ATHENS — First came the rising rates of homelessness. Then, the explosive growth of suicides. Now, four years into a devastating financial crisis, Greece’s youngest citizens are falling through the cracks of the country’s disheveled society.
Either deserted at maternity wards days after their birth, bundled inside pillowcases, or packed in cardboard boxes dumped on the doorsteps of churches, clinics and charity centers, abandoned babies are turning up all over the country.
Hard statistics are difficult to come by. But in a telling tale of the trend and an admission of the devastating effects of austerity on young children, Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis told parliament recently that the number of abandoned infants had soared by 336 percent alone in the state’s flagship pediatrics hospital since the start of the financial crisis.
Four other children’s hospitals and maternity clinics in the capital, home to half of Greece’s population of 11 million, showed similar spikes. State orphanages and charity centers, meantime, are teeming with unwanted children — many of them neglected and increasingly malnourished since the economy skid off the fiscal cliff in 2010, sinking Greece deep into a recession.
“It is the most tragic human consequence of the [financial] crisis,” says Stelios Sifnos, Director of Social Work and Research at the SOS Children’s Villages charity. “There is urgent need for action.”
“We’re talking about children here, not cars,” he adds.
Social care has never been a forte of the Greek state. In fact, whatever semblance of it that did exist ahead of the financial crisis, now stands hollow, leaving the country’s family-first society to mitigate social plagues like abandonment and neglect.
“The question,” says Kostas Yannopoulos, founder of the Smile of the Child charity, “is how much more the Greek family can endure — if at all.”
“Just the other day I had a mother with nine children — from infants to teenagers — begging me to take them all in because she no longer had the means to cope.”
That same week, Yannopoulos and his aides, who care for more than 330 children in a bevy of hostels set up across the country, scrambled to accommodate a baby whose 35-year-old father had taken a gun to his head after losing his job. His wife, also unemployed, was left distraught, unable to take care of their 8-month-old girl.
Days prior, a local prosecutor ordered social workers to place another baby girl into the care of a state children’s hospital after neighbors of the impoverished family spotted the child neglected, having been bitten by roaches and rodents.
For generations, most abandoned babies and neglected children came from battered neighborhoods, abusive parents and drug-infested homes. They still do so today, only now the scope of the problem, the severity of the cases, and the lack of social services have been amplified by austerity and growing middle-class poverty.
“This is no longer a plight of the poor,” says Ilias Zagoreas, the capital’s leading district attorney handling cases involving minors. “The line has been clearly crossed.”
In 2013 alone, Mr. Zagoreas said, his office dealt with more than 1,000 cases of abandoned and neglected minors, mainly babies, in Athens and the port city of Pireaus. That’s 30 percent more than 2012, but significantly less than the overall extent of the problem.
“While I am obligated to look into each and every case and complaint,” he explained, “my ability to do so has been limited because of state budget cuts. So, if I once had the ability to send two social workers a week to probe a case, that same procedure, now, may take four to five months because of cutbacks in personnel.”
Meantime, Zagoreas warns, the child in question is “in peril.”
Since the start of the financial crisis, more than 1,000 families have asked SOS Children’s Villages alone to place children in their homes. “That’s an amazing 1,000 percent rise from the 42 cases recorded ahead of the crisis,” Sifnios said.
With unemployment nearing 30 percent, incomes crushed by 25 percent, and bank accounts depleted by unrelenting taxation, child advocates, social workers and judicial officials fear that the country’s prolonged austerity will put families under further strain, pushing greater numbers of young children to the sidelines of neglect and abandonment.
Struggling families, though, are fighting back, trying to keep their units intact.
Recently, as I walked through the gloomy green corridors of a public pediatrics ward, peeking at the rows of unwanted newborns, I noticed a mother cradled next to her two babies in a separate hospital room. With the consent of a prosecutor, the mother and her husband placed their 18-month daughter and four-year old son in the care of the hospital for financial reasons.
Since then, both parents have been alternating shifts, looking for work by day, spending time with their children and sleeping beside them at night.
For a nation as proud and family-centred as Greece, the plight of such families strikes a collective nerve. But underfunded and understaffed, hospital administrators seem unsympathetic.
“I do not have the luxury to use up resources and personnel on healthy children,” says Manolis Papasavvas, director of the Aglaia Kyriakou Children’s Hospital, in Athens. “This isn’t a hostel, it’s a hospital, and a hospital is no place to rear a child.”
Health minister Georgiadis said a special hostel will open in March to relieve state hospitals of the added task of tending to deserted children. Repeated requests for clarifications went unheeded, and children’s agencies already seem skeptical of the plan.
“The fear is that they [health ministry planners] may sweep this plague under the rug, relocating the infants without addressing the root of the problem and coming to the aid of struggling families before they are broken and children are abandoned,” Sifnios of the SOS Children’s Village.
“If this does not happen… then the Greece of today is setting itself up for an angry and resentful generation in the future.”
Anthee Carassava is a journalist based in Athens.