Two rays of hope for children with no one to turn to

A typical complaint leveled at children brought up by overprotective parents is that they find it hard to make the break and live apart from their families. There are other children who are forced to live far from their parents, not through their own choice, but because the people who brought them into this world were unprepared for the responsibilities involved or were judged to be unsuitable parents. Every child at the Child’s Smile foundation in Melissia has his or her own history and way of communicating but the same yearning for contact, games and outings. In the case of some, their spontaneity and candor are disarming. Seven-year-old E. constantly wants cuddles, talks ceaselessly, laughs and tries to get your attention in whatever way possible. This girl has an appalling past. Two years ago she was admitted for care together with her two brothers in such a miserable state that the home’s social worker was at a loss for words. «When I saw the three kids, I said this couldn’t be happening in 2005,» she said The siblings, aged 3, 4 and 5, had lived in a hut without light. «They crawled and uttered incomprehensible cries. They had no idea what a toilet was and ate off the floor. Initially they could not hear because of the many untreated ear infections they had suffered. They had been totally neglected, and had not experienced any form of care. When they first arrived here we would put their food on the table and they would throw it on the floor out of habit. It took them a long time to learn how to talk and they still have speech therapy. Now they go to school,» said the institute’s social services officer, Maria Vespouki. Z. is doing well in second grade of primary school. She observes everything but speaks only when she has something to say. She does not play with dolls or board games and does not like playing with boys, as they are too rough. Z lost her father and her mother abandoned her. «She might appear to be sociable and cheerful but she is one of the most introverted in here. She does not open up, she does not share her personal experiences like most of the other children do. This is what we are afraid of, that one day she might blow up badly.» In Melissia there are 28 children aged between 11 months and 12 years, cared for by a social services officer, 14 pediatricians and another three staff members. «We have taken infants that were on the threshold of death. A few months ago a 3-month-old baby weighing only 4 kilos was brought in. It would have died of starvation. Today, at 18 months old, it cannot walk or talk,» said the social services officer. One 3-year-old boy always has nightmares. He wakes up in the night and cries out, «’I’ll kill you.» Ten-year-old G. was beaten repeatedly by his father. Now he sits for hours and draws. The pediatricians avoid making comments about the parents. «However awful they are, they are the kids’ parents. And the children ask for them, so we have no right to make negative comments,» said Vespouki. Parents’ reactions when denied the care of their child is mixed. Some are relieved, others are incensed, some create trouble and then disappear. It is rare for a child to return to its mother. Most of the parents that abandon or abuse their children (psychologically and physically) are either drug addicts or of lower than average intelligence, or suffer from psychological problems; they often belong to a low socioeconomic level. What is certain is that they do not have the maturity to care for children. Today the eight houses run by the Child’s Smile (five in Attica) care for 200 children. The founder and president of the organization, Costas Yiannopoulos, admitted that they have had to turn away 700 children over the last three years due to lack of space. Of the 1,017 referrals received by the organization in 2006, 59 percent concerned neglect, 30 percent abuse, 4 percent sexual abuse, 4 percent for making children beg and 3 percent for forcing minors into prostitution.