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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Street Children Lost in the Red Tape

MTYura, a runaway from the Urals, and Sergei from Nizhny Novgorod passing the day sniffing glue at the Kursky Station, where they say life is better than back at home.
There is a well-known Russian proverb: With seven nannies, a kid loses an eye.

It is precisely this abundance of bureaucratic "nannies" that has become the main cause behind the growing problem of besprizorniki -- street kids, most of whom run away from their parents, experts say.

Despite their differing approaches, the experts agreed that the existing system of child welfare must not be expanded but reformed: Today, they say, there is no single institution or individual responsible for coordinating the disparate activities of a host of government agencies dealing with millions of neglected children.

Street urchins and drug abuse unexpectedly skyrocketed to the top of the national agenda during President Vladimir Putin's televised call-in session with the public in December. Last week, Putin scolded Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko, who oversees social issues, for the government's failure to deal with homeless and runaway children and ordered Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to draw up proposals for a solution.

"Homeless children and the criminalization of teenagers have reached threatening proportions," the order said.

Putin's displeasure has sent bureaucrats scurrying into action. A number of child welfare officials contacted last week were busy writing reports for the Cabinet or attending endless meetings with higher-ups.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov held a meeting Friday where he ordered the creation of a specialized center for working with kids in each of the city's districts and a municipal coordination task force, Interfax reported.

But child welfare specialists warned against such a top-down bureaucratic approach, arguing that the existing financial and institutional resources are sufficient but in desperate need of restructuring and retraining of personnel. Newly allocated funds, they said, could simply be squandered or stolen.

No one knows exactly how many street children there are nationwide. While Matviyenko told Putin the figure has reached the million mark, the Prosecutor General's Office estimates there are as many as 3 million, and reports from City Hall placed the figure at 1 million to 5 million.

Moreover, the vast majority of today's street urchins have run away from living parents who drink heavily, have no means to feed their kids or routinely abuse them.

The economic crises suffered by Russia during its transition from communism have certainly played a role in the problem. But with more children in the streets today than immediately after World War II, experts believe that an erosion of the family and the overall moral degradation in Russian society have become equally significant factors.

"It cannot be boiled down simply to an economic problem, it's a moral issue," said Tamara Ivanova, who spent years as head of the Moscow police department's juvenile inspectorate before transferring to the Interior Ministry's research institute last year.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle in dealing with the crisis is institutional.

In 1999, in part to comply with European standards, the State Duma passed a law taking responsibility for troubled children away from the Interior Ministry -- which had been in charge of the problem ever since 1921, when Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky undertook to tackle the orphan crisis that arose after eight years of war.

Instead, a complicated system of child welfare was established under which different functions were given to branches of the Labor and Social Development Ministry, Education Ministry, Health Ministry, Justice Ministry and local authorities. Even police juvenile departments are now in dual jurisdiction -- the Justice and Interior ministries'. Coordination is entrusted to special commissions that meet on an ad hoc basis.

"All the resources the country has are supposed to work for this system; but, while each link in the chain is very good in and of itself, the results run around in the streets," said Maria Ternovskaya, director of Moscow's orphanage No. 13, which specializes in foster care. "One agency [the Interior Ministry] lost its powers and others don't know how to deal with the problem. A gap emerged and children went en masse to the streets."

Ivanova said that social welfare agencies were not ready to assume the new responsibilities without reorganization and retraining.

"We can boast as much as we want about signing various European conventions, but we did not sign them to send kids wandering in the streets and sniffing glue," she said in a telephone interview.

None of the experts felt that the police should again take charge of child welfare.

"It would be a step backward," Ivanova said.

"Kids should not be raised behind bars," Ternovskaya agreed.

But all of them said that police officers -- who are now forbidden to touch a street kid unless he commits a crime -- must be allowed to take children off the street, place them in temporary shelters, use police databases to track down parents and place children into institutions run by social welfare or educational services if they cannot be returned home.

"In every country, a policeman serves as first aid to a kid in the street," said Boris Altshuler of the Child's Right group. "I know a case when a policeman who found a 3-year-old in the street spent a whole day calling various agencies, was unable to place him anywhere and eventually had to take him home. That's madness!"

Since Boris Gryzlov's appointment as Interior Minister last March, the ministry's position has changed and its social functions are likely to be broadened, Altshuler said.

In the mean time, local authorities are searching for stopgaps: The Moscow City Duma proposed last week to impose a curfew for children unaccompanied by parents -- 11 p.m. for those 14 and under and 1 a.m. for those 16 and under. Apparently, the measure aims to create a legal pretext for policemen to detain street urchins.

But institutional reforms will not be enough on their own, experts said.

"A much bigger issue is the families from which kids flee because of drinking, beating, abuse and hunger," Altshuler said.

Ternovskaya, a member of the Education Ministry's working group that has developed proposals for changing the system, said the power to coordinate child welfare activities should be enhanced at a local government level.

Local officials must take an active approach in evaluating families, finding endangered children and then steering them and their parents through the rehabilitation process, after which kids should either return home or be placed with foster families or boarding schools, she said.

When the 1999 law was adopted, the system it prescribed was not yet in place. Now it is more or less there. Ternovskaya said there are about 270,000 children living in 2,000 institutions. These include 1,330 orphanages (local education departments), 360 boarding schools (education and social welfare departments), 250 orphanages for kids under 4 (health departments) and 800 shelters (social welfare departments).

About 150 new institutions are built every year, costing the budget millions of dollars, Ternovskaya said.

She expressed concern that the president's order to take action and bureaucratic panic would trigger the building of more institutions, while proper retraining of personnel and reforms coordinated by local authorities would yield a better result. Foster care -- possibly leading to adoption -- is one good option, she said. Another is building up local authorities' child care branches and empowering them to take a proactive approach, since troubled families rarely ask for help and, instead, try to hide their problems.

Taking Britain as a benchmark, Ternovskaya said, 50 to 70 social workers should work at every low-level municipality, such as Moscow's upravy -- which are now staffed by only one or two people each.

"The Family Code should include a clear separation of rights and obligations between parents and the respective services run by local authorities," Ternovskaya said. "These services should have rights to actively interfere in troubled families."

The State Duma has made some attempts to tackle the lack of coordination. After hearings on the issue in December, the Duma is set to consider a bill on plenipotentiaries for children's rights who would coordinate the work of officials in every region.

Vera Lekareva, a Union of Right Forces deputy who chairs the Duma's commission on street children, said at a round table held last week by Komsomolskaya Pravda that the commission supports the bill.

Another hurdle to overcome will be the tense relations between government bodies and nongovernmental organizations.

Altshuler said local child welfare agencies should sign contracts with NGOs who have trained social workers. However, both he and Ivanova said government bodies must have the right to inspect privately run shelters, many of which also allow for the violation of children's rights.

Ivanova dedicates most of her time to developing a juvenile justice system so that children who commit crimes do not fall into the larger legal system, but go from juvenile police to juvenile investigators to juvenile judges to a juvenile corrections system where all officials are specially trained and not burdened by other cases.

Without such a system in place, local officials try to improvise.

Moscow city's education minister, Lyubov Kezina, said Wednesday the city would attempt to create a database of those who skip school and to investigate the reasons. She said teachers, policemen and social workers would carry out "joint raids" to find persistent truants.

Yet Altshuler is distrustful of such initiatives.

"What does a bureaucrat think about today?" he asked. "To issue a resolution that would allocate budget money, which, in turn, can be eaten up -- both legally and illegally."

Svetlana Korkina contributed to this report.