It's a difficult fact for foreigners to get their head around; but eighty percent of orphans in Russia have at least one parent.
While child abandonment is a rare occurrence in the U.S. and Western Europe, the issue of social orphanhood is a pressing problem in Russia. Last year alone, 23,000 children were placed in orphanages by parents who, for various reasons, could not cope with them at home.
This week the Moscow City Department of Family and Youth Policy, in cooperation with the Russian NGO Women and Children First, held their first international conference to discuss both Russian and Western experiences in combating this disturbing trend. The conference also presented the results of a project in the Far East of Russia called ‘Keeping Baby Home', which has received the support of U.S. specialists.
Guests at the conference heard presentations from a range of speakers on the topic. Many explained how early intervention can prevent family problems from spiraling into a situation where children are abandoned or taken into care. Dr Hugh McLaughlin, from the University of Salford, shared his experiences with the British system, which has almost no instances of child abandonment.
"In the UK, the focus is very much on preventing things from going wrong in the first place," he said.
The home of every baby born in Britain is visited by a health worker, whose job it is to spot signs of potential problems such as postnatal depression, domestic abuse, child disability or neglect. Any concerns the health worker has are then passed on to the appropriate agencies.
In Russia, however, there is no system of early assistance to at-risk families, which means that problems often don't come to light until they reach a crisis point and the police are called in. Last year in Russia, 60,000 parents had their parental rights legally revoked and their children taken into the care of the state. Police Colonel Antonina Ryabova told the conference about the tough decisions her officers are regularly faced with:
"We are not the most popular organization here today, but when we see children who are not being fed, mothers who are constantly drunk, and babies left in their cot for days on end, we are forced to act. I hope that I will hear something at this conference that will help us in our activities."
The inclusion of the police in this conference demonstrates a new approach by the Moscow City authorities, which aims to foster greater cooperation between government agencies, health professionals, charities and NGOs. The city has set up a regional database of families to centralize information about children from different sources.
Two new social support centers have also been opened this year to provide a point of contact for families at risk, bringing the total number of centers in the city to 21, which between them serve 27,000 registered families. A representative of the Ministry of Education outlined plans to open such centers in every part of the city, with further specialized centers to tackle specific problems such as crisis centers for women.
On the Federal level, state policy strategist Marina Gordeeva described how new laws concerning funding and child benefits that were adopted by the Duma in 2007 are now helping to ease the situation of families in crisis. Adoptive parents now receive significant financial support and new funds allow for regular medical checkups for abandoned children suffering from disabilities. So far this year 1 billion rubles have been paid out in child support payments and a further 7 billion for checkups.
But speakers stressed that financial support is just part of the solution, raising awareness is also key to effective intervention. Julliet Engel, CEO of the charity Miramed told The Moscow News.
"Previously this was an issue that was invisible but now seeds have been planted which have put early intervention to prevent abandonment on the national agenda."
By Rebeccah Billing