Saturday, 29 March 2014

Paying for their parents’ crisis: Greece’s abandoned children

This article and an accompanying television piece were published and broadcast by Al Jazeera English.

Haritina is a fine-boned, well-mannered 16 year-old. She brings top marks home from school, is on the cusp of sight-reading her Xenophon and Thucydides, and wants to study ancient Greek in university. What sets her apart from the mainstream 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 sees as 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 crisis, and have now begun to overwhelm institutions 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 on 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 do not act in time. “The prosecutor tells us that there is a lack of places for children to go, so they are left in their abusive environment,” Yannopoulos says. “Not long ago we had a case of a [little girl] that was reported abused to us on four separate occasions. She was found dead in her fridge at home. Her mother, a drug addict, had abused her to death and hidden her there.” The Smile of the Child 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 which are emotionally stable enough to maintain oversight of their children. Last year, it delivered food and other aid to more than 2,600 families, twice as many as in the year before. 

But it is the children who are emotionally orphaned that need help the most. The Smile of the Child last year increased its capacity and is now home to a record 306 minors. Greece’s other major non-profit organisation caring for children, 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. A third charity, Kivotos, has increased the children in its care from about 100 two years ago to over 200.

The Smile of the Child and SOS Children’s Villages are vitally important, because state infrastructure can only deal with about half the problem. Social security runs a dozen centres across the country. In theory they can take in about 800 children, but an audit last year revealed that they were only about two-thirds full.

“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 always 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.”

The overflow of abandoned or abused children resulting from the crisis is now being ordered into the state hospital system. The country’s two largest children’s hospitals, Agia Sofia and Aglaia Kyriakou, were a temporary home 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 an inadequate solution at best. “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 nursing staff taking care of them.”

Children aren’t allowed off hospital premises. There is an in-hospital schoolroom, but a network of volunteers is all they have for stimulation and companionship outside the curriculum. Yet even living as hospital inmates 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.

Abandonment often used to be the result of birth defects. Increasingly, it seems to be directly or indirectly economic. “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 absorb 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 it piecemeal. They do not even know the exact 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 co-ordinate their actions. There is palpable friction between them. “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.”

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

Despite the two non-profit groups’ undoubtable 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 nonprofit groups to pay 23 percent VAT on fundraising sales. More recently, they have been forced to pay property tax. In all, the two charities paid just under half a million dollars in taxes last year.

“We don’t call ourselves non-governmental organisations,” jokes an official from SOS Children’s Villages, “because it’s clear that we are shouldering a public burden.”

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 EU according to Caritas, a Catholic charity. However, Greece also has a powerful tradition of euergetism 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 a child needs, 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 is, for all intents and purposes, mother to 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 with particular pride a recent conversation she had 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.” But surely the most moving aspect of this conversation is that Haritina has not given up faith in family.

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