Deinstitutionalization in Greece
Children in search of a home
Yanis*, 15 years old, is sitting alone on a sofa in the living room of the old but rather well-preserved estate which is housing a children’s residential care institution, somewhere in the Athenian suburbs. He is starting to play a video game when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a flock of young children raid the living room, running and shouting happily, calling to Yanis to quit the video game and play with them.
“This happens all the time,” Yanis, who has lived in the institution since he was 6 years old, says. “When I play PlayStation, there are kids running around, I cannot concentrate, I would like to have my own space…Many kids come and go all the time in this institution.”
In Greece, almost 1,500 children are currently in institutional care. While foster care is internationally recognized as the best alternative for children who cannot live with their families, there are not enough foster families to look after the children currently living in institutions, even less so for children with special needs.
Melia is 16 years old and has been living in an institution for children with special needs in the Attika region since she was 4 years old. She has made friends here but she craves a sense of autonomy and self-reliance: “I would like to be in a home with Stella, Natalia, the other girls, to learn, to make up my daily schedule, to cook…and decide on which days to do these (things). For example, Monday, I will clean up and cook,” she says and adds: “I wish that all kids could go to families, and for none to be left here, so that the institution closes down.”
Under Phase III of the of the preparatory action for a European Child Guarantee pilot programme, funded by the European Commission and implemented in seven pilot countries, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania and Spain, UNICEF supports the Greek government in its efforts towards deinstitutionalization of children, by promoting community and family-based models of childcare, such as foster care.
Within the framework of the European Child Guarantee pilot, UNICEF, in coordination with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, has designed and promoted the Supported Independent Living model for children and young people (15 years old and above) who are living in institutions, in an effort to enhance children’s independence and autonomy within the community.
Sara is a psychologist working at the institution where Yanis lives. She fully supports deinstitutionalization as it is backed by a significant amount of scientific evidence:
“We have seen from research that children who grow up in institutional care do much worse in several domains, cognitive and psychological development, compared to children who grow up in families,” she explains. “Foster care has been very much unknown, very few people know what it is and it hasn’t been used or exploited in the ways it could be.”
In order to raise awareness among the Greek public about the benefits and the importance of foster care, UNICEF in cooperation with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, have launched a sensitization campaign which has been running since May 2021.
Maria is a foster mother who has been caring for Paris, an 11- year old child with special needs, since 2014.
“He was three and a half years old, he had had several operations and he needed a warm hug. It has been seven years that we are together,” she says.
Maria drives Paris to his physiotherapy sessions several times a week, helps him with his school homework and takes him on trips, sharing with him experiences and love, like in any family would. The stability provided and the bond created with his foster mother have helped Paris make real progress.
“So, within a family environment, children can thrive...and we see children growing, in physical and in cognitive measures -and sometimes academically and socially as well- so their development can be very rapid,” explains Sara.
Maria confirms: “Now that he is here at home, he feels secure. He does not have fear inside him, he is happy, he is content.”
“I feel very good here, I will stay in this home”, adds Paris.
UNICEF, within the pilot European Child Guarantee, has been supporting the Greek government in operationalizing the foster care legislation while raising awareness on the need to reform the existing child protection system in the country, and develop support and prevention services for families and children at risk.
*Names of children in this article have been changed to protect their identity.