On the eve of Eurochild’s conference ‘Better Public Spending for Better Outcomes for Children and Families’, Eurochild and the Opening Doors campaign  respond to the recent BBC report which reveals children with disabilities kept in caged beds in a state-run institution in Greece.
Efi Bekou, General Secretary for Social Welfare at the Greek Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs will address the conference on Friday 28th November. This statement outlines our perspective on how to move forward to end systematic child rights violations in Greece.
Long-term goal must be to end institutional care for children in Greece
System reform requires political will and urgent government leadership. It also requires an inclusive planning process that builds shared ownership and responsibility with the key stakeholders.  The long-term goal must be a full transition from a system reliant on public and private institutional care for children, including those in the child protection system and children with disabilities, to a system reliant on community-level services and family-based and family-like alternative care. Such transition is an explicit investment priority of EU structural and investment funds, and is aligned with international standards, such as UN Guidelines on Alternative Care. 
Lechaina a shocking but not an isolated case
The BBC report is a shocking depiction of life for more than 60 children with disabilities in the Lechaina centre, cared for by just 6 staff members. Caged beds are seen as the only possible option for many of these children with behavioural problems. It is a depressing but familiar story. The Greek ombudsman for the rights of the child already reported on the centre in 2011, condemning the use of cage beds, and other physical and chemical restraints, as well as electronic surveillance.  These practices clearly violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to which Greece is signatory. However, to this day they remain unchanged.
The Lechaina centre is clearly not an isolated case. The BBC request to visit other institutions was refused. According to Mary Theodoropoulou of Roots Research Centre, who coordinates the Opening Doors campaign in Greece, there are as many children in privately-run institutions as there are in government-run centres. And there is no government oversight. In fact it is impossible to know the total number of children growing up in institutional care in Greece.
The crisis is exacerbating an already fragile situation. Ms Theodoropoulou most recent concern is that “young adults with disabilities who have grown up in foster families are now being transferred back into institutions. Public spending cuts have meant that their foster carers are no longer eligible to receive financial support for health care or education support, making it impossible for them to keep them at home.”
The Smile of the Child, one of the biggest children’s charities operating in Greece, and also member of Eurochild, says that demand on their children’s homes far exceeds available spaces. Over the last 20 years almost 1,500 requests from public prosecutors have gone unmet. Over the same time period, some 670 children have been raised in their community homes, with 283 children are currently growing up there. 
Solutions lie in tackling poverty, building community-level services and developing family-based care alternatives
More places in institutional care (public or private) should definitely not be part of the solution. The first principle is to prevent separation of children from their families. Few, if any, of the children who end up in institutional care are in fact orphans. Some children may be abandoned at birth, others experience family breakdown later in childhood. Poverty and deprivation is very often a root cause, and in Greece child poverty levels have almost doubled since the beginning of the crisis.  Tackling child poverty requires an integrated strategy, particularly investment in early childhood, family and parenting support, community healthcare, quality education and housing. Perversely Greece is one of the few EU countries that has set a target to reduce child poverty, but this is not accompanied by any comprehensive long-term strategy to guide policy and investment. 
The second principle is to develop a range of alternative care options that meet the individual needs of the child. In Greece there is an urgent need to support the development of foster care which is still shockingly under developed. Reliance on institutional care indicates a child protection system built around a one-size-fits-all approach to care, rather than around the individual needs and best interests of children.
The EU must support efforts to invest where it matters most
Primary responsibility for reform lies in Greece with the Greek people. The use of caged beds long predates the crisis, and is illustrative of the government’s clear lack of political will and commitment to children’s rights.
Nonetheless the Troika rules are paralyzing the country in an economic straight jacket that completely disregards social consequences and impact on human rights. The EU urgently needs to review the pace of reforms and send more balanced messages in line with the integrated approach of the Europe 2020 strategy. Greece should be fully involved in the European semester process and other important EU policy guidance, such as the Social Investment Package, and in particular the Recommendation on Investing in Children, must be given due weight. The next round of EU structural and investment funding can be an opportunity if the Operational Programmes have clear strategic goals, and are in designed in an open, transparent way with involvement of the key stakeholders. Unfortunately, our intelligence suggests this is far from being the case.
1. Eurochild is a European network of organisations and individuals promoting the rights and well-being of children and young people in Europe www.eurochild.org.
2. The Opening Doors for Europe’s Children campaign is jointly run by Eurochild and Hope and Homes for Children a UK-based charity. It aims to end institutional care for children and strengthen families by leveraging EU funds and policy guidance. It operates in 12 countries including Greece www.openingdoors.eu
3. The Greek Ombudsman for Children (www.0-18.gr) convenes an informal coalition of children’s NGOs. Roots Research Centre (www.roots-research-center.gr) is the national coordinator of Opening Doors in Greece. They have built a broader partnership including church-led and disability organisations, committed to ending institutional care in Greece.
4. www.alternativecareguidelines.org provides links to the ‘Moving Forward’ publication and related resources which enable policy-makers and practitioners best implement the ‘UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children’ in their international, regional and country contexts.
6. Report on its 20 years of work, 10-November-2014.
7. UNICEF Innocenti Report Card 12, Children of the Recession: The impact of the economic crisis on child well-being in rich countries.
8. See Eurochild analysis of 2013 National Reform Programmes from a child poverty and well-being perspective August 2013.