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"Orphanhood begins with every one of us" - reports

26 December 2012
On 25 December 2012 at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Community Centre in Moscow, a discussion was held on the topic "Children: do they belong to the State, to us or to nobody at all?", about the problems of Russian orphaned children.

The round table was attended by Elena Alshanskaya, president of the Volunteers for Orphaned Children charitable foundation, Julia Kurchanova, social projects psychologist and language specialist, and Ekaterina Asonova, an expert of the Russian National Volunteers Centre of the Sanctity of Motherhood programme.

The adoption of the anti-Magnitsky law, which envisages a complete ban on the adoption of Russian children by citizens of the United States, is a reason to get people talking about the situation orphans are actually faced with in this country and what degree of protection they have, says Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Centre, who was acting as moderator of the discussion.

While government officials, in retaliation to the Americans, are reducing the already comparatively low chances for Russian orphans to have a proper family life, the institutional problems of children's homes go unsolved, say the event organisers.

For example, the removal of a child from a problem family, rather than being a last resort, remains the only tool for dealing with such a family. The authorities are not providing any help to those who have found themselves in a difficult situation and are struggling to cope with parenthood. When the question arises of placing a child with a new family, the child’s family of origin is no longer in the picture at all and the parents are not given the chance to change for the better. 

Accommodation in a boarding school is not perceived as a temporary, emergency measure; a child in a children's home is said to be 'settled'. Consequently, there is no foster family establishment where the child might live until being adopted.

On the one hand, "our lawmakers have proved themselves to be completely out of touch. Not only are they completely ignorant about the situation, but they haven't even tried to learn about it." On the other hand, it is also wrong to treat foreign adoptions as the only hope, argues Julia Kurchanova.

Clearly, it is a significant disadvantage to the family and causes serious socio-economic harm to whole regions, whilst there is a complete lack of any professional work in support of the family. The large sums that are being spent each year on paying for special celebrations at orphanages, should instead be put towards systemic reforms, towards the support of families in the community. Nurseries and schools for children with disabilities should be made available to every family.

Meanwhile, according to Ekaterina Asonova, the existing system of children's homes acts as an impediment to adoption:

"Directors like gifts of sweets and repair work as they get public accolades for this. Sadly, a director does not get public accolades for adoption or for a well-established school that works with foster parents and families of origin.

The expert believes that "it is neither possible to reform nor in any way improve the existing child protection system. It will not ensure that children are protected from the family itself nor that the family does not destroy itself. Something fundamentally new must be created".

Elena Alshanskaya described the situation in our country for children with developmental disabilities.

There are 143 boarding schools in Russia, which, as of 2009, accommodated 23,000 orphans. The main way in which these institutions differ from ordinary children's homes is that they are not part of the Ministry of Education. This means that children living there did not receive any kind of education until very recently. On leaving the walls of their homes, they could neither count, read or write.

Over the past five years the situation has, to some extent, changed for the better; pupils have begun to have lessons. But this is nothing, compared to what needs to be done.

After boarding school, 18-year-old graduates are still faced with two choices: whether to go to a neuropsychiatric hospital for adults or to a nursing home for the elderly.

Another problem that children with disabilities encounter is overdiagnosis.

"A child may be diagnosed with a 'mild mental handicap' but this diagnosis gets supplemented by behavioural disorders, for example. The child becomes hard to manage in the education system and is given a more serious diagnosis still. Then a fully socialised child or a child with the potential to be socialised ends up alongside children who lie in bed and must be fed through a tube," explains Elena Alshanskaya.

"Per capita financing is now being introduced to these boarding schools, and the director of any such institution has a vested interest in children not being given up – whether to foster homes or to other domestic arrangements. In any case, the system does not allow for children to be released into the world at all, notes Elena Alshanskaya.

A key problem she has identified is the unwillingness of our society to accept families with such children.

"Our society is not ready for them to appear, neither morally nor professionally – not by any means. Perhaps this is something that each of us can make a start on now. Looking at it this way, orphanhood begins with every one of us because if we are able to change the way that we treat this kind of family – to offer support, to find organisations that offer this support on a professional level, then such children will stand a chance of avoiding becoming orphans," the expert emphasised.