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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Down's Children: A Circle of Neglect

First in a series of articles revealing the poor state of Russia's orphanages and other institutions for children.

Imprisoned in a cloth sack behind the locked door of a Moscow orphanage, 9-year-old Natasha Maslova was barely alive when Sergei Koloskov rescued her.

Born with Down's syndrome, Natasha was abandoned by her parents at birth and lived in various state institutions until she was transferred to a Moscow internat -- a residential complex where children are supposedly fed, clothed, educated and cared for by the government. That is where Koloskov, the president of the Down's Syndrome Association, found her 18 months ago.

Koloskov managed to get into the orphanage, where he filmed the sickening conditions from which he rescued Natasha. There, behind a locked door, a dozen children with Down's syndrome lay forgotten and immobilized in their beds.

With shaved heads and sore-ridden, emaciated bodies, they looked more like victims of war or holocaust than wards of the state. In the middle of this barren room, Natasha lay on a bed without linen and stared blankly at the camera, wearing nothing but the cloth sack that en months, she was even presented to royalty. When the Princess of Wales visited the hospital last June, she paid particular attention to Natasha's former plight and marveled at her rapid progress.

But this tragic story may not have a happy ending after all. Robust and recovered, Natasha was released from the hospital this week and sent back to her internat.

While Natasha's current living conditions are tolerable, Koloskov said, he is worried that she will be sent back to the same ward from which she came. He and his association are frantically trying to prevent that eventuality by working with the internat staff.

"Right now they are cooperative because they are frightened," said Koloskov, who went to see Natasha this week. "But who knows what will happen once outsiders stop paying attention."

A spokeswoman for Princess Diana said Thursday that the princess remembered the little girl, but was unable to comment on her current situation.

Like most orphans, Natasha spent the first few years of her life in a det dom or children's house, until at age 6 she was transferred to a residential internat.

Officially, children are supposed to leave the det dom at the age of four, but Natasha's caregiver was reluctant to give her up.

"She was so small and so happy," said Yelena Korina, who, now retired, worked at the orphanage where Natasha was sent as a baby. "We felt sorry for her, so we kept her with us a bit longer."

Korina had reason to be wary.

Three days after she bid them farewell, Korina visited an internat where two of her former charges -- a boy and girl who both had Down's syndrome -- had been transferred.

"They already were not the same children I knew," said Korina.

When Korina checked in on the children the following week, the little girl was already ill and had been transferred to a hospital. Korina went to visit her, but within a few weeks she was told the girl was dead. Three months later the little boy suffered a similar fate.

With two of her children gone, Korina called regularly to check up on Natasha, who was living in a different internat across town.

"Whenever I called they told me she was walking, playing and dressed up in new clothes," said Korina. But when Korina asked friends who were visiting children in the same internat to look in on Natasha, she found out Natasha's condition was much worse than she was led to believe.

"When my friend saw her she burst into tears," said Korina, who called Sergei Koloskov to solicit his help.

"If Sergei hadn't saved her, I'm sure she would be dead now," said Korina.

Unfortunately, Natasha is not an isolated case. Thousands of Russian children with Down's syndrome face a similar fate.

According to Koloskov, 95 percent of all Down's babies born in Russia are given up by their parents -- a practice that is encouraged by the doctors at the maternity hospitals.

"These children are all orphans by reason of illness," said Koloskov, whose 6-year-old daughter, Vera, also born with Down's syndrome, might have suffered the same fate as Natasha.

Indeed, when Vera was born, the doctors tried to convince the Koloskovs to give her up -- saying that they wouldn't be able to handle her. They don't see them as people, Koloskov says, but as animals, and they are treated accordingly." It doesn't matter what internat this is -- this nightmare is going on across the country," said Koloskov, leafing through a stack of photos, each more horrifying than the last.

"The most shocking part is not that this horror exists, but that it exists and no one cares about it," said Koloskov.

A former concert pianist, Koloskov gave up his career three years ago to found the Down's Syndrome Association. He occasionally gives benefit concerts to finance its activities, but, without any help from the government, he has to rely on occasional charitable contributions to keep the association alive.

Aside from providing educational and material support for families with Down's children, the association works on various levels to try to release these children from their own private horrors. Some members of the association are already working secretly in internats to try to bring a trace of humanity to the system from within. Koloskov has also appealed to President Boris Yeltsin and the Social Security Ministry -- which is responsible for children with Down's syndrome -- to try to introduce an educational system for early development.

The system he has proposed is called Small Steps -- an educational program for children with Down's syndrome developed in Australia and translated into Russian. Until recently, Russian children with Down's syndrome were considered beyond hope, so there was no need to educate them.

Koloskov still faces an uphill battle in convincing authorities to reverse the lot of the Down's child. Small Steps is not just a luxury, he says, but a necessity.

"It isn't enough to point out the horror," said Koloskov. "You have to show people how to make it better."