SOCIETY

Greek foster care system failing children

There is little to look forward to in an institution for children removed by authorities from parents who are abusive, in jail, addicted to drugs or otherwise unable to care them. Yet in Greece, the foster care system, which has provided such a necessary alternative in so many parts of the world for children under the state’s care, remains almost inactive as a result of complex bureaucracy and a shortage of staff at the relevant authorities.

“We are not even paid our travel expenses for visiting couples that have applied to become foster parents outside of Athens,” a social worker who declined to be named told Kathimerini recently.

Meanwhile, the crisis has exacerbated many of the causes that lead to parents being deemed unfit. According experts, the number of applications from municipal authorities for children to be taken into the state’s care has skyrocketed over the past three years, but there are no hard figures available as there is no national register.

This fact alone and the numbers speak for themselves when it comes to gauging the extent of the problem.

Just 20 children were placed in foster homes last year from the three state child services in Attica (the Mitera Center for the Protection of Children – Attica, Aghios Andreas Pedopolis and Pendeli Reformatory), while just 22 were taken into homes in the 2010-11 period.

In most other European countries, the maximum period protection services suggest that a child should remain in an institution is six months. In Greece, the average stay of a child in a state facility is six years. In fact, in most cases, they are released when they reach puberty and are then moved into orphanages where they live until adulthood.

The most tragic cases concern babies that have been abandoned by their parents. Not only are they not placed directly into foster care so that they can completely avoid the scars of insitutionalization, but they are more often than not left for months at maternity facilities at public hospitals until they can be put into the system.

“We have children who have grown up here,” one maternity nurse at a state hospital told Kathimerini. “Other than the fact that they rarely receive any individual care, these children continue to be fed milk for months after the appropriate age because we don’t have baby food at the hospital. Isn’t that abuse?”

The myriad problems in the child care system in Greece were the main topic of a discussion which took place on November 20, organized by the Greek Ombudsman in Athens. Participants included representatives from 60 public organizations, nongovernmental groups that work in child protection and experts. The aim of the meeting was to put forward proposals to improve the foster care system in Greece.

“The philosophy of foster care is to find the right family to care for every child without, however, severing the emotional bond the child has with its real parents,” said Giorgos Moschos, the assistant ombudsman for children’s rights. “Fostering does not abolish the child’s relationship with its real family. In contrast, it helps maintain it and functions with a view to the child one day returning to its real family once the problems that led to its being taken away are resolved. It is a much better alternative to institutionalization, but there are still many problems in the law and in the way the system is organized.”

Moschos argues that all it would take for the system to be significantly improved would be for the political leadership to commit to it.

“Yes, the state needs to invest in order to prop up the institution, but at the same time it would see enormous financial gains as the care of so many children at state institutions is very costly,” he said.

It is estimated that each child in the public system costs the state on average around 60,000 euros a year. Foster families in Greece do not receive a stipend to care for the children even though the law foresees it. Some institutions offer a small sum of money to help with the child’s upkeep on a case-by-case basis.

Another huge problem is that there is no national registry of foster parents from which authorities could choose families with which to place the children. The attendees at the meeting also called for stricter protocols governing the process of choosing parents, training them, certifying them and keeping them under supervision so that their suitability is ensured before children are placed with them.