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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dead-End Girls Find Hope in a Hard Place

This year's Teachers' Day at the Chekhov special school for girls was ostensibly no different from any other: the naive poetry in praise of the staff, the vaguely embarrassing Soviet-era songs, the comedy sketches, a sweet-looking 16-year-old girl, her hair in plaits, presenting a bouquet to the headmistress.

But there is a difference: The sweet 16-year-old cut her mother's throat with a kitchen knife three years ago, and another girl skulking at the back of the stage in a sequined costume became a double murderess at the age of 13.

The Chekhov special school, 120 kilometers outside Moscow, is essentially a prison, where girls convicted of serious crimes before their 14th birthdays -- the official age of criminal responsibility in Russia -- are sent to be turned into "good citizens." Despite a growing youth crime problem, the Chekhov school remains the only reformatory of its kind in Russia and, unlike the prison system proper, claims an exemplary rehabilitation record and very few escapes. growing vegetables, sewing medical gowns and attending dance and handicraft classes. There were only five escapees this year, all of whom were caught. Even though there is no barbed wire or bars on the windows, the chances of getting apprehended by the Chekhov police before getting to the station is high.

"In any case, most of them have nowhere to run to," said Major Inna Demesheva of the Chekhov area juvenile delinquents' division. "Their parents are mostly alcoholics, or in jail. And, of course, they like it here."

Vera, 16, is short of options when it comes to running away. Her relationship with her abusive, alcoholic mother was always strained, but they haven't spoken since the day in 1993 when Vera cut her throat and stabbed her in the liver during a fight.

"If my mother saw my picture in the paper, she wouldn't recognize it," she said. "I get on much better with my teachers here."

"It wasn't her fault. It's not any of their faults that they did what they did, they were just children," said Vera's minder, Raisa Pankratova. Though her wages are frequently delayed, Pankratova came back to the school after a year's retirement "because the girls missed me." One of her favorites, Anya, 17, explained that she had missed her minder so much that she escaped and robbed a local shop "in protest."

The girls in the Chekhov school are the lucky ones. If they behave, they are allowed home for part of the holidays, and go on supervised field trips to Moscow. But Moscow itself has no such reform school, and the only option is to put young offenders in a children's detention center for a limited period until it is decided whether their parents have forfeited their parental rights -- in which case the children are sent to orphanages -- otherwise, they are simply sent back home.

"There is no system for dealing with this problem in the megapolis of Moscow," said Tatyana Maximova, head of the Youth Crime department of the Moscow Police, adding that the rate of juvenile crime had soared over the last five years. "In Moscow, we allow these abandoned kids to beg, steal, prostitute themselves ... We have cases of 11-year-olds participating in gang rapes, stabbings, killings and even worse things. Blood is flowing, and we are doing nothing to stop it."

The budget for each inmate at Moscow's juvenile detention center is 59,000 rubles ($10.88) per day, significantly more than the money allowed for adult prisoners but a drop in the ocean compared to the 28 million rubles per year it costs to keep each Chekhov school pupil. There is no political will, said Maximova, to open a reformatory in Moscow because "it will dirty the image" of the city.

"We are working to re-draft a law on protection of childrens' rights, which will include a provision for protecting them from parental neglect," said Communist Duma Deputy Violeta Kosheleva, of the Duma's committee on women, children and young people. "Every region of Russia needs such a school; so far, thank God, that at the moment there is at least one."