Legislation Jeopardizes Foster System

The State Duma took a major step Wednesday toward preventing children from being placed in foster families by abandoning a system that encouraged the placements.

Ignoring two years of public opposition, the Duma passed in a crucial second reading legislation that redefines the functions of state social services and forbids other organizations from participating in the placement of orphaned and abandoned children in families.

"I am very much disappointed with this bill," said Sergei Koloskov, a member of the Public Chamber and head of a nongovernmental organization that assists children with Down syndrome. "Russia has voted for bureaucrats, not for children."

Pavel Krasheninnikov, a co-author of the bill and head of the Duma's Legislation Committee, said the changes would not affect existing foster families.

"We approved a good bill despite all the speculation about it," he said by telephone.

The bill will eliminate one of two options for family placement. Under the 12-year system facing the ax, a child registered in an orphanage lives with foster parents who are considered part of the staff. The orphanage itself becomes a kind of a social services agency for finding and training prospective parents as well as helping parents solve problems.

A total of 5,124 children currently live in these families in 42 regions, said Maria Ternovskaya, who developed the system.

"We will not be able to assist them any more, and we will not be allowed to find new parents," said Ternovskaya, who heads Children's Home No. 19 in Moscow, a model of this foster system in Russia. "All this supposedly will be done by local bureaucrats from the social services, who have already shown that they are not interested in this work at all."

She said these families would have to sign new agreements with the social services that they might find unsatisfactory. "Some children might be brought back to orphanages," she said.

Some foster families are worried about losing the support of professional case workers. "It is really hard to deal with all the problems you face by yourself," said Tatyana Kulikova, who is raising two children. "I turn to our orphanage with any problem -- medical, legal, psychological -- and they always are there ready to help."

In the other system, orphanages have nothing more to do with the children after they are placed with families. Under the law, social services are supposed to monitor the children. In practice, they have few trained social workers and worry more about paperwork than children, child welfare workers said.

In addition, social services do not actively promote foster care and reluctantly work with parents who want to take a child, said Boris Altshuler, head of The Right of a Child, an NGO.

Ternovskaya's system costs the state 37 percent less than residential placement, because the government does not have to build more orphanages, Altshuler said.

He said officials from ministries down to orphanages opposed Ternovskaya's system because it took children out of orphanages, threatening their livelihoods.

The bill must pass a third Duma reading before it is sent to the Federation Council and then to the president for his signature.