Every orphan is unique

Roza Tsvetkova / ng.ru

President of the NGO "The right of the child" Boris Altshuler outlined the main problems in the adoption of Russian children

Why are there so many social orphans (abandoned children whose parents are alive) in Russia?

What are the costs of adoption by foreign citizens for Russian orphanages and state boarding schools? Do only  Americans take into their families sick [disabled] children; and why are state child welfare agencies reluctant to help Russian citizens do this?  The managing editor of NG-policy Roza Tsvetkova tried to find the real answers to these and other difficult issues of child abandonment in Russia from the president of the regional non-governmental organization promoting children's rights, “Children’s Rights” [Pravo Rebenka], Boris Altshuler.

- Boris L’vovich, the numbers cited of abandoned children in Russian orphanages are different every time, but nonetheless horrifying. Why, in your opinion, are so many children in our country without parental care?

- You know, cases of abandonment are all different. For example, in the civil or in the Great Patriotic War, there were really a lot of orphans, because their parents were killed at the front, by bombing and as POWs. Now the picture is different. There is a certain percentage, 10-15% of children, whose parents have died. All the others are so-called social orphans, that is, orphans with living parents who have either been deprived of parental rights, or who themselves have given up their children. But in children's homes and in institutions there is still a huge number of kids who are not orphans, whom mom and dad have not abandoned, but written applications for their temporary transfer into state custody because they can not cope for some reason with their parental responsibilities.

Let me quote to you Article 155 of the Family Code, which in its second part permits the following: parents or guardians and adoptive parents can temporarily take the child to an institution. Basically, in these situations, the children are usually sick or disabled. Though they are surrendered only for a certain period - every year, these arrangements are renewed, and the kids stay there for a long time, if not for life. Some of them, though - if the parents are good and try to somehow take care of them- get to go home on weekends. But in most cases, the children have serious health problems, and the parents just can not physically cope with them, because there is no state support for these families.

And here we come to the main answer to your question: why do we have so many abandoned children or children who are voluntarily "temporarily" handed by their parents over to state institutions? Because, the Russian social system does not mandate local government support for such families, with the exception of support for the elderly and disabled adults. If we talk about children with disabilities, such families are generally left to fend for themselves. Yes, there is a little help in the form of a disability pension. But even after completing all the paperwork--that’s it.

No services in the home, no free diapers or at least a minimum subsidy for dairy products. The only thing parents hear all the time: hand over the child to an institution, it’ll be much easier for you!

- I do not agree with you, not all parents hand over their sick children to institutions ...

- I agree. 85% of Russian parents of disabled children do not send them to orphanages. They are real heroes, because, being in unimaginable conditions - fathers in such situations often leave their families--with almost no funds to care for the child, and  almost no help from the state, except pensions - nevertheless, these moms still fight for their sick kids and don’t give them up.

But when the child grows up, such heroic parents face new challenges - a child needs schooling, but there aren’t appropriate conditions for children with any sort of physical or mental disability, to receive a full education at home.

It’s good that there has been some development of distance learning recently, thank God! But, again, the social service agencies in this situation continue the pressure - please take the child to a state boarding school, where it will be better for them.  If the parents give in at this point and give up their child, then it is all downhill to the point where the grown child is transferred to an adult institution. Yes, we have some correctional classes in regular schools, but not everywhere.  It's still better than a state boarding school. In principle the idea of inclusive education [mainstreaming] is quite marginalized - this is a separate issue, in my opinion, for which the preconditions just aren’t there.

- In your opinion, in many cases, are officials focused on removing the child from the family, which though it may have problems, is nevertheless still a family? Why is this often the main goal--does the state really need to take on additional burdens?

- If the family is dysfunctional, then it really should be done. But I'll give you just a small example from our experience, and it is far from the only one. We were approached by a young mother from Moscow. Two weeks before that, social services took away her four year old child. Yes, she had punished the child, put him out of the apartment on the landing.  He stood there and cried, and then after a while was let back into the house. Then the neighbors called the police and officials came and took the baby. Now I'm not debating whether it was done properly or not, but what is more shocking is this: after the child was taken away, the mother searched for  two weeks across all of Moscow, and during that time, no one notified her where her child was.  In other words, parental feelings in general do not count. Of course, we helped her to get the child back, but how much of the young mother’s strength and peace of mind did it cost?

- Something does not make sense - they just came and took the child, without any court order?

- Yes, this procedure provided for in Article 77 of the Family Code: if there is a direct threat to life and health of the child, then guardianship authorities may remove him from the home. This is in exceptional cases where there is a real threat to the child’s life and health. But whether in this situation there was such a threat - one more question, but even without that, yes, they took the baby, yes, he was in an orphanage, under normal circumstances, but why didn’t they tell the mother where he was? Why is it that no one thought about the mother? She had to turn to an NGO to go to find her son - why does the state act like a criminal? Or are the laws so very harsh?

- Let's be clear: it turns out social welfare authorities acted correctly in accordance with the law?

- Absolutely! There is nothing in the Family Code that says that we should think about the parents.  The law does not even provide for the presence of parents during the hearings which determine the child’s fate. Each year, the child protective authorities remove from so-called dysfunctional families around 100,000 children - just think about those numbers, 250 children separated from their parents every day!  Do you want to know how many of those children are returned back to the biological parents?

No more than 10 thousand! That is only about 10%, which is confirmed by state statistics. In the U.S., which we decry for alleged mistreatment of our children, or in France, which has not yet come under such scrutiny, more than 70% of the time the temporarily removed children are returned to their homes.  In those countries, authorities are enormously active in trying to restore the birth families.  Here, there is no such thing.

Now look at the legal side of the issue, why all this is happening. Open the Family Code and count how many articles regulate orphanhood: 9 articles describe how child welfar agencies take children from parents--upon threats to their life and health, when parents rights are terminated, under certain other conditions, etc.. And another 42 articles of the notorious Code separately prescribe conditions of care for orphans and children left without parental care. And it explains in detail how the child welfare authorities can begin to intervene in a family, with a very vague criteria for this intervention in Article 121.

But note! Not one word in the Family Code concerns how to keep intact the natural family, how to prevent its woes. Read the presidential decree of December 28, 2012. He - again about the orphans, there is so much written about this - and about the benefits they should receive, and how to organize these kids, and what rights they should be guaranteed, but again, no mention of the family itself. The law simply does not provide for any support services for needy families in Russia.

It turns out that in recent years, child welfare agencies have been granted much greater leeway to decide when to intervene in the family, and they started using it.  Because of that, there occasionally are incidences which outrage the whole country.

Now - about our system for adoption, which people have correctly called "the child shop'" where the role of the goods is played by the children themselves. Take the same law on the state database on children without parental care - according to that law, the selection of a child shall be in coordination with the bank.  In fact, it happens behind closed doors, and too much depends on the good will of the employee. This situation is ripe for bribe-taking.   

- But the provision of information about children on the Internet - this is good, because the faster at least visual contact is established with the child, the more likely people are to adopt, no?

- Of course, although nowhere else in the world is the child placement procedure dependent on the employees of this information resource. And actually nowhere in the world is the social system so oriented toward the selection of a child ("the product") for prospective adoptive parents ("the customer"). Elsewhere, systems have the opposite emphasis - the search for a suitable substitute family for each orphan.

When we were visited by a team from France, we told them through an interpreter about our adoption procedures and they were completely shocked: how can it be, it looks like the buying and selling of children!

We [Russians] were also shocked, when we heard the stories about how the French child welfare system confiscates children of Russian citizens, especially if you remember the case of actress Natalya Zakharova. And then they refuse to  give the kids back to their parents due to their "suffocating love," quite a questionable reason. - The case of Zakharova is exceptional, there are many unclear factors, although in the end the child was returned to his father.  The French system did quite monstrously refuse to take into account her natural maternal affection. And this is not an isolated case. Fifteen years ago in Norway, I met a Norwegian woman, who after her divorce from her French husband, lost custody of her two beloved children. French justice is very nationalistic and [usually] decides in favor of the Frenchman.

As for the French child welfare system as a whole, once a child for whatever reason comes into state custody, it (the system) will immediately begin to do two things: first, it almost immediately places the child in foster care. This so-called professional family, or rather family group, which cares for the children until the question of their final placement is decided. In France, there are no orphanages as we understand them; there are at most 12 people in the shelter maximum.  In Norway, for example, the limit - it's 6 people, not 100-200, as we have.

Second, the system will immediately begin working with the child’s family of origin, so there is, as I said, 70% of children returned to the family. Then again, some of them have to be taken into state custody once more, because it is difficult to, for example, cure parents who are drug addicts. Anything can happen, but it simply doesn’t occur that the system forgets about the biological parents.

Indeed, in France, there are also databases of orphans in need of a family, but there is no provision in their law for a database administrator to play a role in child placement or to issue permission [for potential adoptive families] to get acquainted with the child.

- The problems of Russian orphans go beyond the corrupt schemes involved in their adoption...

- I agree, in this system of orphanages and children's homes, which we dubbed "Rossirotprom" [the orphan industry/the orphan industrial complex], by analogy with "Gazprom", it's not just about in bribes in adoption. Cashing in at the expense of the children - it's a giant theft of the budget allocated to the "government children" in institutions. Newspapers name different figure, 2 million per year [budgeted per individual] for a child; this is probably an overstatement, but if you count the entire apparatus of the management, the various major repairs and construction of new buildings... And you know what “major repairs’ means in Russia -- this equals public money pouring directly into private pockets. Therefore, let’s take the average figure that the state allocates annually to support each orphaned child: a half million rubles, or 50 thousand dollars. And then run the numbers - when in 2011 Americans alone adopted 965 Russian children, how much did the "Rossirotprom" system miss out on collecting due to the fact that these children left for the U.S.? You get quite a disturbing figure for our orphanage directors:  about 50 million dollars!

- Those same 50 thousand dollars [Russian oligarch] Mikhail Prokhorov promised to pay personally to almost every [Russian] adoptive family. I haven’t yet heard of any such cases, but ...

- Yes this is cynical beyond belief, that he does not realize how many children will die from this? How long will it take for clever folks to adopt a sick child for money, and then when the child dies, there will be no one to blame and I'm sorry, he was so sick. Go and try to prove how he died, and Prokhorov’s money will already be in their pockets.

Getting rich on the backs of orphans - this is not only the gigantic theft of humanitarian aid, but a number of various of regional projects on "solving the problem" - with zero effect, but with considerable annual budgets.

There is another, very profitable, a way to cash in on orphans: the assignment of apartments. This is done primarily by false diagnosis of mental retardation. By the time the child graduates out of the orphanage, he is supposed to be given the apartment to which he is entitled. And if that person is given a specific diagnosis [of mental disability], he may be forever excluded from normal life, buried alive in a mental institution, a his apartment can be appropriate.  Those who are involved, they know how to do it.

- What you are saying is terrible...

- There are lots of cases; people don’t know about them. The system seizes its victims in a stranglehold, and goes to great lengths not to let them out of its claws.  People trapped in such circumstances stagnate, and, die. After all, how does it work here - if you are incapacitated, that’s it, you are not a person, you are nothing, your life becomes a life of a slave locked up at someone’s command. They do not teach them anything.

I have already talked about the 300,000 children living permanently in institutions. In general, in one year they spend 300-400 billion rubles for their support. This is "Rossirotprom" [the orphan industrial complex]. And this company will not permit anyone - neither Putin nor Medvedev - to destroy it.

- But we still have the Commissioner for Children's Rights. There is a special structure to ensure respect for the rights of children, wherever they may be. How, in your opinion, does this system function?

- So far we have talked about the social services system that is obligated to work for the benefit of children. We have not discussed supervisory institutions.  The ombudsman - or authorized person for child protection - is a reviewing authority, well, it's there, and it should be independent of all the others. But we have regional ombudsmen - for human rights and child rights - who are appointed by the regional authorities [governors]. Here it is difficult to talk about independence. Vladimir Lukin [the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman] has long been proposing a law mandating that the Federal Commissioner shall appoint their own representatives in the regions, but the proposal has not passed. But now we’re not really talking about the Ombudsman, because they have no executive functions. Just like the law on public supervision of children's institutions which prohibits supervisory figures from intervening in those institutions.

- What is the fate of the way, of the law that you have proposed on public control over children’s instutions?

Oh, that's a separate story! The idea of social control over children's homes, boarding schools was proposed long ago. In early 2010, we are a small group of community activists (in addition to me there were Valentin Gefter, Lev Ponomarev, Sergei Koloskov, Alexei Golovan, Lev Levinson and some other experts, social activists, including Vladimir Lukin’s colleagues), developed the draft version of the bill. Then the idea was supported by all relevant instutions: the Public Chamber, the Council for Human Rights Mikhail Fedotov, Vladimir Lukin, Pavel Astakhov, the working group for the development of NGO legislation in the presidential administration, which Vladislav Surkov headed ... But most importantly, the bill for two years supported the then President Dmitry Medvedev and the State Legal Department of the President of the Russian Federation worked on it in a very constructive and professional fashion.

The main strategy of the legislation was to create an outside monitor, overseeing the activities of orphanages and children’s homes.  We wanted such inspectors to be appointed from outside the region, independently.  And on December 27 2011 Dmitrii Medvedev submitted the draft law to the State Duma, which in March 2012 passed it in the first reading.  After that there was a change of presidents, and a few members of the working group of the State Duma committee on the family, women and children started to have new objections to the text of the law, and those objections became more and more numerous.  And on 18 June 2012, a few days before the law was to be discussed i the second reading, a bunch of guys came into the Duma dressed in red peasant shirts a la Russe, and they brought nearly 100 boxes with pages of 85 thousand signatures gathered by Sergei Kurginian’s group “Sut’ Vremeni” [the nature of the times] in 97 Russian towns on a petition to Putin/Naryshkin, in other words, addressed to the President and the speaker of the Duma, asking them not to pass the law.  This initiative group argued the following: why do we need social activists, when after all we have government agencies charged with respecting the rights of children in orphanages?  In other words, why duplicate functions, plus this will insult the administrators and workers in those institutions, who have devoted their lives to raising abandoned children.  Notice that although all this was undertaken ostensibly in the name of the family and of parents, there’s not one word about the family in this argument.  But the fact remains: Sergei Kurginian’s “Sut’ vremeni” movement managed to get the bill stopped in the second reading.

Then, thanks to the active support of ombudsman Lukin, at the end of last summer the question was decided according to the position of our current President who, after all, had supported the law.  But at the end of September 2012 Kurginian and company gathered another 140 thousand signatures against public supervision of children’s homes.  This was an absolutely orchestrated bit of theater intended to kill once and for all the idea of public monitoring.  And the law was again stopped.  At the same time, the awful “Dima Yakovlev Law” was passed, which the President signed, at the same time on 28 December as he issued Decree No. 1688 on the defense of orphaned children, where, among other articles, we find the following instruction--”Pass a law on public monitoring of children’s homes.”  In other words, de jure, the Russian Federation President came out against Sergei Kurginian.  Although on 9 February, in his address in the Hall of Columns at the annual parents’ conference of Kurginian’s, the President backtracked, saying that the law on public monitoring needs re-working, and perhaps it doesn’t need to be passed at all.  Honestly I don’t really understand what is going on in our country.  And I think I’m not the only one.

After all, it was on 10 May 2006, Vladimir Putin in his address to the Federal authorities ordered “the creation of mechanisms which will allow us to reduce the number of children housed in orphanages.”  There were no such mechanisms created, and those which began developing in the regions--foster care with publicly-funded specialist support for families--were destroyed in 2008 by the law initiated by Ekaterina Lakhova, “On State Care and Custody.”  And now once again a Presidential Decree calls for the creation of support mechanisms for citizens taking orphanage children into their homes.  Will it be carried out?  I very much hope so!

Lately, many people are speaking and writing about how Americans for some reason do not hesitate to take into their families children with quite serious health problems, while Russians very rarely adopt, especially disabled children.  Can we explain this by looking only at the material side of things, or is it that in our constant battle for a dignified life we are losing our ability to empathize, to be charitable?

I’m afraid I must disappoint you in that there is not such a high percentage of American adopters who take disabled children; however, one must understand that every child who has lived any amount of time in a state institution suffers damage to their physical and psychological development.  The cases you are describing simply get in the news more often, especially if it concerns expensive operations or medical care for these adopted kids.  Right here in Russia there are also such heroes--for instance Vera Olegovna Drobinskaia from Astrakhan, a pediatrician who is a foster mother to seven disabled orphans.  Here there is another problem, and she herself has spoken about it: state child welfare officials are extremely reluctant to allow this, and try in various ways to dissuade people who want to take a disabled child into their care, or an adolescent.  There are several reasons for this.  First of all, there is an unwritten instruction to preserve the network of state institutions, and not allow there to be too many empty beds.  Secondly, if a child is in a state institution, then the child protective services don’t have to worry about him, because the orphanage administration is responsible.  But if a child is given out to a foster family, then he falls under the immediate jurisdiction of child welfare agencies, and they must somehow monitor his condition.  And God forbid that he should be returned to state custody, because then they have to answer for those bad statistics.  So you have here the rabid opposition from the whole welfare system, which has to be fundamentally changed.

Here in Russia there are plenty of good people, just like everywhere else.  It’s just that we have a terribly cruel, hyper-bureaucratized system not only for adoption, but for life in general.  And people therefore feel helpless, unneeded.  Prejudices also play a role.  People who adopt children try their best to maintain secrecy, to protect themselves from public scrutiny.  It’s not a secret that such children are often treated differently in school, in kindergartens.  Not to mention that even one’s own relatives may not be supportive.  There in America you don’t have this; adoption is not clandestine, rather more the opposite--people try even more to support and sympathize with adopters.

There is a lot that needs to be changed in our value system and the way people are treated.  But we need not despair--maybe tomorrow we’ll wake up to a new, much better Russia.  Such is the dialectic.

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an eye-opener about the barriers to family preservation

This article really pulls together the complex issues standing in the way of solving the "orphan problem" here in Russia.

I found it eye-opening to hear about the problem it poses for the top leadership. People are used to thinking about Putin as an all-powerful autocrat. It was instructive to hear about the political conflict he faces--on the one hand, he'd like to do the right thing, but on the other hand, the bureaucracy (the people who have access to the state budget, to steal from it) is his main constituency. And if he goes after their interests too hard (by shutting down "Rossirotprom" and shifting the money to medical care, family services, etc.) he risks cutting off the branch he sits on.

Altshuler's formulation of the "child shop" also clarified for me the way the state bureaucracy had approached adoption by foreigners--if the system is run for consumers, not for the children, then it makes sense that the least preferred consumers, or foreigners, would be handed the "damaged goods."

We've got another funding request from his group, one that underscores the truth of what he's saying: the state doesn't fully fund the purchase of infant formula (which is very expensive here) so that HIV+ mothers won't pass it to their babies via breastmilk. If you give your kid up to an orphanage, of course, he will get all the formula he needs. Some foreign groups are helping to fund the shortfall (yay Estee Lauder), but still more is needed.

Is it surprising?

The cost of care (for "abandoned" children) has always been a plaguing issue for governments, as demonstrated by the Child Migration schemes, the Orphan Trains in the US, and Operation Baby Lift from Vietnam  - various eras of the history of child placement..  In fact, I must admit, credit must be given to those who were able to make the selling of state-children (to the private sector) the impressive (and lucrative) success it has become.    

Well before anyone heard or spoke about The Orphan Crusade, there was much talk about the Crusade of Rescue - a complex tangle of competing private schemes, government initiatives, charismatic personalities, muddled priorities and confused agendas, affected by the economic, political and social pressures of that particular era.

The following description reads as true today as it was in 1911 when Director of the Archdiocese of Westminster , Father N Waugh wrote in "These my little ones":

A double service is rendered to religion, humanity and civilization, in carrying off the children of distress to the open lands beyond the sea, to live in the open, to work with nature, to wrestle with forest, field and stream, to forget the fetid city slums, to think and strive and pray in the open, to grow strong and self-reliant, to be the guardians of the outpost of civilization, religion and new endeavor… every child a pioneer of the Empire

Of course, each of the above-mentioned initiatives may have started-off with the greatest of humane intentions: provide a much needed service for those most desperate in-need. However, in retrospect, many were harmed, due to the self-serving greed of others.  So at the time, who would have imagined among those in most-need were the religious and political figures made popular by these programs, and in want of longer stays in power?  And who could have anticipated the many claims of hardships and abuse, as told by the "saved" and "rescued" orphans, and the mothers who were forced to relinquish their children, themselves?  Who would believe these claims made by those who ought to see themselves as grateful, and not as victims?

Nowadays it's interesting to note how the "altruism" from the private-sector is often seen by those who are very image-conscious.  I believe Niels explained this phenomenon very well in the following comment regarding "value":

Someone once told me, adoption from foster care would probably do better if it cost more money. The more expensive a kid is the higher its perceived value. "Free" kids have no value and are therefore seen as worthless. If that is true, people more easily adopt an older child from a foreign country than one of the American foster care system.

I also think some weird form of racism plays a role. A child imported adopted from Colombia is exotic, while a foster care child born in the US from Colombian parents is just another Hispanic. The same difference probably applies to African-Americans and African-Africans. There are millions of African-Americans in the US, but African-Africans are exotic and therefore valuable. So while "worthless" African-American kids are adopted out to European countries, "valuable" children from Ethiopia are being adopted by Americans.

In that sense history can teach us a lesson. The book The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction tells the story of several orphan train children being adopted by Mexican families in Arizona in 1904. While living in NYC, these children, from Irish extraction were deemed worthless and moved to west in the hope someone would be willing to adopt them. When these children finally were adopted by Mexican families, their perceived value rose to enormous heights. All of a sudden these children transformed from Irish scum in need of deportation to fair haired little saints forced to live with "dirty" Mexicans.

This historical example not only shows how the value of children depends on circumstances, but also the value of the act of saving them. While living on the streets of NYC in need of food and shelter, the act of saving them had little value, but saving them from the hands of "dirty" Mexicans was a priceless effort.

I myself find it very interesting how the value of something - money, marriage, life-style of an individual - plays a part in adoption services, (as opposed to humanitarian efforts donated to a group in-need).

From a cost-perspective, it is not at all surprising to me that those with the most expensive costs (due to medical needs) are going to be the first to try to ship-out those unwanted extra costs onto another.  [How many children in India and China have been abandoned and then sent-away because corrective surgery, like that for a cleft-lip, was needed?] 

The question is:  is it fair to terminate the rights of a parent, and send a child far far away - losing all contact with all that's known and familiar - all because the expensive health-care costs cannot be paid by the parent, and won't be paid by the government?   Is ICA really the only way better health-care will be provided for a child with special needs?  (Is this forcing a child out of family and familiarity altruism or eugenics?)

In my opinion, conducting child-trade so expensive health-costs will be paid is simply in poor taste and forgetting the child's need to be surrounded by what's familiar. As a mom and a health-care provider I find this practice is especially cruel if the child in-question is going through the profound fear and stress that goes with long-term medical treatments and surgical interventions.  I know many will disagree, but I simply believe from a child's POV, foreign child-trade in exchange for covered health-costs is just cruel.

russian orphans, alcoholism

It is my understanding that parental alcoholism is also a big reason why children are placed in orphanages

I read a report recently

I read a report recently that said the average life expectancy world wide is 75 years. However, in Russia, the average life expectancy is on 65 years because of the terrible problem with alcohol abuse. There are more babies born of Russian parents who grow up to have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome than every other country.

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