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Greece child protection services ‘disjointed and inadequate’ | Abuse

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Athens, Greece – When two children from the small, remote Greek island of Leros were taken to one of the largest paediatric hospitals in Athens for a psychological evaluation, one of the country’s rarely-talked-about problems was about to come to a head.

After the siblings were examined by doctors, the youngest of the two, a six-year-old boy was released back to his parents while the 11-year-old girl was admitted to hospital.

Spending two months at the hospital, she was then transferred to a girls home.

A few months later, in the fall of 2017, she was sent back to her parents in Leros, given directions by judicial authorities that she regularly attend a psychologist at the municipal community centre.

But then in May this year, her parents admitted her again to Leros Hospital – malnourished and faint.

Family members gradually started talking to the police. In the end, an officer got a confession from the parents. Her father was accused of sexually abusing her and physically abusing his other children. His trial is pending.

These children were not unknown cases to the authorities. They had been through the child protection system. They had been examined in a hospital. Abuse was confirmed. And yet, a prosecutor decided to remove the girl at first, but leave the boy with his parents. They later reversed their decision and returned the girl, while her family had not even been visited by a social worker.

Greece has always lacked a coherent system to efficiently protect minors who are victims of abuse. And in the story of the two children, these problems became painfully obvious.

I have seen cases where four-year-old kids were treated for sexually transmitted rectal HPV for over a year, and no investigation had been undertaken to determine how they got it.

Giorgos Nikolaidis, child psychiatrist

‘Underfunded before the crisis’

Nowadays, the Greek financial crisis is often blamed for the inadequacies of social services. However, Giorgos Nikolaidis, a child psychiatrist who is also Head of the Mental Health Department of the Institute of Child Health, is suspicious of such a generalisation, despite his own institution having endured a 50 percent reduction in personnel.

“The cuts are real enough,” he says. “But child protection was underfunded even before the crisis. And our state still maintains the luxury of four or five parallel networks of services, that are disjointed and inadequate. There is an issue of lack of funds, but there is also an issue of what we do with the funds we have”.

Another such case took place a few years earlier in Crete. A coach with the local basketball team in the town of Rethymno was arrested and convicted for molesting 36 young boys. The abuse had been going on for years and the total number of his victims is believed to be well over 100.

But no parent, neighbour, teacher, social worker, or police officer ever came forward with a suspicion. After the police and the local prosecutor were eventually alerted by one family, they purposefully, according to their own admission, left him to his devices, in order to organise a sting operation that would ensure his conviction.

This took a full year, throughout which the coach continued to abuse children.

It took another year before the Institute of Child Health, a semi-independent institution overseen by the Greek Ministry of Health, managed to convince authorities that something should be done for the families. EU funds were redirected and a unit for psychological support was set up in Rethymno.

It did not last more than two years; as the EU funds ran out, the Ministry of Health decided to shut it down. Nothing has taken its place.





Giorgos Nikolaidis in Athens, and various literature on psychology, Olga Themeli’s book on children’s testimonies among them [Achilleas Zavallis/The Manifold/Al Jazeera]

Ignored by successive governments

Such cases, of which there are many, seem indicative of a structural inability to organise a coherent system of child protection in Greece, child care experts said.

There are hundreds of services spread across the country that have some measure of participation in child protection; but most operate in isolation from the others, with no protocols for coordinated action.

“This kind of anarchy where every professional does whatever comes to their mind is destructive,” Nikolaidis said.

“I have seen cases where four-year-old kids were treated for sexually transmitted rectal HPV for over a year, and no investigation had been undertaken to determine how they got it. Because in this type of anarchy, every professional can shut themselves in their own task, however they define it. The dermatologist can just treat the infection and not be concerned with anything else”.

The Institute of Child Health has developed, with independent funding, a protocol for networking the disparate services and unifying their procedures. It also developed a digital records system for incidents of abuse. Βut despite presenting these to successive Greek governments, they have been ignored.

To date, all efforts towards coordinating child protection services have similarly failed. One more attempt to streamline the system is in the works by the current government, starting with improving the conditions for child abuse survivors that choose to legally challenge their abusers.

Olga Themeli, an associate professor of forensic psychology in the University of Crete, tells us that according to her research, abused children in Greece are forced to repeat their story to the police “up to 14 times”.

Despite many cultural similarities when it comes to the treatment of children, Cyprus has already taken the steps that Greece is contemplating only now. The case of a 29-year-old who committed suicide after years of sexual abuse by her foster father, a priest, seems to have been the last straw.





The ‘House of the Child’ in Nicosia, Cyprus [Achilleas Zavallis/The Manifold/Al Jazeera]

‘This is Greece’

Last April, an inter-disciplinary council inaugurated the ‘House of the Child’, a facility in Nicosia, where children’s testimonies are recorded in a meticulously efficient procedure.

Modeled on similar facilities internationally, where they are known as ‘Child Houses’ or ‘Child Advocacy Centres’, the ‘House of the Child’ allows for an examination of children by expertly trained professionals, which takes place only once, and is as non-invasive as possible.

Themeli is enthusiastic about the prospect of having a ‘House of the Child’ in Greece.

“Our prospects are very good,” she says. A new law stipulates five such houses to be created throughout Greece. But no actual work on them has yet begun, and the Greek police seem reluctant to submit to the new procedure.

“This is Greece,” Konstantina Kostakou, a police officer and psychologist at the Athens Division for Minors, says, implying that things are being done differently. She disputes Themeli’s research and believes that children should be brought to police headquarters, so they know “things are serious”.

Even if the ‘House of the Child’ programme is implemented, problems with child protection in Greece seem endless. There is no foster-care system to speak of, and children who are removed from their families are institutionalised for the long-term.

Conditions in institutions are poor, child care experts say. One institution for disabled children, in the town of Lechaina in Southern Greece, keeps children in wooden cages or tied to their beds, without releasing them even for brief periods in the day, Nikolaidis says.

“No court of law has the right to impose such a sentence,” Nikolaidis said. “So, who is responsible for doing this to these children?” As head of a team that is trying to help the children in the Lechaina facility, with some having remained tied up literally for years, Nikolaidis is furious that no one is being held accountable.

Most children, child care experts agree, are abused by those they trust. Such abuse is an assault to the most basic ability to trust another person and to form relationships. So after the state becomes itself another agent of abuse, where does that leave victims? Themeli’s assessment is that “there is no culture of child protection in Greece”.

Unfortunately, abused children are often inclined to agree with her.

The Manifold, a team of investigative journalists, are Mariniki Alevizopoulou, Yiannis Baboulias, Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou, Achilleas Zavallis and Augustine Zenakos.

This article is based on an investigation financially supported with a grant from the IJ4EU fund.





Forensic Psychologist Olga Themeli and a Children’s Home in Crete, Greece [Achilleas Zavallis/The Manifold/Al Jazeera]

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Ottawa transit commission hopes to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for OC Transpo workers

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Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.

More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.

Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.

OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.

Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.

Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.

“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.

“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.

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COVID-19: Ottawa police announce end of 24-7 presence at Ontario-Quebec border

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Less than two days after the Ontario government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, calling for non-essential traffic to be stopped at the province’s borders with Quebec and Manitoba, the Ottawa Police Service has announced it is stopping its 24-hour checkpoints.

According to a statement issued by the service Tuesday evening, the around-the-clock border checkpoints were set to end as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday in favour of rotating checkpoints across the city throughout the day until Ontario’s temporary regulations end.

“Since the onset of the border operations, the OPS has been working closely with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) along with local stakeholders and interprovincial stakeholders (the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, the Ontario Provincial Police etc.) to assess any local public health, traffic and safety impacts. The assessment resulted in today’s operational changes,” the statement said.

“The operational changes announced today are designed to better ensure the health and safety of all, to minimize delays and/or hazards for travellers and to ensure essential workers can get to their places of employment on time.”

The statement also said the police service, while working to comply with the provincial order, was focused on education and enforcement actions that “support improved public health outcomes and respect the concerns of our most marginalized and racialized communities”

Officers said they will be conducting daily assessments on border crossings and that there could be further changes.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that the border closures are ultimately subject to the discretion of local police enforcing the regulations.

“Local police services are best positioned to determine the operational deployments necessary to ensure the continued safety of their communities,” the spokesperson said, noting that the order’s regulations still apply to individuals entering the province.

The temporary order restricts Quebec residents from entering Ontario. If prompted, individuals must stop when directed by an enforcement officials and provide their reason for entering the province.

The main exemptions to the restrictions include if the person’s main home is in the province, if they work in Ontario, if they’re transporting goods, if they’re exercising Indigenous or treaty rights, if they need health care or if there’s a basis on compassionate grounds.

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COVID-19 vaccines in Ottawa: Nearly half of all residents in their 60s have at least one dose

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Public Health’s latest COVID-19 vaccination update shows that nearly half of all residents 60 to 69 years old have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a figure that has all but doubled in the past week.

OPH’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows 58,000 residents 60 to 69 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for 49.3 per cent of that age group’s population in Ottawa. Last Wednesday, OPH reported 30,000 residents 60 to 69 had had at least one dose, which was 25.4 per cent.

As age demographics get younger, the population grows larger and the coverage by percentage may appear to grow more slowly, even if clinics are vaccinating greater numbers of people. For example, the latest figures show that 83 per cent of people aged 70 to 79 have had at least one dose. By raw population that’s 60,000 people, only slightly higher than half of all people in their 60s.

Vaccinations are open through the Ontario portal to anyone 60 and older and, this week, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for administration at pharmacies and primary care clinics to anyone in Ontario 40 and older.

OPH reported a new shipment this week of 25,740 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. To date, Ottawa has received 305,130 doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the provincial government.

The number of eligible residents (i.e. 16 and older) with at least one dose of a vaccine is now up to 28 per cent.

Tuesday was Ottawa’s second-busiest day for vaccinations overall, with the OPH reporting 9,729 shots administered. Last Friday saw 9,887 shots administered in a single day.

QUICK STATS

  • Ottawa residents with at least one dose: 248,668
  • Ottawa residents with two doses: 26,722
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with at least one dose: 28 per cent
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with two doses: 3 per cent
  • Percent of total population with at least one dose: 24 per cent
  • Percent of total population with two doses: 3 per cent

VACCINATION COVERAGE BY AGE FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS WITH AT LEAST ONE DOSE

  • 10-19: 1.6 per cent (1,804 people)
  • 20-29: 8.3 per cent (13,452 people)
  • 30-39: 9.5 per cent (14,999 people)
  • 40-49: 12.9 per cent (17,350 people)
  • 50-59: 28.8 per cent (40,320 people)
  • 60-69: 49.3 per cent (58,627 people)
  • 70-79: 82.9 per cent (62,808 people)
  • 80-89: 87.5 per cent (29,358 people)
  • 90+: 89.2 per cent (7,893 people)
  • Unknown age: 2,057 people 

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