Needing to be heard, and not just seen

Just under a year has elapsed since the office of the Greek Ombudsman’s Department for the Rights of Children was set up (in July 2003), yet in that time, it has managed to track down omissions that verge on violations of the rights of juveniles, says the watchdog’s annual report which was published in April. The report, which includes an appraisal of action to promote the rights of juveniles in Greece, says that the country, though a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has laws and articles «which do not take the provisions of the Convention fully into account.» Such omissions have been discovered following investigation into a complaint. Cases that have been lodged and investigated reveal that state institutions are the chief violators of children’s rights, especially in the field of education. Education is chief culprit In education, complaints center on access and enrollment in schools, the shortcomings of special classes for children from abroad, the lack of special measures for pupils with learning difficulties, mistreatment by teachers, as well as weaknesses in preschool teaching and the care of small children. The newly set-up authority has laid emphasis on the education of children from special social groups, such as Roma and immigrants. Although the Education Ministry has taken pertinent action, the ombudsman ascertained that «the cooperation and commitment of all bodies (social services, prefectural and municipal authorities, NGOs) is required in order to avoid what is essentially the exclusion of children from the right to education.» The Ombudsman has also uncovered serious deficiencies in the state social services of the provincial regions, which are either understaffed or have non-specialized personnel. As a result, children and their families fail to get the requisite support. Cases of family violence have revealed that a lack of coordination among the relevant bodies means that specialized help cannot be given. One such case was that of an adolescent girl who was abused by her father when he was drunk. Financial dependence on the father, the fear of social stigma and the lack of social services to provide support held up the necessary intervention. Since mother and daughter did not wish to take the father to court, the island police station was unable to take any further action. Had the the professionals existed, mother and daughter could have received proper help. After intervention by the Ombudsman, the Health and Social Welfare Directorate of the local prefecture hired seven social workers. «It might not cover the needs of the area, but it’s a start,» commented the Ombudsman. Role and activities Deputy Ombudsman Giorgos Moschos, responsible for the Department of the Rights of Children, spoke of the independent authority’s activities in an interview with Kathimerini. Little is known about the activities of the Children’s Rights Department of the Greek Ombudsman in Greece. Why is this? We are still at the stage of organization, since we’ve only been around for a few months as an independent authority. Despite the interventions we have carried out until now on a number of issues, we still need adequate preparation in order to be as active as we like. We’ve got through the phase of getting to know the institutions, and now we are developing relationships. The mass media is the best means of promoting our work. However, it sometimes focuses on hair-raising details. On no account does our objective allow publicity to focus on isolated incidents. We believe that our role is to prevent such incidents, not for them to receive the glare of publicity. What is the role of the Greek Ombudsman? What areas do you concentrate on and what are your priorities? We have a multifaceted role, as it is up to us to look into violations of the rights of children by individuals or institutions. At the same time, our job is to sensitize the public, people who work with children (such as teachers, social workers, nurses, etc.) and to propose changes to legislation. We receive complaints about cases, examine them to see if they are well-founded and seek out the competent state service that will handle the matter. After it has taken on the case, we monitor it in order to ensure all the necessary steps are taken. In addition, we also lodge complaints with prosecutors if a private individual informs us of an incident and is hesitant about approaching a prosecutor himself. Generally, we examine the problems that arise in children’s relations with the State, such as the circular that forbade enrollment in schools by the children of migrants who lacked residence permits. We can’t enforce the recommendations we make, but with this specific case, for example, with the publicity it received, we managed to make sure that no child was excluded from school. Now we are waiting for the circular to be withdrawn. Constant communication Our aim is broad, constant communication with children, for them to learn that we are here through telephone numbers, television messages and leaflets that will be distributed in schools. We want them to know they can come to us. At the same time, a big problem is educating the professionals. Teachers in secondary schools, for example, have never undergone teacher training. Of course, we do not train professionals ourselves, but our aim is to become a point of reference for them to learn of our role and come to us when they face a problem. At the same time, we aim to sensitize the general public through messages that discourage, for example, corporal punishment and other such objectionable practices. Has cooperation with state institutions raised any problems up to now? Our cooperation with state bodies has been excellent so far. The nature of the institution is such (we check up on the legality of certain processes, keeping our advisory role) that the State wants us to be active. You conducted a seminar on the question of children’s active participation in decision-making processes, with your Welsh counterpart Peter Clarke (Children’s Commissioner for Wales) as the main speaker. What did you gain from the experience and how do you aim to reinforce children’s participation in collective procedures in this country? We systematically cooperate with European children’s ombudsmen. We often consult each other on certain issues, and are in constant communication. Each new experience is useful. The seminar that was held was important, first of all for our own staff, to whom we must get across the attitude that children’s viewpoints and opinions count and that their participation in decision making on issues that concern them is important. It is also vital that children take on a more active role and that we learn how to get children to express their opinion.

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