Poverty-stricken parents give up babies in Greece

Children dining at an orphanage in 1869. Could this become a more common fate? © Getty Images

Poverty, hunger, families crammed into crumbling houses and, now, babies left on church doorsteps. It sounds like a Victorian novel – but this is happening right now, within the EU.

The debt-stricken country of Greece is facing a tragic and worsening social crisis. Each week, a growing number of babies and young children are being given up to charities and orphanages by parents who say they can no longer afford to take care of them.

Father Antonios, a priest who runs a youth centre in Athens, says he has found four children abandoned on his doorstep in the past two months. Just before Christmas, the teacher of a four-year-old girl received a note from the child’s mother which said ‘I will not be coming to pick up Anna* today because I cannot afford to look after her... Please take good care of her. Sorry.’

Drastic cuts to wages, pensions and public services have left many families struggling with poor housing and little money, while those unable to pay bills or find work receive little help from the government. Sergios Snyfyos, local director of the charity SOS Children’s Villages, says that poverty is now the main reason that parents ask his organisation to look after their children.

With nearly a fifth of people out of work and one in four families unable to pay for food, money problems are affecting people from all walks of life. The Red Cross says that 20,000 people are sleeping rough on Greece’s streets, many of whom are part of the ‘new poor’ – highly educated people who, until now, had good jobs, houses and cars.

These people have lost everything, and now some face something even worse: they feel forced to give up their own children.

This cruel situation sounds like something straight out of the 19th Century, when the lack of a strong social safety net meant that poor children were frequently abandoned at orphanages or workhouses in order to save them from starvation.

Now, Greeks fear that those bad old days may have returned; that more families will find themselves confronting the most painful choice of all.

An agonising decision

Some charity workers say that even though it is very painful for parents and children to be separated, sometimes it is for the best. In times of great hardship, some families cannot provide a safe, healthy existence for their children and should give them to institutions to look after in order to give them a chance at a better life.

Others disagree. However poor a family, they argue, no amount of increased wealth or material comfort can make up for missing what children need most of all: their parents’ love. A family together in poverty, they argue, is better than no family at all.

* Some names have been changed.

You Decide

  1. Can giving up a child ever be ‘for the best’?
  2. Who do you think is most responsible for making sure that a child has everything they need in life? Their family, or their government?

Activities

  1. Watch the video,Please, Sir, I Want Some More(see Become an Expert), and write a report on the diet of workhouse inmates, with recommendations on how it could have been improved.
  2. Write a survey asking your class what they think is good parenting. Include questions on many different aspects, such as time spent together, pocket money, strictness and emotional support. Analyse and present your findings to the class.

Some People Say...

“Keeping children when you can’t properly feed or educate them is selfish.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is this important?
Usually, charities are only asked to look after children in extreme circumstances, such as when their parents have harmed them. The separation can be traumatic and rarely happens just because of money issues. If this becomes the norm, some fear that governments will see taking children away from their parents as a cheaper alternative to helping families stay together. With so many countries facing hardship, this is a worrying idea.
How did these Victorian ‘workhouses’ come about?
Before 1834, poor people were given food in return for work and those too old or ill to work were given somewhere to stay. But politicians felt people were becoming ‘idle’ and, if they made the workhouse a dreadful enough place, people would work harder to avoid it. Unfortunately for the inmates, there was often no other choice.

Word Watch

Drastic cuts
In recent years, due to a mixture of crime, corruption and the financial crisis in Europe, Greece built up debts which it is unable to repay. After much negotiation, the country accepted 109 billion Euros of ‘bailout’ money from European countries on the condition that it dramatically cut down government spending. Attempts to do this by reducing pensions and wages and closing public services led to violent protests in 2010 and 2011, including a firebomb attack on a bank in which three people were killed.
SOS Children’s Villages
This is a children’s charity which works in 125 countries, but is mainly focused on providing care to orphans in the third world. In Greece, the charity had been taking in children who are victims of abuse, but now almost all of its requests are due to poverty.
Social safety net
The systems and institutions that help people who fall to the bottom of a society, becoming unemployed, for example. Almost all countries have some sort of social safety net which is designed at least to prevent people from actually starving.

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