Russia's orphans feel chill of care shortage
Financial crisis worsens conditions for many. One facility givesfoster homes a try.
DIMITROV, RUSSIA — Lunchtime at the Dimitrov home for disabled orphans is a grim, spare scene that might have been torn straight from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. Crowds of children, some in wheelchairs, line up for their midday meal: a small serving of pickled cabbage, some watery fish soup, a plate of buckwheat porridge, a cup of weak tea, and two pieces of hard, black bread. There are no second helpings. "Thank God we have our own garden on the grounds, so we have some reserves of vegetables and potatoes that we grew ourselves last summer," says Yelena, a kitchen worker who declined to give her last name. "We haven't seen any meat, fresh fruit, milk, or eggs here in months, and none of the staff have been paid since October," she adds. The orphanage occupies the outbuildings of a former Orthodox monastery, taken over by the Communists long ago. It overlooks the industrial city of Dimitrov about 60 miles north of Moscow. About 120 children live in the combination school and dormitory. They sleep on narrow cots, four per tiny room, amid peeling paint and rattling pipes. In a small, cold common room, about a dozen kids crowd around a single TV with no adult supervision in sight. "We do our best with the resources we have, but it's getting harder," says Svetlana Popova, one of the teachers. "Many of these children have living parents who think it's better to leave them here. But it's not." State funding, never very significant, has virtually dried up since the financial crisis struck Russia last August. "I would personally be better off not coming in to work at all," says Ms. Popova. "But it would be inadmissible to abandon these kids. They have so little chance in life as it is." Despite the hard conditions, the children in the Dimitrov home appear reasonably well cared for and their relations with the staff seem warm and friendly. Damaging report That may not be the case everywhere in Russia's vast chain of state orphanages, according to a report issued last month by Human Rights Watch. The result of a year-long investigation by the New York-based group, the report alleges that Russia's 200,000 institutionalized orphans are subjected to systematic "cruelty and neglect" and are deprived of their most basic human rights. It says that Russian orphans are routinely mislabeled as "ineducable" and warehoused in closed institutions - such as the Dimitrov facility - where minimal resources are expended on caring for them. The report claims there is a widespread pattern of abuse by staff in Russian orphanages that includes beatings of children, sexual assault, criminal neglect, and punishment by public humiliation. "The abuse in orphanages cannot simply be attributed to Russia's economic crisis," says Kathleen Hunt, the report's author. "The problem of scarce resources does not justify the appalling treatment children receive at the hands of the state." Photographs accompanying the study depict concentration camp-like conditions in some Russian orphanages. Russian experts say the abuses cited in the Human Rights Watch report are the exception rather than the rule, but admit the system is not working. "In today's harsh economic climate many parents are simply dumping their children on the state," says Maria Ternovskaya, director of Children's House No. 19, a clean and apparently well-run facility in downtown Moscow. She says budgets are tight, but thanks to the relative prosperity of Moscow this orphanage still receives its monthly funding of 1,500 rubles (about $75) per child, close to the average monthly wage. "More than half the kids we get have parents somewhere. The numbers are increasing every year, and the system is overburdened," Ms. Ternovskaya says. She agrees that the state medical commission is often too quick to diagnose a child as "retarded" or "disabled." "Resources are stretched to the limit, and we have no staff to bring up all these children properly," she says. "The easy way is just to say nothing can be done with them, and that's what happens all too frequently." The Civic Forum, a Russian human rights group based in Moscow that focuses on children, says that deprivation and abuse are worrisome problems, but the general failure of the orphanage system to prepare children for life in modern society is worse. "In Soviet times there were certain guarantees, such as housing and employment, when kids left the orphanages," says Sergei Strelnikov, a spokesperson for the group. "Now the guarantees have evaporated." "Life in the orphanages may be miserable, but it's survivable. Once the children hit the streets it becomes sheer hell," he says. Mr. Strelnikov cites figures his group has collected that, if true, describe a dire situation indeed. Approximately 15,000 young adults are released from orphanages every year. Of these, approximately 5,000 are homeless within six months, 3,000 are in prison, and 1,500 have committed suicide. Ternovskaya couldn't confirm those figures, but said she has long been aware that institutional life left children unprepared for the outside world. "A child requires so much attention and love to develop normally, and the collective discipline in the orphanage simply does not provide this," she says. Trying foster care Russians rarely adopt, and although Russia is a favorite source for American couples adopting foreign children (3,800 in 1997, according to the State Department), placing children in Russian homes remains a priority. In the past year, Children's House 19 has been involved in an experiment in which outside families are paid 1,500 rubles per month to take over a child's full-time care. Currently about half of the home's 150 kids have been placed in foster care. "We pay professional foster parents, often unemployed women, to do what we cannot: give the children some sort of normal family life," Ternovskaya says. "It doesn't cost more, but it seems to work much better."