NEWS

State complicity in child abuse results from inadequate infrastructure and coordination

Lack of coordination among state services. Endless red tape. Overlapping responsibilities, inadequate funds and poor infrastructure. A partisan approach. These are the factors that make the state complicit in everyday crimes. It is rendered incapable of dealing promptly and effectively with the dozens of cases of abuse and neglect of minors by parents that are reported and recorded every day. The exact number of cases is not known. Every agency keeps its own separate files, and nobody is in a position to give an accurate account of the extent of the phenomenon. It is generally known, however, that domestic violence against minors has become more common. This was confirmed in the grimmest fashion by the recent death of an infant just 48 days old in Neos Cosmos, strangled by its own mother who was trying to stop it from crying. Ministry institutions Every year, 4,500 cases of domestic violence are reported to the Health Ministry, according to statistics submitted to the Parliamentary Committee for Equality and Rights a few days ago by Gianna Despotopoulou, general secretary for social solidarity at the ministry. Most of these cases involve women and children. The ministry has 17 child welfare institutions throughout Greece, which currently house some 700 children. The children go to the institutions for their own care and protection when the family environment is deemed unsuitable and with the consent of the public prosecutor, Despotopoulou told Kathimerini. «But the aim is to create the right conditions so that at some point they can go back home,» she said. The welfare institutions have the capacity to cater for 1,400 children. The only ones that are full are at Mitera and Pendeli, which specialize in the care and protection of infants. What happens when a large number of abused children remain without help in hospitals, at juvenile detention centers, on the street or with the parents who abuse them? Smile of the Child, a non-profit child-care association, told Kathimerini that 511 children had to be turned away between August 2002 and February 21, 2006 as the organization was unable to house them. The association fields requests for help not only from private agencies but also from other organizations, including the Minors’ Prosecution Office, Attica police, municipal social services, some of the institutions that are answerable to the Health Ministry and even the Mitera center for infants. «We find out about most cases from television. The correct procedures are not always followed,» explained Despotopoulou. «Local authorities must start applying to the regional health office so that we are informed immediately. If that is done then there is no question of us not offering assistance,» she said. Athens Prefect Yiannis Sgouros also blames poor coordination among services – the Health Ministry, prefectures, the police force’s Protection Unit for Minors, NGOs and hospitals – for failure to deal with the issue of child abuse. «Services work below par and the state seems incapable of dealing with the issue. There is no coordination and the central administration has put the ball in the prefecture’s court. They asked for our help and now they criticize us, even though we have responded to every case. There is a need for a single agency that will undertake to coordinate welfare issues,» Sgouros told Kathimerini. Since last August, the prefecture has been substituting for the Justice Ministry (which was unable to act due to a staff shortage) and is now, in practice, responsible for intervening and writing social welfare reports on the orders of the prosecutor. But, as Sgouros notes, this is a huge responsibility, as there are only 28 social workers for 3.5 million Athenians. «Despite the difficulty, we investigated the 48 cases that were reported to us,» he says. «Forty private institutions come under the Athens Prefecture. They do not cater exclusively to abused children, but also to individuals with mental disabilities, the elderly and anyone who is in need.» Somewhere to sleep «The state cannot guarantee decent shelter for abused children. In places run by the ministry or other authorities such as prefectures, there is only one social worker for every 15 children, compared with a ratio of one to three abroad. Beds may be available but not child care. These are not high-quality places, but in most cases just somewhere to sleep,» said Smile of the Child’s President Constantinos Giannopoulos. His organization now houses 175 minors placed there on prosecutors’ orders.