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Greece child abuse rises as economy falters

Economic crisis has been linked to a growing number of abandoned and abused children, straining local charities.

Last updated: 29 Mar 2014 12:58
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Athens, Greece - Haritina is a fine-boned, well-mannered 16-year-old. She's earned top marks in school and wants to study ancient Greek civilisation in university. What sets her apart from most people is that since the age of three she has been raised in a home run by The Smile of the Child, a non-profit organisation.

Like the 25 other children in this suburban Athens home, whom she considers siblings, Haritina was at some point abandoned or abused by her parents. Such instances of abandonment, abuse or extreme neglect of children have been on the rise during Greece's economic crisis, and have now begun to overwhelm institutions which are capable of caring for them.

"The crisis has caused parents to lose their jobs, or to live in a state of terror because they can't feed their families," says Kostas Yannopoulos, who founded The Smile of the Child 18 years ago. "They start drinking, some commit suicide, some take drugs, some become mentally unbalanced. This impacts their children and in some cases endangers their lives."

The Smile of the Child runs a 24-hour hotline and relays reports of abuse, neglect, or abandonment to the authorities. Sometimes they are unable to act in time.

"The prosecutor tells us that there is a lack of places for children to go to, so they are left in their abusive environment," Yannopoulos says. "Not long ago, we had a case of a [little girl] who, on four separate occasions, was reported as being abused. She was found dead in her fridge at home. Her mother, a drug addict, had abused her to death and hidden her [body] there." The Smile of the Child, however, did rescue the girl's two little siblings.

On other occasions the hotline has saved lives. "We received a call from a father who could no longer provide for his family. He was about to commit suicide. We got his 17-year-old son on the phone, who said, 'Please, dad, we need you,' and talked him down."

The effect of the crisis on families is evident in the organisation's aid to families who are emotionally stable enough to supervise their children. Last year, it delivered food and other aid to more than 2,600 families, twice as many as the year before. 

Lack of state institutions

But it is the children who are emotionally orphaned that need help the most. Last year, The Smile of the Child increased its capacity and is now home to a record 306 minors. Greece's other major non-profit childcare organisation, SOS Children's Villages, is also filled to capacity at 250, and plans to expand. Its director, Stelios Sifnios, agrees that cases of neglect and abuse are on the rise. The number of children that a third charity, Kivotos, cares for doubled from about 100 to over 200.

The Smile of the Child and SOS Children's Villages are vitally important for vulnerable children because the government does not have the means and institutions to adequately support each abandoned child.

"Often the buildings are old and grand," says Efi Bekou, general secretary for social security. "They are difficult to heat and maintain, and not all their wings are working. Most date to the early 20th century. In the town of Drama, for instance, our [social services centre] used to be the old Ottoman hospital."

It's not the best thing for a healthy child to live in a hospital.

- Manolis Papasavvas, state hospital administrator

The overflow of abandoned or abused children is now being directed to the state hospital system. The country's two largest children's hospitals, Agia Sofia and Aglaia Kyriakou, served as temporary homes to 177 children three years ago; that number rose to 216 two years ago and 301 last year.

Manolis Papasavvas, who runs both institutions, considers this as an inadequate solution. "In the past, children didn't stay for more than two to three weeks. Now, we keep them for up to two to three months. It's not the best thing for a healthy child to live in a hospital. It's not good for them psychologically, and they can catch illnesses. And we shouldn't be occupying the nursing staff with their care."

Children aren't allowed off hospital premises. There is a schoolroom in the hospital, but a network of volunteers is all they have for stimulation and companionship outside the school. Yet, even living in a hospital turns out to be better than what these children have experienced before. "What surprises me is that these children say to me, 'It's nice here, we feel welcome here,'" says Papasavvas.

An economic issue?

Abandonment often used to be the result of birth defects. Increasingly, though, it seems to be directly or indirectly a result of economic issues. "Last year, a parent brought their two-month-old boy to the hospital and left it by the elevators," says Papasavvas. "They left a note saying, 'I don't want this child, I can't take care of it, please take it.' The child was entirely healthy."

The health ministry says it is now preparing a new centre to house healthy children currently in its hospitals, but it will only be able to accommodate about a tenth of them.

As the problem of abused, neglected and abandoned children grows, authorities are beginning to realise the ineffectiveness of dealing with the situation piecemeal. They do not even know the extent of it because neither social security nor prosecutors, who issue guardianship and adoption orders to public institutions and foster homes, have the staff to classify cases or produce centralised statistics.

In early March, Bekou invited private institutions to coordinate their actions, even though friction between the government and private sector exists. "I want [state] institutions to be better known... It's not necessarily known that they exist," says Bekou. "The state always has a greyer, mustier and more worn image. But it's wrong to say that the state is entirely absent."

Funding and taxes

Money will likely be a lively topic in this dialogue. Social security spent $13m on both children and the handicapped last year. The Smile of the Child and SOS Children's Villages together raised $20.5m entirely from individual and corporate donations - a remarkable feat in a recession, largely thanks to a painstakingly built grassroots funding network and overseas remittances.

I want [state] institutions to be better known... It's not necessarily known that they exist.

- Efi Bekou, general secretary for social security

Despite the two non-profit groups' significant contribution, the state has made life difficult for them during the crisis. A 2010 law stopped recognising donations as tax-deductible, even as corporate social responsibility became vitally important. The law started taxing donations to the tune of 0.5 percent, and forced non-profit groups to pay 23 percent VAT on fundraising revenues. More recently, they have been forced to pay property taxes. In all, the two charities paid just under half-a-million dollars in taxes last year.

The figures suggest that wealth redistribution has failed to address Greece's massive social distress. The country now has the fourth-highest rate of childhood poverty across the European Union according to Caritas, a Catholic charity.

However, Greece also has a powerful tradition of philanthropy dating back to ancient times, and it is this, rather than taxation, which has saved children like Haritina.

"When children have healthy role models and receive the love they need, they are emotionally full and can make their way in the world, even if that love hasn't come from their biological parents," says Stefania Tekou, a social worker who looks after the 26 children in Haritina's home. She is assisted by a staff of 15 teachers and nurses, who care for the children around the clock.

Tekou recounts a recent conversation with Haritina. "She turned to me and said, 'When I grow up and have children, I won't need a nanny. I'll have 16 grandmothers!' We were all very moved by that." 

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Al Jazeera
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