Return to family life came a step closer for thousands of children in institutions in Greece this week when Greek Government representatives met officials from European Union organisations to explore the potential funding of child services reform.
The officials met, with representatives of international civil society organisations, at an event organised at the European Parliament in Brussels by J.K. Rowling’s international children’s organisation, Lumos, and hosted by Stelios Kouloglou, the Greek MEP, and Jean Lambert, MEP, Vice Chair of the Intergroup on children’s rights in the European Parliament.
The European Parliament ‘round table’, on 17 February, is seen as a significant and positive development by those working to help Greece replace institutions with community-based health, education and socials services which keep children in families in their communities.
An estimated 3,000 children, including those with disabilities, live in a complex network of around 85 Greek institutions. Some are run and funded by Greek state agencies while others are supported by private foundations and faith-based organisations. Research in recent years has highlighted very poor conditions in some institutions, particularly for children with disabilities. There have been international and national media reports featured disturbing cases of children in caged beds in Greek children’s homes.
Though state agencies run only around an estimated third of the overall capacity of Greek residential institutions, advocates of ‘deinstitutionalisation’ argue that the state, with support, should take the lead in a process which will lead to the eventual transformation of the whole system.
As a Member State of the European Union, Greece is entitled to apply for EU Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) to support the transition from institutional to community-based care.
Lumos, as a founder member of the European Expert Group of the Transition from Institutional to Community Based Living (EEG), was part of a coalition of organisations that convinced the European Commission to create new regulations that prevent ESIF being used to build or support institutions and orphanages, and instead to prioritise the development of community based services that help children to stay in their families, be included in their schools and communities and develop to their full potential. Lumos has advised a number of countries in the process of applying for and using EU funds to end the institutionalisation of children.
Children raised in institutions are deprived of the loving adult engagement and stimulation a family provides. Eighty years of research has shown that their physical, intellectual and emotional development is harmed; and they face a significant risk of abuse and neglect. The EU has accepted that deinstitutionalisation is a priority.
Among those also present in the round table were Dimitris Karellas, Secretary General, Ministry of Labour, Social Insurance and Social Solidarity, Greece, and Kostis Papaioannou, Secretary General, Ministry of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights, Greece. Jiri Svarc, Head of Unit, National Employment and Social Inclusion Monitoring and ESF Operations for UK, Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, also took part, along with Jan Jařab, Regional Representative, UN OHCHR Regional Office for Europe.
Lumos is working with other civil society organisations, as well as the Institute of Child Health (ICH) - a governmental research institute under the auspices of Greek Ministry of Health - to build a civil society coalition of stakeholders to encourage and support the government to reform its institutionalised system. At an event in Athens in January, Lumos presented a set of detailed recommendations for reforming child care and protection services.
Lumos CEO Georgette Mulheir said: “Lumos is committed to working closely with the Greek Government, the EU and other European institutions to overcome challenges arising from the current economic situation and find solutions that support reform the overall child protection system in Greece. Greece has a number of pressing social and economic problems, but it should not overlook the urgent need to reform services for some of its most vulnerable children. Reform is particularly important during the current migrant crisis, as community and family-based services will provide an alternative solution for any children separated from their parents. Orphanages are never the answer for children in adversity.”