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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rescuing Russia's Forgotten Children

After the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1991, the world was stunned by the images of neglect that were beamed from Eastern Europe's orphanages -- mostly in Romania. But as it transpired, many of Russia's orphanages were equally shocking.

In September 1991, concerned Russian officials invited a six-member team of British specialists to Russia to research the plight of children taken into state custody due to their parents' inability to care for them.

What the group found gave them cause for grave concern. At the time, up to two-thirds of orphans were wrongly diagnosed as oligophrenic -- a Greek word meaning small brain or feeble-mindedness. And the treatment of their "conditions" with inappropriate, traumatizing medication long abandoned by Western psychiatrists was widespread.

"The testing is very crude" said Stuart Windsor, national director of Christian Solidarity International, which raised funds for the British fact-finding visit and subsequent report, "Trajectories of Despair -- Misdiagnosis and Maltreatment of Soviet Orphans."

"The authorities were mislabelling normal, articulate children," Windsor explained in a telephone interview from London. "These children then have no chance in life -- they can't drive or vote. It is a basic abuse of human rights."

Since the visit in 1991, the numbers of Russian orphans has swelled. By 1995, their number had doubled, and has now reached an estimated 500,000, according to Windsor.

But, due to the efforts of a burgeoning group of dedicated Russians and expatriates, including Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Christian Solidarity International, Action for Russia's Children, or ARC, and others -- conditions in Moscow have improved since 1991, even if they still have a long way to go.

"Child care in Russia is still about 30 years behind the West," said Windsor. "When children are abandoned in Russia, they become the property of the Ministry of Education. They are then put into an Internat and will remain there until they are 18 years old. They know no other life. Having no family support, they are easy prey for criminal gangs. Eighty percent of these children will end up in prison," said Windsor. "About 30 percent commit suicide."

The Russian Ministry of Education has endorsed the findings of the "Trajectories of Despair" report and requested further assistance from Christian Solidarity International to reform child care in Russia. Foster care, a phenomenon never before seen in this country, was regarded as a way to bring about change. Windsor added that a groundbreaking pilot project to introduce fostering is currently underway in Moscow Orphanage No. 19.

Despite the current economic hardship experienced by many Russian families, Maria Ternovskaya, Moscow director of the project, said it is not a problem attracting prospective foster parents. In the four months since the project's establishment, Ternovskaya has placed 17 children with families.

Ternovskaya said foster parents receive a monthly government subsidy of 1 million rubles per child, as well as the minimum wage to cover the costs of raising a child. There are no specific rules governing the selection of foster parents -- single and even unemployed prospective parents are not prevented from fostering. However, Ternovskaya says that through a very thorough screening process she has managed to weed out several people clearly motivated by money.

Native New Yorker Arthur Stacinski, 67, is another Westerner concerned with improving the prospects of Russia's orphans. He believes the way to do this is through education. Due to his mother's experience as an orphan in Odessa, he said he has seen firsthand the importance of a solid education for orphans.

"My mother never learned Russian because she lived in a completely Jewish neighborhood," he said in a recent interview. "Although she spoke Yiddish, she was completely illiterate. She didn't even know the alphabet."

In the 1920's, according to Stacinski, she managed to escape to the United States as part of an immigration quota. But it was not the land of milk and honey she envisaged; Stacinski's mother, due to her illiteracy, was unable even to vote. Stacinski's year-long stint as a business education consultant for the Moscow office of Arthur Anderson further convinced him of the advantage Russian orphans would have on the job market if they possessed English language skills.

Stacinski, who has made 10 visits to Russia since 1989, is now a man with a mission. He and his American partner Lyford Morris are establishing an English-language teaching facility for orphans at the Orekhovo-Zuevo Orphanage, some 70 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

The pair have made an auspicious start. Eighteen orphans between the ages of 7 and 9 are currently attending the classes which run for three hours a day, five days a week. Stacinski said they will extend the project to cater for some 80 orphans as soon as funds become available.

The program is based on the School of Tomorrow concept -- a worldwide organization that focuses on the individual approach to the student. "Kids can learn at their own pace," Stacinski said, enthusiastically showing photos of kids studying in individual booths equipped with headphones.

Stacinski's ultimate aim is to raise the childrens' current status from that of third-class citizens. Orphans, with their limited education and lack of vocational training, have difficulty finding work and are therefore particularly susceptible to lucrative lives of crime.

To date, the costs of the pilot project have been solely covered by Stacinski. He has spent some $7,000 from his savings account and pension and will contribute an extra $3,000. However, the money has bought the bare minimum of equipment -- desks, chairs, a VCR and television -- and Stacinski is unable to bear the costs indefinitely. He is now actively seeking sponsors to cover the full cost of the project which he estimates should cost around $50,000 -- or $700 per child.

Among the children currently benefitting from School of Opportunity is 8-year-old Misha. His mother died as a result of the third-degree burns she sustained after being doused in boiling water in a domestic assault. His father went to prison, and although he visited Misha and his sister Yuliya who were by placed under the state's jurisdiction, he never reclaimed his children.

Action for Russia's Children, established five years ago, is another foreign charity that focuses on providing vocational and life skills to a wide range of disadvantaged children, according to Emily Glentworth, spokesperson for the organization. "We aim to support those Russians who are attempting to change the orphanage system -- respecting the child as an individual with a future," she said.

Apart from a vast network of 140 volunteers that provide companionship for children in Moscow's orphanages and specialist schools, ARC counts among its members a physiotherapist, occupational therapist and two psychologists who train Russian staff in rehabilitative techniques. Furthermore, ARC has also helped set up the first center in Moscow to counsel both parents with abuse problems and the children who suffer as a result.

A fundamental objective of the organization is to encourage parents of disabled children to participate more actively in the care of their children. A group of ARC members, under a program called "Disability Support," researches the support network available for families that decide to keep their disabled children at home.

"Many of these kids, although they are disabled, would be at a normal school in the West," said Glentworth. "They are bright children and would be much better off living at home and attending day-classes."