The Soviet Union's unwanted children. Buoyed by glasnost, reformers are pleading their cause
Moscow — The No.5 children's home is lost among the new white housing blocks of Moscow's Kirov region. A group of 156 children, aged from three to seven, live here in a low-rise building designed as a kindergarten. They sleep 17 to a room, in four rows of tiny beds lined up head to foot. The walls are clean and bright, toys are plentiful, and wooden cabinets donated from the 1984 Olympic village add a touch of solidity.
These children are among several hundred thousand in the Soviet Union who face a childhood in institutions: until age 7 in a children's home, then a boarding school or internat for orphans. Only the lucky few will be adopted: not those with a family history of alcoholism, which scares off prospective parents.
At age 17 they will have to move to a dormitory and hope that they can get the Moscow residence certificate that will enable them to enroll in a vocational training course.
The fresh breath of criticism that glasnost has brought to Soviet life is reaching the social welfare system. Recent TV programs have featured some of those the system has neglected: the elderly and, especially, unwanted children.
Numerous magazine and newspaper articles have raised the problem of children in government homes. Of 150 homes inspected in 1986, about 60 ``serious violations'' of standard childcare were discovered by government inspectors. Experts complain that the staff of these homes receive no special training and that until recently, a job in one was simply a shortcut to getting a Moscow residence permit.
Albert Likhanov, editor of the youth magazine Smena, is in large part responsible for focusing public attention on disadvantaged children. For more than 10 years, by his own count, he has been calling for wider social responsibility for the fate of these children. Part of his message, not particularly welcome in the days when social ills were swept under the carpet, is that the majority of them have living parents.
Many are the children of single mothers, who gave them up at birth. In the Moscow region's nine children's homes, 20 percent are in this category. Another 10 percent have simply been abandoned in metro stations or on the streets, according to officials of Moscow's directorate for popular education.
Mr. Likhanov sees this as a reflection of growing individualism. ``People aren't dying of hunger now, but egoism is increasing,'' he says. ``Before, a mother would look after her children no matter what. But young women now don't need their children - children of sin, unhappy love affairs. Some women refuse their children right in the maternity hospital.''
A mother from the Ryazan Oblast area claims that of 32 premature infants in the hospital when she gave birth, 17 had already been deserted by their mothers. ``We each fed our own child and another, rejected one,'' she wrote to the magazine Working Woman.
Another large group of children in government care have been taken away from parents deprived of their parental rights, usually because of alcoholism or criminal sentences. In Moscow this is 35 percent of the total. Fifteen percent have parents too ill to care for them, while about 20 percent are true orphans.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcoholism campaign has brought strong condemnation of alcoholic parents - especially those who continue to receive child benefits, such as extra living space, after their children have been taken away from them. Social commentators have suggested that these parents help pay for their children's maintenance.
At the same time, writers of letters to newspapers appear to favor stronger laws on the removal of parental rights. Many children who stand a chance of adoption languish in homes while their legal status is sorted out, the letter writers claim.
Likhanov feels that laws and decrees will do little to improve the situation until ``it becomes shameful to give away a child.'' We need to shake up the parents, he says. ``Our political restructuring must have a spiritual aspect.''
In the meantime, he has been working to set up a children's fund to encourage individual contributions. In the past, the creation of such a fund has been torpedoed by a ``classical form of the old thinking,'' Likhanov writes. Officials feared bad publicity in the West, he says. ``But do these authorities have the right to take away from society its responsibility...?'' Despite his distrust of decrees, Likhanov has pushed for legislation on children's homes. At the most recent meeting of the Supreme Soviet, the nominal parliament, a decree he helped to draft was approved.
The decree will authorize establishment of the children's fund and provide for an additional 400 million rubles ($600 million) per year for all categories of children's homes, a budget increase of two-thirds.
Isolda Peterson, director of the No.5 children's home, agrees with Likhanov that today's institutional homes should be phased out in favor of family-style homes, which could care for children ``from birth until their wedding.'' Likhanov has been studying a Czech children's village, where children live in separate houses in groups of 20 with houseparents.
There are some signs already that a spiritual perestroika, or restructuring, may be underway. Likhanov can cite many individuals and groups that have started funds or programs of their own for children in homes.