30 Dec 2018
Greece child protection services ‘disjointed and inadequate’
Successive governments are structurally unable to organize a coherent system of child protection, experts say.
Athens, Greece – When two children from the small, remote Greek island of Leros were taken to one of the largest paediatric hospitals in Athens for a psychological evaluation, they were about to fall prey to one of the country’s rarely talked about problems.
After the siblings were examined by doctors, the youngest of the two, a six-year-old boy was released to his parents while the 11-year-old girl was admitted.
After two months in the hospital, she was transferred to a girls’ home.
A few months after that, in the fall of 2017, she was sent back to her parents in Leros. They were instructed by judicial authorities that she had to see a psychologist at the municipal community centre regularly.
But then in May this year, her parents brought her back to Leros Hospital, malnourished and faint.
Family members spoke to the police reluctantly, but an officer got a confession from the parents. Her father was accused of sexually abusing her and physically abusing his other children. His trial is pending.
These children were not unknown to the authorities. They had been through the child protection system. They had been examined in a hospital. Abuse was confirmed. And yet, a prosecutor decided to remove only the little girl at first and leave her brother with their parents. Then they reversed their decision and returned the girl, while her family had not even been visited by a social worker.
Greece has always lacked a coherent system to efficiently protect minors who are victims of abuse. And in the story of the two children, these problems became painfully obvious.
I have seen cases where four-year-old kids were treated for sexually transmitted rectal HPV for over a year and no investigation had been undertaken to determine how they got it.
GIORGOS NIKOLAIDIS, CHILD PSYCHIATRIST
‘Underfunded before the crisis’
Nowadays, the Greek financial crisis is often blamed for the inadequacies of social services. However, Giorgos Nikolaidis, a child psychiatrist and head of the Mental Health Department of the Institute of Child Health, is suspicious of such a generalisation, despite his own institution having endured a 50 percent reduction in personnel.
“The cuts are real enough,” he says. “But child protection was underfunded even before the crisis. And our state still maintains the luxury of four or five parallel networks of services that are disjointed and inadequate. There is an issue of lack of funds, but there is also an issue of what we do with the funds we have”.
Another such case took place a few years earlier in Crete. A coach with the local basketball team in the town of Rethymno was arrested and convicted of molesting 36 young boys. The abuse had been going on for years and the total number of his victims is believed to be well over 100.
But no parent, neighbour, teacher, social worker, or police officer ever came forward with a suspicion. After the police and the local prosecutor were eventually alerted by one family, they purposefully, according to their own admission, left him to his devices in order to organise a sting operation that would ensure his conviction.
This took a full year, throughout which the coach continued to abuse children.
It took another year before the Institute of Child Health, a semi-independent institution overseen by the Greek Ministry of Health, managed to convince authorities that something should be done for the families. EU funds were redirected and a psychological support unit was set up in Rethymno.
It didn’t last more than two years; as the EU funds ran out, the Ministry of Health decided to shut it down. Nothing has taken its place.
Ignored by successive governments
Such cases, of which there are many, seem indicative of a structural inability to organise a coherent system of child protection in Greece, child care experts said.
There are hundreds of services spread across the country that have some measure of participation in child protection; but most operate in isolation from the others, with no protocols for coordinated action.
“This kind of anarchy where every professional does whatever comes to their mind is destructive,” Nikolaidis said.