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Rescuing Russia’s Children from Excessive Diagnosis of Mental Retardation

Boris Altshuler, 19/10/10
Vera Drobinskaya, the legendary foster mother from the city of Astrakhan, has rescued five children from the Raznochinovsky Orphanage for Mentally Retarded Children (one of whom had been tied to a bed for a year). All of them had been given very severe diagnoses, but all of them now are doing well at school and are fully socialized.
To the President of the Russian Federation, D. A. Medvedev
Dear Dmitry Anatolievich,
For over two years the authorities in Astrakhan Region have been refusing to allow the family of Vera Drobinskaya to foster Vasya Makarov, a child living at the Raznochinovsky Orphanage for Mentally Retarded Children. Vasya Makarov is over sixteen-years-old now and for two years has been dreaming of escaping the orphanage. But instead, for the last six months, he has been kept in a psychiatric hospital.
I will not list all the appeals that have been made on his behalf and my own private conversations at the highest regional level. All of these have been in vain. And on 4 October a court hearing denied Vera Drobinskaya’s appeal against an earlier decision by the child welfare authorities to refuse her application to foster Vasya Makarov. In doing so, the court has committed an outrageous violation of the legal process, having not consulted with Vasya Makarov and having made a decision about his fate in his absence, despite the fact that Vasya Makarov is legally capable of participating in the process and is – clearly - over ten-years-old. The reasons for such conduct on the part of the authorities are both obvious and systemic:
  • First of all, the child welfare authorities take no responsibility for those children who have been placed in an institution for orphans, while they must assume responsibility for children fostered out to families;
  • Secondly, the system of orphanages is geared towards self-preservation and thus holds on to each of the children in its care for dear life, while medical, psychological and pedagogical commissions churn out diagnoses of mental retardation for the ‘delivery’ of orphans to Orphanages for Mentally Retarded Children;
  • But the most important reason is that, on reaching eighteen years of age, an orphan fostered by a family is entitled to an apartment, whereas if this child is left in an institution, he or she is automatically transferred to a Psycho-Neurological Home for Adults for the rest of his / her life and so ‘No person, no problem’ (Joseph Stalin). The practice of economizing on apartments for orphans by means of excessive diagnosis of mental retardation is very widespread and demands the gravest scrutiny from public prosecution bodies.
Dear Dmitry Anatolievich, during your meeting with members and experts of the Public Chamber on 30 November 2007, I showed you two photos of a young girl called Liza from Smolensk. On the first photo, which it was difficult to look at, you could see the five-year-old Liza, bearer of a whole series of terrible diagnoses, doomed to be transferred to an Orphanage for Mentally Retarded Children. On the second photo taken two years later, you could see the vibrant, intelligent face of a girl who is doing very well at school and is involved in all kinds of extra-curricular activities. What happened is that instead of being transferred to an Orphanage for the Mentally Retarded, Liza was fostered by the family of Tatyana Sharypova. And all the terrible diagnoses turned out to be fictitious.
Vera Drobinskaya, the legendary foster mother from the city of Astrakhan, has rescued five children from the Raznochinovsky Orphanage for Mentally Retarded Children (one of whom had been tied to a bed for a year). All of them had been given very severe diagnoses, but all of them now are doing well at school and are fully socialized. And there are over a hundred children just like them who do not deserve to be ‘buried alive’ at Raznochinovsky Orphanage. This situation is replicated across the country.
We, in the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, together with the specially-appointed Ombudsman for Children’s Rights of the Russian Federation and members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, have developed a package of measures aimed at reforming the very principles of the current system that is deeply flawed. Amongst these measures are:
  • The creation of a hierarchy of interdepartmental bodies to coordinate all activities in the child and family welfare protection sector;
  • The comprehensive reform of child welfare authorities;
  • The legislative definition of fostering as a mechanism to replace upbringing within a family, professionally assisted by appointed representatives of the appropriate child welfare authorities, and of social patronage for economically disadvantaged families;
  • The ‘shift’ of the entire social system towards assisting families, including the extension of services provided at home, offering rehabilitation at home, providing services to biological and foster families with children with disabilities, and prophylactic measures taken within the broader social environment;
  • The creation of a system of public oversight of children’s orphanages;
  • And of course, measures taken to reform psychological, medical and pedagogical commissions that are the main punitive body of the Russian education system; these measures are outlined in the Table of Amendments to the Education Bill (which seeks to create necessary conditions for the practical realisation of the national educational initiative ‘Our New School’) forwarded to the Ministry of Education and Science.
I implore you to support these recommendations.
And, in conclusion, let me yet again draw your attention to the family of Vera Drobinskaya, who seems to be a thorn in the flesh of the Astrakhan authorities. This family has received no professional assistance in all its work with difficult children. Instead, the authorities have been very active in applying pressure on the family. In summer this year the whole massive machinery of the region’s executive and legislative authorities (which in Astrakhan region are practically one; and here the Chair of the regional court O. N. Vasilenko has much to answer) acted to remove ten-year-old Ramazan S. from the guardianship of Vera Drobinskaya’s family. Ramazan S. is a boy with severe disabilities from birth, whom Vera Dobinskaya found nine years ago dying in a hospital and whom she has since cared for and kept alive. This barbaric decision caused public fury and protests across the country. In Astrakhan (as well as Russia as a whole), there are people capable of exemplary acts of great altruism, such as taking into one’s family a disabled child. But people are not prepared to dedicate themselves to the rehabilitation of a difficult child while fending off attacks from the authorities, as Vera Drobinskaya has done for many years. As a result, children remain permanently in orphanages, which, clearly, is the main objective of child policy in Astrakhan.
I have appealed to the Governor of Astrakhan region, A. A. Zhilkin, on behalf of Ramazan S. I have written to him about Vasya Makarov, about children unjustly shut away from life in the Raznochinovsky Orphanage for the Mentally Retarded Children, and about the way the various children’s commissions churn out their murderous diagnoses. But all in vain. Governor Zhilkin, judging by his personal blog, loves and respects Astrakhan’s watermelons. But he has no emotions left for the children of his region.
Boris L. Altshuler,
Member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation
Chair of the board, Right of the Child