“Child abandonment can be prevented, we’ve opened the public authorities’ eyes on this” Opening Doors Greek coordinator says

Mary Theodoropoulou, Roots Research Centre

Mary Theodoropoulou, Roots Research Centre

“Institutional care is ruining the lives of thousands of children in Greece. That can be prevented and we have opened the eyes of public authorities on it”, Mary Theodoropoulou, head of the Roots Research Centre (RRC) and Opening Doors national coordinator looks shining happy on the computer screen. Last September, their mapping of children in institutional care has –  for the first time – proved what all workers in the field already thought: children are abandoned in institutional care settings with little or no oversight of quality and no monitoring of the numbers of children and of what happens to them. In Greece, prevention services and foster care are poorly developed and there is an over reliance on public and private institutional care.

After the publication of your mapping, has anything changed? Have you already seen any impact? 

“Only two months have passed, but so much happened already. Before our mapping(i) was published, it was not mandatory for institutions hosting children to have a state license, this has now being changed. The Minister of Labour, Social Insurance and Social Solidarity is planning to cut the funds to institutions that do not comply with the license requirement.

The Ministry has also created a working group on child protection where we give advice on the country’s priorities on issues like foster care, ending institutional care and adoption. We are working on this together with other experts from the government and authorities like the Ombudsman for children. We hope that this work will end up contributing to a law fixing precise rules for public and private institutional care for children”.

Who was supposed to control?

“The National Center of Social Solidarity is responsible to control all the institutions. However, institutional and residential care settings will soon have the burden to prove they comply with the rules if they want to keep their license and public funds.

Among the obligations they will also have to hire professionals to work with children.  For example, I have recently visited an institution in Crete, an old monastery for girls run by nuns. They are beautiful people and they truly try to serve the will of god. However, they do not have a social worker, they are located nearly two hours drive away from the nearest hospital. In addition they have no license and they don’t really need the state money because they receive private donations. Fortunately, they will now have to comply with the same rules as anyone else”.

What are the other areas Greece needs to improve on?

“We are simply asking to respect the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which Greece has signed. The UNCRC binds the state to protect the best interest of the child. It says that taking a child away from their family should be the last resort among the options possible.

More specifically, we are proposing improvements on foster care, prevention of child abandonment and on the reintegration of children in their families. For example, we are supporting the introduction of a list of foster parents, a family should have the possibility to know where their child is placed and at the moment this is not always the case. In addition once a child is taken away from a family, this family should be monitored and should be given the chance of reintegration. In many cases the prosecutors take away a child for a reason and these children are gone who knows where.

If services towards vulnerable families will be delivered and prevention encouraged we will see a reduction of institutionalised children. We think a complete closure of the two institutions for babies aged 0-3 is reachable in a couple of years (read here why 0-3 is the most critical age to avoid being insitutionalised, pp 10-11). There are also many older children aged 15-18 who are in institutional care but they don’t have to be, for them it will take more time unfortunately. If we move towards ending institutional care, institutions could change and be turned into day care centres which assist children with their disabilities or education during the day but allow them to live with their families”.

Do you see a possibility for the state to allocate resources for all this?

“This is of course a key issue. We have been hit by the financial crisis and now with the refugee crisis we are seeing more children entering in institutions. These children cannot be hosted in these places forever. We cannot allow such a human and financial loss. These are human beings who don’t need only food and clothes, that’s not enough. They need psychological support and social services. They will also need to become independent and could contribute to society as grown ups”.

What is the most interesting reaction to the mapping you have had? 

“A donor gave us an office in Crete. She is a lady who is a trained foster parent, she wanted to be a parent but she discovered that being a foster parent of an older child can also give you a great joy. She now allows us to use her office space with apartment included. We are running a small pilot project in Crete. We are the intermediates between foster carers and children from 10 to 15 years of age who have been living in institutions for years. We also have a network of professionals in Crete and now that space will be used by the network as an office for sharing knowledge and running trainings”.

What are your dreams for the future? 

(Laughing) “you know, we have so much work to do… I really need to focus on the reality right now and this is what I am going to do”.

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(i)”Mapping institutional and residential care for children in Greece“, by Katerina Nanou for Roots Research Center in Greece, supported by Vodafone and Opening Doors campaign partners: Hope and Homes for Children UK and Eurochild.