You gave the example of the girl whose father was a police officer and an alcoholic. I could not possibly refrain from asking you to expand on that.

The girl came up to me and said, and this is important, “I love my father. I understand him. I would like him not to be an alcoholic, but he is. He is fine when he does not drink. But when he drinks, he beats up my mother and hits me too. I do not think there is anything I can do about that. First of all, the police are already behind him, they are his colleagues. Secondly, I don’t know if I want to report him. Report what? Who can help me? How? It is a dark cloud over my life, so to speak, and I keep it to myself.” When I asked her if she had told anyone, she said that she had not. She might have, but that is what she told me.

So I told her, “I hear you. This is a very serious matter, thank you for sharing it with me. Let us see how you can process it, leaving making a report aside.” She told me she had not spoken to anyone, and I said, “There are people you can speak to.” Then she said, “How can I see a psychologist? I would need the permission of my father to see a psychologist.” I asked her, “Would you be willing to see a teacher at the school, someone you trust a little more? Meet with them once or twice and see how we can take it from there?”

Her initial reaction was silence. “I don’t know”. Then she named a teacher, and we moved in that direction. So she wanted help. Then I spoke to the teacher, I told her, “I would like you to start seeing her. She trusts you. If you think there is some way you can intervene with the family, do so. However, I do not ask you to do that. Also, see if you can get support from the Youth Support Station in your area on how to handle it.” The teacher in question said, “Yes, let us do this, she is a good girl and I want us to help her.”

As far as I can tell, the teacher saw her a couple of times, and, during the school year, she sought support from the psychologist counselling teachers and continued to see the girl. The psychologist did not see the child but helped the teacher in handling the issue. That was a first, moderate step. I could not follow the outcome of the case. I think she was in ninth grade, then she left the school and when I asked, they did not know where she had moved to.

What I am trying to say is that it is an example of how the first step in handling abuse is empowerment. The way for a child to handle the experience is to assume it. To be able to say ‘no’. To be able to say, “I love you, dad, but what you are doing is unacceptable.” Otherwise, it leads to a different kind of outburst. I remember a youth, I don’t know if you remember that case, it must have happened ten years ago—who had killed his father wearing a mask.

He put on a mask and killed his father, and everyone wondered what happened. He was incarcerated, and during subsequent psychotherapy, it came to light that the father would rape the mother while wearing a mask. The boy had told no one and then killed his father one day. He had not processed it at all, had not talked to anyone. He spoke up later. He was an excellent young man; I think he was a university student. What I am trying to say is that if you do not talk about it at all, one day you might suddenly snap.

If someone heard you recount the story about the girl and the alcoholic father who was a policeman, they would say, “I can’t believe she told the Children’s Ombudsman and he did not take her to the prosecutor to make a report straightaway!” Why did you opt for another course of action?

Because a fifteen-year-old teenager has their own personality and you must cooperate with them in any course of action you take. That is my view. If I went and made a report, gathered evidence and used it, and so on, I could have caused more damage to the family, to the girl herself. First of all, the child would feel betrayed. They confided in someone and that person betrayed their confidence. Secondly, the child did not want to be parted from the parent. Thirdly, the investigation might have ended up in a drawer, led nowhere, and the child would neither be freed nor empowered, which was my aim.

My primary concern is for the victim to feel empowered and say ‘no’. That is the number one aim. Criminal justice is there not just to punish but also to heal; not to generally penalise life and terrorise, but also to heal and prevent certain behaviours. For that to happen, the vulnerable members of society must be empowered so that they can assert themselves and have a network of support. Therefore, in my view, what is needed above all is for vulnerable children to always have people who are there for them; that is the underpinning philosophy.  

As you say, what can be achieved when things take a judicial course? The removal of the child? Why?

Exactly. Where? Where would you take the child? Certainly, some children need to be removed from the family home. If only our foster care system functioned better, if only we had emergency foster care… I believe in emergency foster care, an established institution in other countries, where the child resides with a foster family for a month until services sort out what is going on in the family. The foster family is kept informed. They are “professional parents”, who do what in practice? Show tenderness and care. They explain that “We will not be together for a lifetime, but you will stay with us for a while, rather than go to an institution or a hospital. Let us work it out and we will do everything we can to make sure you enjoy your stay with us. But really, we are like replacement parents. You also have to listen to what we say.”  It is very important to put this into practice. There was a lot of talk about foster care recently, but it will be a while before we see these aspects of foster care. New legislation was passed but I do not know what will happen in practice.

How do you see the role of the media in this field?

This year, some of your colleagues at state broadcaster ERT produced a TV show on bullying. It was excellent, I tell everyone they must watch it. But a show that has been carefully prepared is worlds apart from news or current affairs, which are founded on spreading panic and boosting ratings.

Or scandalising the public. Unfortunately, the coverage of sexual violence cases also has a sensationalist aspect.

Anything that includes children, sex, foreigners, blood, and so on, especially in conjunction, is always sensationalised. For me, the greatest enemy for children’s rights these days is the way the media operate. Unfortunately. The impact is great. I feel it all the time, how the media ‘shape ’parenting skills, what kind of role models they promote, how they distort children, so to speak, profoundly distort childhood. Sadly. Nevertheless… We must focus on the battles ahead.