THESSALONIKI – Tania Hadzigeorgiou, a film director and the single mother of a 4-year-old boy, has enlarged her family in what is a somewhat unorthodox way in Greece. It all began when she invited two little girls to come and stay with her on weekends and holidays. The relationship developed into a fostering arrangement and now these girls live with her as daughters, while maintaining contact with their biological parents. Tania’s two girls are now at university, but they are among the lucky few. About 14,000 children in Greece are living in institutions, 2,000 of them with disabilities. Many end up in institutional care because their family environment was judged as harmful to their safety either because of neglect or abuse. Fostering is not the same as a full adoption, although it involves taking the child into one’s home. The child keeps its own family name and cannot inherit property from the foster parent. The fostering system is aimed at getting children out of institutions and into a family environment. However, there are very few foster families, according to data presented at a conference held by the Melissa organization (the Thessaloniki Girls Orphanage Philanthropic Association) and APSIS (a support group for young people aimed at cooperation among child protection groups and which encourages fostering). The reasons include a lack of information about the process (in Greece, people are more used to the idea of adoption) and the complete lack of incentives for families to take in foster children, such as tax breaks, job assistance and reduced working hours. Meanwhile, the central fostering agency is located in Athens, though child support groups want to open a branch in northern Greece to help speed up procedures. «The target is to have children spend no more than one or two years in an institution until they have received treatment for psychological abuse and then settle them with a family,» said Melissa’s president, Vassiliki Fytoka. «That way places will open up for other children, as, unfortunately, there are a large number of children in need of protection and there just isn’t enough room in the institutions.» Hadzigeorgiou reported a difficult time with the relevant services when seeking to foster: «Bureaucracy and closed doors. I had no financial help or support from the state. There is nothing. In Greece, things don’t just move slowly, they don’t move at all,» she said. «Whatever I achieved, I did on my own, with the help of my mother and my friends because I wanted to give the girls a chance to see that there are alternatives in life,» she said. Her experience of fostering began by volunteering to help disabled children while still a student and realizing she had a talent for taking care of children. She met the girls in 1995 and, after getting to know each another over a two-year period, they decided to live together. «My relationship with them was difficult. Their experiences of family life had been painful, then in early adolescence they lived in an institution. The puzzle has many pieces, but it can be solved.» She believes institutions should only be a temporary solution and that children should be settled quickly with families so that they can start to move on with their lives.