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00 of Plans for National Inaction

Every government since 2009 has laid out its own “National Action Plan” on child protection. What they all share is that almost none of their grand designs were ever implemented.

Athens, Lechaina, Rethymno, Thessaloniki

© The Manifold

Greece is not short on child services. There are social services in municipalities, social workers in hospitals, child psychiatrists in schools. Some of these professionals are permanent staff or civil servants, others are contracted for months or years, depending on the funding of the position. There are Social Care Directorates on a regional level — a central one per region and one in every regional department. Societies for the Protection of Minors, or EPA, are overseen by the Ministry of Justice. The National Centre of Social Solidarity, or EKKA, is overseen by the Ministry of Labour. Mental health services and other care facilities are overseen by the Ministry of Health. There are State Prosecutors for Minors and Prefects for Minors. The Hellenic Police has dedicated Minors Departments at the Attica and the Thessaloniki General Police Directorates. There are NGOs that collaborate with state authorities through agreements with the state. And, although we do not know the exact number, there are over eighty institutions and shelters for children, run by either the state, the church and a number of religious communities, or various NGOs.

Most, if not all, of these services are understaffed. Each has its own rules, protocols and priorities. In many of them, professionals are either not exclusively tasked with child protection, as is the case in many municipalities all over the country, or they are not specially trained. With very few exceptions, coordination between the services is not based on any coherent protocol, but is conditional upon each professional’s sense of duty.   

This fragmentation obviously results in inefficiency. But especially where serious breaches of children’s rights are concerned, such as cases of grave abuse or neglect, experts agree that it directly contributes to a secondary victimisation of survivors.

Greek Traditions

The Department of Mental Health and Social Welfare of the Institute of Child Health, a research and clinical intervention centre overseen by the Ministry of Health, is housed in an apartment building in the Ambelokipi district of Athens. The apartment still looks like someone could be living there, except it now has a few desks and a huge amount of folders. The director, George Nikolaidis, has a small office next to a rather large kitchen. All the times we have had to meet with him, during this investigation, he has given us his time amply, answering our questions on issues that for us seemed complicated and often puzzling, but to him constitute daily struggles.  

According to Nikolaidis, “social welfare was never established as an independent sector of public administration in Greece. Consequently, all these networks of psycho-social and social services for children are subordinate to other sectors, and as a result, their prioritisations and priorities are subject to the prioritisations and priorities of the sector that they serve”. 

“In all these years, I have seen incidents of anal warts in four- and five-year-olds, who by the time they came to our attention had been receiving treatment in public hospitals for one to two years, without any investigation, as one would expect, into how these children came to be ill.”

“Which service is called upon, which professionals, what they examine, how and when, unfortunately still varies according to the service or geographical location where a report or suspicion first arises,” he told us. “This means some children can be victimised multiple times for daring to reveal that they are being victimised. It is a well-known fact that in the case of sexual violation of children in particular, where objective forensic findings are usually absent, we have numerous such instances, which came to us with an already long  history of multiple evaluations, statements from related and unrelated persons, who asked and did relevant and irrelevant things.” 

“You can understand,” Nikolaidis added, “how this borders on a punitive stance on the part of the state towards the child that finds the courage to speak out. In all these years, I have seen incidents of anal warts in four- and five-year-olds, who by the time they came to our attention had been receiving treatment in public hospitals for one to two years, without any investigation, as one would expect, into how these children came to be ill. Because in this chaotic environment everyone can become entrenched in a role which they get to define. A doctor can say, ‘I’m a dermatologist, my job is to treat the damage I see, the rest is none of my business.’” 

State authorities have been under pressure to design a coherent child protection system for many years, not least by international bodies overseeing agreements that Greece has signed and ratified. Perhaps the most important international commitment arises from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Greece signed in 1990 — one of the first countries to do so. Greece also ratified the Council of Europe’s Lanzarote Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse in 2009. This time it was the first country to do so.

Nikolaidis, who is also Chairman of the Lanzarote Committee, which oversees member-states’ compliance with the convention, sees the swiftness in signing these agreements as in keeping with a “long tradition of the Greek state to pass laws without any consideration as to how they will be implemented”. “In other words,” he told us “we passed it and left it, internationally we can hold our head high, we were the first to do so, and then we made no provision for what was to follow.”

The irony of Greece’s eagerness to put its pen on international paper becomes even sharper, if one considers that countries that ratify the UN Convention are legally bound to implement it, and their governments are required to periodically report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child on the progress of implementation. 

After signing it in 1990, Greece ratified the convention in 1993. But although parties to the convention were obliged to file progress reports by 1995, it did not submit its first report until 2000. Feedback from the UN Committee on this first report noted that health services were still largely concentrated in cities and that the various new authorities that were instituted did not have a clear mandate. The PASOK government of the time committed to rectifying the situation and drafted some measures, but once the 2004 general elections were won by its rival, New Democracy, the measures were scrapped.

The Orange Book

We met Panagiotis Altanis at the cafe of a shopping mall. A stout man, he stood out in a red wind jacket, which he chose as the easiest sign for us to recognise him. A former visiting professor in the Greek National School of Public Health and until recently Head of the Department of Psychology and Social Work in Frederick University, Cyprus, Altanis has been a central figure in the effort to implement reforms in the Greek child protection system. 

Although eager to hear about developments since he stepped away from actively trying to overhaul child protection, he was happy to discuss his own involvement, which began in 2007, when he was still at the National School of Public Health. 

At the time, the Ministry of Health, under Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos, had been urged to implement policy directives by the World Health Organisation and the European Union. So, it tasked the school with producing a National Action Plan for Public Health. This overarching plan outlined a further sixteen, specialised action plans on a variety of health issues from cancer and HIV/AIDS to smoking, alcohol, accidents, and mouth hygiene. Child protection was not one of them. 

But the pressure was mounting. Along with the overdue UN reports, which Altanis referred to as a “breach of duty”, the Greek Association of Social Workers, or SKLE, was pressuring the government, and so was the prominent and highly influential NGO “The Smile of the Child”, which already collaborated with ministries and authorities. 

There were other sources of pressure, too. The department of the Children’s Ombudsman had been established within the Greek Ombudsman independent authority, in 2003. Giorgos Moschos, who headed the department from its inception until 2018, had already been pressing for changes in child protection, and had already been successful in influencing the 2006 law on domestic violence, particularly with regard to the obligation of schools to report suspected physical abuse of children.  

© The Manifold

In 2008, a report by a group of European volunteers, who had spent some time at the Lechaina Child Care Centre, an institution for disabled children in south-western Greece, was distributed to various European officials and human rights organisations. The volunteers expressed shock at the manner in which a modern European state was treating disabled children. In 2009, Moschos headed a delegation that visited the institution, and although his report was not issued until 2011, the visit documented the brutal conditions of child institutionalisation: in Lechaina, disabled children were strapped to beds or kept inside cages for years, never being allowed to get up or walk, not even for an hour. 

Unlike the other action plans drafted at the time, the one about child protection was the only one that was outsourced. With EU NSRF funds, the ministry asked The Smile of the Child to draft the plan; and the NGO, having worked with Altanis before, placed him in charge, in collaboration with Charalambos Economou, a lecturer of Sociology at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences.

“I think The Smile of the Child suited the state,” Altanis told us, “because the research cost more than the funds it received. If you add staff wages, time spent, how much work was done on a volunteer basis, how quickly, how little it cost, I think there was a lot of added value provided…”

“The Smile was useful,” he adds, “in that it had its own enclaves of decentralised structures throughout Greece, as well as a central scientific team which I could guide in taking decentralised actions.” 

In 2009, after eight years since Greece had submitted its last and only report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, during which the committee had made repeated requests, it submitted a second and a third report together, based on The Smile of the Child action plan.

Together with the scientific board of the organisation, Altanis put together a team of scientists in each region of the country that would oversee the researchers. The research covered most of the public, private and NGO welfare services in the country that dealt with children. The result, which was completed in 2008, but published in 2009, is now known among child protection professionals as “Altanis’ orange book”, because of its orange coloured cover. It is a thick, 500-page tome that graces the shelves of nearly every relevant service. Its first half is devoted to the study of existing child services in Greece, and best international practices. The second is an exhaustive guide to necessary reforms.

Even though The Smile of the Child was christened a “Supervised Entity” by the ministry, Altanis pointed out that credit for the plan should go exclusively to the NGO. “The Ministry,” he added, “would ultimately be judged by the extent to which it implemented the resulting proposals.”

It did not. But it did, after eight years since Greece had submitted its last and only report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, during which the committee had made repeated requests, submit a second and a third report together, based on The Smile of the Child action plan.

The reports were submitted only two months before, in October 2009, New Democracy lost the general election.

The First Attempt

Despite the turmoil caused by the financial crisis and Greece’s bailout agreement with the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, the new PASOK government, under Prime Minister George Papandreou, introduced two laws that attempted to build on the insights of The Smile of the Child action plan.  

The baton now passed to the Ministry of Justice, under Minister Charis Kastanidis, which in 2010 put into law an obligation of state institutions for minors to not only address juvenile delinquency, as had been the case since the 1940s, but also the victimisation of children. This was important, at least philosophically, because the shift from delinquency to victimisation is considered by experts to be the foundation of a child protection system.

The new law retained the EPAs’ mission to provide support to minors who were entangled in judicial processes, but it added “prevention of victimisation” to it.

In the same year, Panagiotis Altanis was appointed president of the National Centre for Social Solidarity, or EKKA, a position from which he hoped to be able to implement some of the policies he had proposed in his action plan. Despite lacking a distinct mandate on the issue, EKKA had already been partially active in child protection: it operated shelters for mothers with children in need, as well as a social welfare phone line (197), and its social workers were executing orders by prosecutors to conduct social research in households.

“We were no strangers to this field,” Giota Manthou, Director of Operations at EKKA, told us. “At the time,” she said, referring to a wide-ranging study the centre had conducted in 2010, “we had researched state child protection institutions, collecting personnel data and resident data. We had also recorded the significant difficulties of institutionalised care.”

She added that during the same period there was an initial, unofficial attempt to network the social services of the municipalities — an initiative with which Altanis should be credited.

In the event, the 2010 law did two things: firstly, it tasked the Societies for the Protection of Minors, or EPAs, which were founded in 1940 by the Metaxas dictatorship and started operating during the Axis occupation of Greece, with “actively contributing to the prevention of the victimisation and delinquency of minors”. Attached to the offices of state prosecutors for minors all over the country, these societies’ mission had been to guide and support minors through the justice system. The new law retained their mission to provide material, social and psychological support to minors who were entangled in judicial processes (for example, by operating shelters for housing minors who were released from juvenile detention centres), but it added “prevention of victimisation” to it — a somewhat vague addition from a practical point of view, but still conceptually significant.  

Secondly, the law created within the Ministry of Justice a Central Scientific Council for the Prevention and Treatment of the Victimisation and Delinquency of Minors, or KESATHEA, an ad-hoc supervisory body comprised of scientists, academics, school teachers, a state prefect for minors and a state prosecutor. 

In a 2015 paper outlining the scope of KESATHEA as it was envisaged in 2010, Elisavet Symeonidou-Kastanidou, a Professor of Criminal Law at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (and Charis Kastanidis’s wife), extensively discusses two studies on juvenile offenders and services for children victims of abuse, conducted by the university in 2004-2005. The implication appears to be that these studies had been points of reference for the new legislation. Perhaps this explains the decision to draw most members of the new council from universities in Thessaloniki and Thrace, including its President Aggeliki Pitsela, an Assistant Professor of Criminology at Thessaloniki, and co-author of the studies with Kastanidou and others. Presumably, also, it was to accommodate the members that it was decided to base the council in Thessaloniki, although the Ministry of Justice is located in Athens. 

Apart from its impractical location, the new council was also not helped by the vagueness of its mission: among other things, it was to “collect and process allegations of abuse of minors”; “study matters of victimisation”; “advise the minister on policy”; “organise volunteers”; and “observe the work of Societies for the Protection of Minors”. There was no provision in the law as to how these tasks were to be executed.

In the meantime, many health professionals and social workers received notifications that they had been appointed board members in Societies for the Protection of Minors, but they were never informed when, and even if, these boards would be convened. They never attended a meeting.

The Second Attempt

In February 2011, the cameras of ERT, Greece’s public broadcaster, entered the institution at Lechaina, and a diligent local journalist, Giorgos Marinopoulos, reported on the horrors taking place there. The story aired in the main evening news, and Andreas Loverdos, then Minister of Health, intervened on air, and promised that the situation would be speedily improved. 

In March, the Children’s Ombudsman issued a damning report on the inhuman conditions at Lechaina, describing “practices constituting the violation of the human rights of the patients and highlighting the problems of the institutions”. Despite this, the publicity from the ERT report, and the ministerial commitment on air, nothing was done.   

In June, however, the Ministry of Justice, still under Kastanidis, drafted a new law on child protection. This time, another body was created, called the National Coordinating Team for the Protection of Minors. It was to be presided over by the president of KESATHEA, and its mission was to coordinate the activities of KESATHEA with those of EKKA.

The 2011 law also provided for a National Register of Child Protection for all children that went through the system, and tasked EKKA with organising it. EKKA also had to set up a child protection hotline (1107), the second such line in the country, after the one (1056) that The Smile of the Child had been operating since 1997. 

Furthermore, the law officialized the networking of municipal social services that had been initiated by Altanis, by introducing Juvenile Protection Teams, or OPA, in all the municipalities of the country. Then, in a less than obvious move, it tasked KESATHEA with creating these teams in collaboration with the municipalities, and incorporating them in a network, which it was also supposed to create. In addition, this network, christened “Orestes”, was to digitally connect all services dealing with the protection of minors.

“The state can’t be absent in the protection of minors,” said Kastanidis in a joint press conference with Minister of Health Loverdos, announcing the new law. “It has to take responsibility and today it is taking it.”

Things turned out differently. As there was no mechanism or penalties to compel institutions to comply with the new law, most of them did not provide EKKA with the necessary information for the National Register. Only 37 complied, and only nine of these were state-run.

EKKA found that it needed 17 people to operate the new hotline, arguably the only moderately successful part of the whole plan, along with its already existing general welfare hotline. To this day, the phone centre is staffed by only nine people. What is more, there was no provision for promoting the hotline and making it known to the public. So, both private TV stations and the public broadcaster fulfilled their obligation to play public service announcements by sticking EKKA’s hotline ad in the middle of the night — among ads for “another kind of phone lines,” Manthou said. On the other hand, she pointed out, more promotion would increase the need for extra staff to manage the additional calls. As things stand, The Smile of the Child hotline, which is also “national” by a 2007 ministerial decision, remains the most well-known to the public.

“What we are actually doing is taking a slice of the time of a single social worker at a municipality and renaming it a Juvenile Protection Team.” 

As for the Juvenile Protection Teams, KESATHEA could not coordinate them, because it was never equipped to do so. Nevertheless, the Ministry of the Interior, to which Kastanidis was moved less than two months after issuing the law, sent a directive to all municipalities to immediately appoint Juvenile Protection Teams. The directive was marked “Extremely urgent – to be sent also with fax”. 

The task of organising the teams was taken up by EKKA, which had more resources, more experience and more expertise than KESATHEA. The results were mixed.

“The new law,” Manthou said, “did not provide for the recruitment of new personnel to staff the Juvenile Protection Teams, nor did it establish them as a distinct legal entity within the municipalities, not even as a separate legal service.” 

“Juvenile Protection Teams,” Nikolaidis said, “are the same municipal social services with a different name. In other words, the legislator’s fantasy that there would be teams comprising professionals from social services, the offices of the public prosecutor, local mental health care centres, etc., never became a reality.”  Moreover, in many municipalities all over the country, the social services consisted of a single person. “That person,” Nikolaides said, “is not only charged with matters of child protection but every social issue pertaining to minors, adults, the elderly… What we are actually doing, then, is taking a slice of the time of a single social worker at a municipality and renaming it a Juvenile Protection Team.” 

Still, as Manthou pointed out, the law “placed municipalities under the obligation to set up a Juvenile Protection Team. As we speak, 236 municipalities have obliged, participating with specified employees.”

EKKA also started to provide training for these municipal social workers, in collaboration with the Institute of Child Health and the Children’s Ombudsman. “We ran training sessions for them,” Manthou told us. “We sent, we still send, educational material. We consult colleagues at the municipalities on the handling of cases. That has been happening continuously since then.”

Training, however, was faced with a different problem: “Giorgos Moschos and I had gone to provide the training,” Nikolaidis said. “And I asked them, ‘Who is permanent and who is contract staff?’ More than half of them were contract staff. So, then I asked, ‘When does your contract expire?’ ‘In three months.’ ‘How about you?’ ‘In five months.’ I turn around and tell them — Panagiotis Altanis, the president of EKKA, which was coordinating the training initiative, was also there — what do we do now? Are we saying that we will give special skills training to people who will find themselves outside the system in three months?”

Meantime, KESATHEA, for all its expanded responsibilities on paper, never achieved much. When the term of its members expired in 2013, it was not renewed, nor new members appointed.

Symeonidou-Kastanidou, who despite not being a member of the council at the time had publicly and extensively advocated for it, attributes its lack of effectiveness in her 2015 paper to “bureaucracy, negligence and inflexibility of public services”, “competition issues”, “contestation of the intentions of KESATHEA”, and “mistrust” on the part of NGOs. Its demise was precipitated, according to Kastanidou, by the fact that the supervisory body that would network all services in the country lost its staff of two employees, who returned to their organic posts, and the ministry did not appoint replacements.

The fate of “Orestes” was even less distinguished: it never became anything more than an interesting choice of name. The National Coordinating Team that was supposed to coordinate KESATHEA and EKKA was likewise never heard of again.

An Attempt that Almost Was

A few months after the 2011 law on child protection was voted in, a massive case of sexual abuse of children shocked the country, and once again highlighted the failures of the system. In December 2011, police in Rethymno, Crete, arrested a school basketball coach, who also coached the local youth basketball team. He was charged with molesting dozens of children. 

The Institute of Child Health was invited to submit a proposal on how to organise a support structure for the children and their families. It took a year for the relevant ministries to take the necessary steps and redirect EU NSRF funds from the 2007-2013 cycle, so the Programme of Psychosocial Intervention in Rethymno was not set up until early 2013.

© The Manifold

Meanwhile, after a turbulent three years in power, the PASOK government had fallen, and had been replaced by two successive coalition governments. The crisis deepened. Unemployment peaked at 27,8%, and 35% of the people were living at or below the poverty level. In 2013, 12,3% of the population was suffering from depression — four times the rate of 2008. Between 2010 and 2015, 150.000 civil servants were laid off, including medical professionals and social workers. Just as austerity was decimating the already problematic Greek welfare state, conditions were generating a need for increased welfare. 

Pressed by ever-tightening “troika” demands, the New Democracy-PASOK coalition government imposed cost-cutting policies, which included layoffs, mass privatisations, and a sudden shutdown of Greece’s public broadcaster, ERT. In this volatile climate, a law to abolish all Societies for the Protection of Minors that were not attached to the office of an Appellate Court Prosecutor, went largely unnoticed. This, however, undid a big part of what remained of the 2010 child protection legislation, which tasked the societies with supporting child victims. 

At the same time, in an effort to streamline welfare on the regional level, a law merged a great number of welfare facilities into new “Centres of Social Welfare” — one per region. The 2013 law, however, also stipulated an “Organisation” attached to each of these centres, as an administrative authority, responsible for appointing directors and boards, hiring staff, procuring materials, and most importantly regulating and administering the foster care procedures. These “Organisations” were never created.

In 2014, the Lechaina Centre became world-famous, when the BBC published a report headlined The disabled children locked up in cages. Following the outcry, the Deputy Minister for Health at the time, Katerina Papakosta, visited the institution. In her statements to the media, she claimed that the institute did not fall within her mandate, but that of the Ministry of Welfare. “I have been informed by scientific experts,” she said “that the cots, where a number of children must be kept for their own protection, have been grossly misrepresented by others. I questioned the scientists, who are experts, and they told me that this is how children are protected in these circumstances, there is no alternative.”

The new plan was published online for public consultation in November. By the time the consultation was over in January 2015, New Democracy had lost the general election to SYRIZA. The plan never made it past the draft stage.

In September 2014, Papakosta informed Nikolaidis and his team that the Ministry of Health was shutting down the Psychosocial Intervention programme that was supporting the child abuse survivors in Rethymno. Although the team had managed to prolong the Rethymno programme for a total of 22 months, by economising on funds that were supposed to last for 12, resources had been finally exhausted. 

In its less than two years of operation, the programme had received approximately 450 children, according to Nikolaidis, “not all victims necessarily, we also covered pre-existing mental health needs”.

The sudden and unexplained shutdown, said Nikolaidis, “was one of the most traumatic experiences I have had in this field”. “There were many children and families already in systematic therapy and who essentially had no other options, nowhere else to go. We were obliged to inform people that we would be closing, and they were literally crying.”

Despite the Deputy Health Minister’s announcement, two months later, the Ministry of Justice, under Minister Charalambos Athanassiou, included the extension of the Rethymno programme in its brand-new Action Plan on Children’s rights. 

The new plan was published online for public consultation in November. By the time the consultation was over in January 2015, New Democracy had lost the general election to SYRIZA. The plan never made it past the draft stage.

Unwanted Protocols

Perhaps the most acute failure, among a score of chronic problems that plague child protection in Greece, is that there is no unified way to monitor the system. The very services involved in protecting children have no reliable, comprehensive information on the extent of problems, like abuse and neglect; or on reported incidents at various points of contact, like schools and hospitals, or municipal social services, or the police and state prosecutors; or on the progress of incidents through the judicial system; or on shelters and institutional facilities and the welfare of their residents; or on the status of children going into foster care.    

There have of course been attempts by various actors to collect data and use it to design policy. The Institute of Child Health, for example, has run the Balkan Epidemiological Study on Child Abuse and Neglect, or BECAN, published in 2013, where it took a random sample of 15,000 children and found that eight in ten children have suffered some form of physical or psychological violence at some point in their lives, and one in five has suffered sexual violence.

EKKA has also been at the forefront of the effort to collect solid information on the state of the system. It welcomed the creation of the National Register of Child Protection, stipulated in the 2011 law, and when it failed, it still tried to collect data from municipal social services and public prosecutors. Then, in 2015, the Welfare General Secretariat addressed a request to both Regions and institutions to tell EKKA which institutions, starting with private institutions, are established and active in their area and provide information on their child residents. “Even then,” Manthou told us “not all bodies responded, such as shelters and most of the institutions run by the church. Some of the state institutions also did not respond.”

Private actors have also been trying to rectify the lack of reliable information. Roots Research Centre, an NGO, estimated in a study that 3000 children reside in over 80 institutions. But the fact that, according to Manthou, EKKA’s 2015 attempt to collect data from regions managed to record less than 1000 children in institutions, or 1/3 of the population estimated by the Roots study, is telling with respect to the need for a unified system.

In 2014, the national protocol for the diagnosis and verification of reported or suspected child abuse or neglect was complete. Since then, it remains inactive.

After 2012, the Institute of Child Health developed, through its own initiative supported by EU funds, a national protocol for the diagnosis and verification of reported or suspected child abuse or neglect. According to Nikolaidis, it was developed “following a process that was as broad and consensual as possible, in other words, we consulted with actors and practitioners from the broadest range of both the state and the non-governmental sectors, who are involved in these processes in practice”. 

The protocol is designed to outline all steps that must be taken to cover every type of suspected child abuse, and to determine which professions must intervene and how they must do so. At the same time, the institute also created an incident-monitoring electronic tool, through which every reported incident could be registered. Professionals from different sectors could all have access to this computerised system.

In 2014, when the project was complete, the institute notified the relevant ministries that would have to ensure intersectoral cooperation. Since then, the protocol remains inactive.

Nikolaidis told us about this in a tone that was both bitter and ironic. Bitter because, as he said, in order for the protocol to function “it needs an administrative or legislative act that would give it formal status. In the Greek sphere, it is nothing more than a simple initiative at present”.

As for the irony: “Our institution,” he said “heading a consortium of academic bodies from other European countries, developed an equivalent system commissioned by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice, which could be implemented in all 28 Member-States of the European Union. We also received separate funding from the European Commission, from the same directorate-general, to implement the system for Pan-European epidemiological monitoring that we created in six Member-States of the European Union, with the aim of expanding its use to all Member-States. We have also given it to Greece, ready-to-use, and it is not being utilised.”  

For the Many, Not the Few

SYRIZA’s first months in power were mostly spent in intense negotiations with the “troika” over the future of austerity in the country. It wasn’t until SYRIZA won a second snap election, in September 2015, and voted in a third austerity “memorandum”, that the government would begin some legislative work with regard to welfare.

One of the most pressing issues was, as ever, Greece’s reliance on institutions, in order to house children who, for one reason or another, had been removed from their families — approximately 3000, according to the Roots study. 

In November 2015, the Emancipation Movement for the Disabled “Zero Tolerance”(“Mideniki Anohi”) occupied the Lechaina facility in protest for four days. With the occupation underway, four members of Zero Tolerance filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s office in Amaliada, denouncing the flagrant violation of the human rights of the disabled children and youths kept at the institution. “To this day, since 2015, we have not been called to testify,” Antonis Rellas, an activist with Zero Tolerance, told us. The Prosecutor’s office archived the complaint in 2016.

Despite mounting pressure, the Greek State was once again failing to address either the specific problem of Lechaina, or the wider issue of deinstitutionalisation.

Shortly after the occupation, the Institute of Child Health submitted an intervention plan to the Centre of Social Welfare of Western Greece, under whose jurisdiction falls the Lechaina Unit. In March 2016, the Institute, along with members of Lumos, the British charity founded by author J. K. Rowling to advocate for deinstitutionalisation, visited the premises. At the meeting which followed at the Ministry of Labour, it was decided that Lumos would fund an emergency intervention. 

In July 2016, the emergency intervention was launched under the scientific supervision of Giorgos Nikolaidis. The initial intervention was due to last six months, “because, rather optimistically, we believed that by then, the government would do something to radically restructure these services, develop new facilities and permanently close this institution — how could they not?” Nikolaidis told us. 

Still, despite activist and legal moves by Zero tolerance and others (including a complaint to the Supreme Court Prosecutor filed by the Greek Helsinki Monitor, an NGO), despite the mounting pressure from child protection professionals, despite the repeated calls for immediate measures by the UN, which were reiterated in 2015, and despite the emergency intervention by the Institute of Child Health, the Greek State was once again failing to address either the specific problem of Lechaina, or the wider issue of deinstitutionalisation.

The government, nevertheless, did take some measures in child protection — with varying degrees of success. In 2016, Minister of Justice Nikos Paraskevopoulos revived KESATHEA, appointed new members, and moved its meetings inside his Ministry in Athens. Although its overall mandate remained ill-defined, partly due to its relocation and partly to its new members’ determination, it did take part in designing new legislation, in which it regained a supervisory role. 

Child protection legislation once again inched in the direction that experts had been calling for, but was once again fraught with discrepancies and half-measures.

A 2017 law introduced so-called “Houses of the Child”, long advocated for by professionals familiar with the plight imposed upon child victims of abuse by the judicial system. Modelled on similar facilities internationally, where they are known as Child Houses or Child Advocacy Centres, the Houses of the Child allow for an examination of children by trained professionals, which takes place only once and is as non-invasive as possible.

Olga Themeli, an associate professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Crete, and President of KESATHEA, seemed elated at the prospect, when we spoke to her — understandably so, as it was her research, which claimed that abused children in Greece are forced to repeat their story to the police “up to 14 times”. “Our prospects are very good,” she told us.

The law, however, instituted the Houses of the Child within existing Prefect for Minors services, in five locations: Athens, Thessaloniki, Piraeus, Patras, and Heraklion. A strong reaction from the Prefects followed, who do not agree that Houses of the Child should come under their purview.

The police seem no more enthusiastic than the Prefects. “This is Greece,” Konstantina Kostakou, a police officer and psychologist at the Athens Department for Minors, told us, implying that things are being done differently. She disputed Themeli’s research and said that children who make allegations of abuse should be brought to police headquarters, so they know “things are serious”.

To date, no autonomous structures have been created to function as Houses of the Child, although a handful of court cases have followed the associated protocol for the examination and testimony of child victims.

© The Manifold

At the same time, Theoni Koufonikolakou, who succeeded Giorgos Moschos and became the Children’s Ombudswoman in 2018, along with Xeni Dimitriou, a former State Prosecutor for Minors who had been promoted to Chief Prosecutor of the Supreme Court, pressed the government to legislate protection for school teachers that reported suspected child abuse. This was an attempt to strengthen the provisions of the 2006 law on domestic violence, by countering the problem that school teachers were vulnerable to crushing lawsuits by alleged perpetrators of abuse. Their proposals went unheeded.

An attempt to address another long-suffering issue was made by the Ministry of Labour, under Alternate Minister for Social Solidarity, Theano Fotiou. A 2018 law created a new framework for foster care and adoption. Although not directly addressing the chronic institutionalisation problem, the law was an important step in the right direction, as experts agree that the only way to properly relocate children who live in institutions is through foster care, and not through improvements, however major, in the institutions themselves.  

Until that time, foster care was administered by regional welfare services, as well as four institutions under the Social Welfare Centres. The new law introduced several reforms: firstly, it introduced a central coordinating body, the National Council for Foster Care and Adoption, or ESAnY, mandated to design and oversee the relevant protocols and processes; second, it introduced two registers, one for candidate foster and adoptive parents, and one for children resident in institutions; thirdly, it widened the foster-care implementation process by including social workers, a move facilitated by a 2016 law that had made SKLE, the Social Workers Association of Greece, a public entity.

These reforms were positive, but insufficient, as pointed out by several experts both publicly and in consultation with the Ministry. The National Council for Foster Care and Adoption, or ESAnY, which has vast responsibilities on paper, is another ad hoc body, lacking a solid administrative structure. This makes it inherently vulnerable to changes in government and inhibits the continuity of policy, as has been the case with other ad hoc supervisory bodies in the past.

The registers for candidate parents and institutionalised children are essential, but do not in themselves guarantee that institutions will open the foster-care process to their residents. There are no penalties or other provisions to ensure that an institution, once it registers its residents, will place them in foster-care, as soon as the opportunity arises.

The inclusion of social workers in the foster-care process had been advocated for by child protection professionals for a long time. But it is not clear how social services that are at present hard-pressed to meet existing welfare demands, will be able to handle the increased volume of foster-care cases, as required by the new law. Passing the baton to SKLE does not solve the problem of understaffed services, or the lack of funds to pay for social workers, as well as emergency and professional foster-care.

By the time of the July 2019 general election, the Lechaina situation had still not been addressed, nor substantial steps for deinstitutionalisation taken. Details of the SYRIZA government Action Plan were never made public.

General Secretary of Human Rights, Maria Yiannakaki, presented a brand new Action Plan for Children’s Rights, in November 2018, which included both the foster-care law and the Child Houses in its ten action points. The plan was presented in a briefing to the so-called Government Council for Social Policy, which was convened under Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Economy and Development, Yiannis Dragasakis.  

In February 2019, the emergency intervention by the Institute of Child Health in Lechaina ended. The government had already announced, in December 2017, that it would allocate fifteen million euro from the super-surplus to be shared between the deinstitutionalisation of the Lechaina Centre and the Centre of Social Welfare of Attica, with the promise that a detailed plan would follow in the immediate future. A cooperation agreement between Lumos and SOS Children’s Villages was signed in May 2019, and personnel, selected by competition, which did not require specific experience in deinstitutionalisation, was hired in June 2019, on twelve-month contracts.

By the time of the July 2019 general election, the Lechaina situation had still not been addressed, nor substantial steps for deinstitutionalisation taken. Details of the SYRIZA government Action Plan were never made public, apart from summary points in a press release, and no detailed report of the plan was published for consultation. When New Democracy won the election and came to power, it abolished the General Secretariat of Human Rights.  

Once More, With Feeling

It is hard to gauge the feelings of child professionals, many of whom have been fighting for a coherent child protection system over decades, when they heard Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announce, in December 2019, that his government aims to “implement a broader framework of policies for child care”. 

The Prime Minister vowed to take decisive measures to put forward a concise programme for child adoption and foster care. “I think it’s a disgrace,” he said, “to have on the one hand children in institutions seeking a family and on the other families willing to adopt and for some bureaucratic reason to not be able to.”

With the fate of reforms by the previous government still uncertain, it looks like it is time for a new action plan.