By George Nikolaidis, Advocacy and Networking Consultant for Lumos in Greece.
It is beyond doubt that child protection services in Greece are suffering on multiple fronts.
They are deficient in several areas; they lack human and material resources, they are outdated, chaotic and uncoordinated in many areas, often leading children to be revictimised instead of provided with protection and care. Consequently, the need for an immediate paradigm shift in child protection in Greece is urgent and indispensable.
This type of root-and-branch reform of the system must include among its priorities:
- The set-up of a unified, integrated network of primary social services, supporting families and children at community, neighbourhood and school level – where problems can be identified early and dealt with effectively before they are allowed to deteriorate dramatically, thus requiring deeper, more painful interventions.
- The change in priorities: instead of focusing on penal or repressive measures, focus on preventative support activities for families in crisis. In other words, society as a whole should actively intervene to help vulnerable families bring up their children, in spite of their temporary or longer term difficulties.
- The implementation of broad programmes for early detection of problems amongst age groups and population groups that we know to be at greater risk of child victimisation.
- The reorientation of service provision: away from closed institutional children's care, toward alternative forms of residential care (fostering, adoption, small family-like units) for those children who do eventually need to be removed from their birth family for shorter or longer periods of time.
- The co-ordination of structures and services so as to avoid conflicting situations, overlap and contradictory or incompatible use of effort.
- The redrafting of working methods of all employees within the system, based on tools and techniques that are proven to counteract subjective, random or habitual behaviour, which, unfortunately, continues to decide the fate of many of the most vulnerable in our society.
- The recasting of all child protection services with the principle that children themselves should be actively involved in all issues and decisions that affect them.
In order for all these basic aims to be met, first of all, community-based social services for child protection must be created. Society today does not need improved, renovated institutions; on the contrary, it needs structures in place that can prevent children from having to be removed from their homes, by identifying problems quickly and intervening early. However, for those children who do eventually have to be removed from their birth families we need a network of services that can take care of the children without re-victimising them. They should be placed in an environment that most closely resembles their family context, with efforts made to improve conditions in their birth families so that the children may, where possible, return home safely.
A promising meeting
With this in mind, an important meeting was held on Wednesday 17 February in a room of the European Parliament. At the initiative of Lumos, a round table was held on the subject of redesigning child protection services in Greece. More specifically, on planning its transition from the current, strongly institutional model, towards community-based support for social services and alternative forms of children's care. The round table was moderated by Greek MEP Stelios Kouloglou and his UK colleague Jean Lambert, a Green Party MEP who is also the vice-president of the European Parliament's Inter-Party Group on Children's Rights. Participating in the round table were representatives of the political leadership of the Ministries for Social Solidarity and Justice, representatives of relevant social protection departments in the European Commission and of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, other MEPs, representatives of international bodies advocating for children's rights etc.
The initial findings of a research report carried out by Lumos were presented to the round table. This research was carried out in Greece, in cooperation with the Department of Mental Health and Social Welfare of the Institute of Child Health. These findings confirm the evidence shown in other research over the past decade. According to the report, child protection services in Greece present the following inadequacies and shortcomings:
- Greece dramatically lacks primary social services and the entire system is clearly inadequate with regards to prevention.
- For more than half of the approximately 3,000 children currently living in institutions in Greece, there had been no intervention by social services prior to them being removed from their birth families. That intervention could have attempted to preclude an accumulation of the dangers that led to the children's removal.
- Compared to other European countries, the care system for children in Greece is characterised by large-scale institutions that rarely provide psychosocial support services to the children.
- Approximately one fifth of children placed in institutions in Greece spend over 7 years there.
- Although some are still referred to as 'orphanages', these institutions rarely house children whose parents are no longer living or no longer in the country. To a large extent, children in these institutions maintain contact with at least one of their parents (who, with the appropriate support and supervision, could bring up their children themselves).
- The percentage of children that are reunited with their birth families is extremely low.
- Around one third of these children are hosted in public institutions, about one third in private institutions run by child protection charities and another third in a myriad of smaller structures that lack any quality assurance specifications – sometimes lacking even a legal license.
The aims of this event were to explore the requirements and the future direction of a broad alliance for child protection in Greece; to unlock funds for an urgently needed transition to a modern, effective, child-friendly system; and to create a 'protection umbrella' for children, maintaining and improving necessary structures and services. Much was said at the meeting, some of which sounded very promising. However, in order for real change to occur in practice, change that will make a difference to the quality of life of children in danger and families in crisis, something more is needed - more than words, wishes and declarations, everyone needs to take their responsibilities.
- The government: should undertake a clear commitment to moving in towards a quality, community-based reform of the child protection system. It should undertake this in all relevant departments in the various ministries, which today are often uncoordinated. It should abandon its approach of taking one-off measures, and draft an evidence-based, up-to-date, nation-wide plan, including specific, measurable objectives and deadlines, to be implemented immediately, using available funds, and without wasting money on white elephants or resorting to window-dressing.
- The various child protection stakeholders: should – beyond any legislative initiatives that the government may take, and leaving behind old habits and preferences - start today to redesign their services from the bottom up. They should realise that even in the best cases, there is still room for improvement – in terms of quality, and in moving towards a community-based child protection system in Greece that avoids institutionalising children.
- The European institutions: should realise that child protection in Greece needs more resources, new specialised staff, novel structures with a different approach to the traditional institutions or bureaucratic bodies, and that all this cannot happen within the suffocating context of the country's international loan agreements. Consequently, should the European Institutions wish to show consistency in the humanitarian statements they make about the need to protect children around Europe, they should give societies the opportunity to create these required services, staff them, and run them within the framework of an organised national plan, implemented with transparency and effectiveness, so that soon there will no longer be any need for residential care institutions in our country.
- Finally, society: should change its perspective, and replace its old, post-war view of child protection, which was “to bring up the children of someone who is incapable or inappropriate to do so” with a modern approach, whereby child protection means helping the most vulnerable, those in crisis or in difficulty, to raise their own children.
Such a comprehensive change is both socially necessary and more timely than ever. And at this moment in time, in spite of all Greece's macro-economic difficulties, it seems like we have an opportunity to begin to make this change, although it will be neither easy nor quick. But it is certainly worth trying.
This blog was originally published in Greek on tvxs.gr