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, one of the country’s rarely-talked-about problems was about to come to a head.

After the siblings were examined by doctors, the youngest of the two, a six-year-old boy was released back to his parents while the 11-year-old girl was admitted to hospital.

Spending two months at the hospital, she was then transferred to a girls home.

A few months later, in the fall of 2017, she was sent back to her parents in Leros, given directions by judicial authorities that she regularly attend a psychologist at the municipal community centre.

But then in May this year, her parents admitted her again to Leros Hospital – malnourished and faint.

Family members gradually started talking to the police. In the end, 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 cases 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 the girl at first, but leave the boy with his parents. They later 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 who is also 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 for 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 unit for psychological support was set up in Rethymno.

It did not 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.

Giorgos Nikolaidis in Athens, and various literature on psychology, Olga Themeli’s book on children’s testimonies among them [Achilleas Zavallis/The Manifold/Al Jazeera]

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.

“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. Because in this type of anarchy, every professional can shut themselves in their own task, however they define it. The dermatologist can just treat the infection and not be concerned with anything else”.

The Institute of Child Health has developed, with independent funding, a protocol for networking the disparate services and unifying their procedures. It also developed a digital records system for incidents of abuse. Βut despite presenting these to successive Greek governments, they have been ignored.

To date, all efforts towards coordinating child protection services have similarly failed. One more attempt to streamline the system is in the works by the current government, starting with improving the conditions for child abuse survivors that choose to legally challenge their abusers.

Olga Themeli, an associate professor of forensic psychology in the University of Crete, tells us that according to her research, abused children in Greece are forced to repeat their story to the police “up to 14 times”.

Despite many cultural similarities when it comes to the treatment of children, Cyprus has already taken the steps that Greece is contemplating only now. The case of a 29-year-old who committed suicide after years of sexual abuse by her foster father, a priest, seems to have been the last straw.

The ‘House of the Child’ in Nicosia, Cyprus [Achilleas Zavallis/The Manifold/Al Jazeera]

‘This is Greece’

Last April, an inter-disciplinary council inaugurated the ‘House of the Child’, a facility in Nicosia, where children’s testimonies are recorded in a meticulously efficient procedure.

Modeled on similar facilities internationally, where they are known as ‘Child Houses’ or ‘Child Advocacy Centres’, the ‘House of the Child’ allows for an examination of children by expertly trained professionals, which takes place only once, and is as non-invasive as possible.

Themeli is enthusiastic about the prospect of having a ‘House of the Child’ in Greece.

“Our prospects are very good,” she says. A new law stipulates five such houses to be created throughout Greece. But no actual work on them has yet begun, and the Greek police seem reluctant to submit to the new procedure.

“This is Greece,” Konstantina Kostakou, a police officer and psychologist at the Athens Division for Minors, says, implying that things are being done differently. She disputes Themeli’s research and believes that children should be brought to police headquarters, so they know “things are serious”.

Even if the ‘House of the Child’ programme is implemented, problems with child protection in Greece seem endless. There is no foster-care system to speak of, and children who are removed from their families are institutionalised for the long-term.

Conditions in institutions are poor, child care experts say. One institution for disabled children, in the town of Lechaina in Southern Greece, keeps children in wooden cages or tied to their beds, without releasing them even for brief periods in the day, Nikolaidis says.

“No court of law has the right to impose such a sentence,” Nikolaidis said. “So, who is responsible for doing this to these children?” As head of a team that is trying to help the children in the Lechaina facility, with some having remained tied up literally for years, Nikolaidis is furious that no one is being held accountable.

Most children, child care experts agree, are abused by those they trust. Such abuse is an assault to the most basic ability to trust another person and to form relationships. So after the state becomes itself another agent of abuse, where does that leave victims? Themeli’s assessment is that “there is no culture of child protection in Greece”.

Unfortunately, abused children are often inclined to agree with her.

The Manifold, a team of investigative journalists, are Mariniki Alevizopoulou, Yiannis Baboulias, Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou, Achilleas Zavallis and Augustine Zenakos.

This article is based on an investigation financially supported with a grant from the IJ4EU fund.

Forensic Psychologist Olga Themeli and a Children’s Home in Crete, Greece [Achilleas Zavallis/The Manifold/Al Jazeera]


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