Few choices for Moscow's homeless children

Human rights advocates call on officials to adopt a new approach tochild welfare: private groups

Fourteen-year-old Oksana Smirnova is a recent recruit to Russia's growing army of abandoned children. Experts say the numbers of these kids, trapped between a precarious street existence and official institutions that are sometimes worse, have swollen to crisis proportions.

Oksana and her sister Sasha, 11, have found temporary refuge at Island of Hope, one of the handful of private shelters for homeless children in Moscow. Sitting in its sparse playroom amid a few stuffed animals and an old Soviet-era TV, Oksana recounts her tale: The girls are from Tselenograd, in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. Last year, their mother sold their small apartment and headed for Moscow. But along the way they were robbed and ended up living for weeks in a Moscow railway station.

One day police scooped up the two girls and took them to an isolyator, a medium-security holding tank for undocumented children. "It was a terrible place," says Oksana. "We were 30 sleeping in one room." Their mother eventually got them out and brought them to Island of Hope. "Our mother visits us here sometimes, but she has no chances to take us back," she says.

Moscow's Soviet-era propiska laws make it extremely difficult for outsiders to register for residence or work in the Russian capital. More than a million refugees and migrants are estimated to be living illegally here, under constant threat of deportation by police.

"Refugees from former Soviet countries are one major reason for the explosion of homeless children in recent years," says Revolt Pimenov, coordinator of the Island of Hope shelter. "There are other reasons as well. But in all cases, the negligence and indifference of the Russian government is an aggravating factor."

Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, family violence, alcoholism, poverty, and child abandonment have risen sharply. Official statistics indicate more than 100,000 children have been abandoned for each of the past two years.

"Moscow is a magnet. They come here from all over," says Galina Starkova, head of the juvenile delinquency section of the city's main police force. She defends the practice of taking street kids to the isolyator, from which they are claimed by parents, forwarded to orphanages, or deported to their home regions.

Moscow has only nine active foster families, fewer than even in Soviet times, because state bureaucracies that oversee the orphanage system are unwilling to give up control and funding, says Svetlana Bocherova, deputy chair of Goodwill Without Borders, a children's-rights group. Russia has 2,000 state orphanages, which currently house about 200,000 children.

"If we could sort out the bureaucratic mess we could start to solve the problems," Ms. Bocherova says. "After all these years there are still no laws or regulations to permit private orphanages or children's shelters to exist," she adds. "Every attempt to do something is stifled by bureaucrats."

A case in point is Island of Hope. The Christian Democratic Party, a group that promotes broad Christian principles in the political sphere, founded it as a soup kitchen and children's center four years ago. Moscow authorities have repeatedly tried to shut the shelter down, arguing that it is unregistered and that staff are not licensed to work with children.

"Our existence is taken as an affront to the system," says Mr. Pimenov. "Bureaucrats believe, as a matter of principle, that all street children are the responsibility of the state alone.... The fact that we are doing something that is desperately needed is not taken into account."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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