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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Little Sasha's Search for Love and Dinosaurs

MTSasha playing in the five-room apartment he shares with his foster parents. "Our first year was unbelievably hard. I did need help," his new mother says.
Sasha had the bad luck of looking like his father. That's why his mother decided to get rid of him.

Sasha's father was Viktoria's first love, and she spent every waking moment thinking of him, said Sasha's great-grandmother Vera. But when he divorced her for another woman, a bitter hatred consumed her that she took out on the 6-month-old boy.

"I wish I could kill this child, but I don't want to go to prison," Viktoria complained repeatedly to her mother and Vera, Vera said.

One morning, Viktoria dressed Sasha and left their three-room apartment. An hour later, the telephone rang.

"Is this your great-grandson lying here on the floor of the children's hospital?" asked the caller, a friend of Vera's who worked as a nurse at the neighborhood hospital. "Come pick him up, because he is screaming for all he's worth."

Vera, then 76, rushed to the hospital and carried Sasha back home. His tiny body was trembling violently. Vera sharply rebuked her granddaughter, but her own daughter, Viktoria's mother, fought back. "We don't need him anymore," the woman said. "I want my daughter to start a new life."

Several years earlier in a different part of Moscow, a Moscow physicist set into motion a chain of events that would change Sasha's life one day. The physicist, Maria Ternovskaya, gave up her scientific work in 1992 to study how other countries cared for needy children. By 2000, when Sasha's mother decided to abandon him, Ternovskaya was running a groundbreaking experiment -- the country's first foster care system.

Sasha is one of about 5,000 children who have been placed in foster care in Russia. Moscow bureaucrats are not embracing the system, now in place in 40 regions, and Ternovskaya fears that it might collapse -- leaving children like Sasha in children's homes with the country's 250,000 other abandoned or orphaned children.

From the moment Vera brought Sasha home from the hospital, her life became a nightmare. "I could not leave Sasha alone for a moment. He always was in danger," Vera said.

The Moscow Times is withholding Sasha's last name and the last names of other people close to him to protect him from his mother.

Viktoria tried to beat the boy. Several times she dropped him into an ice-cold bath in the hope that he would get sick and die. Vera, who rescued Sasha each time, kept him in her room and fed him on her pension.

"We lived like this almost three years," said Vera, a former researcher of Japanese culture at a Moscow institute. "Then I realized that I was not going to live forever and that someday I would not be able to protect Sasha."

So the great-grandmother went to the local social services and asked that the child be placed in a safe home.

When social services are alerted about a needy child, their first responsibility is to look for a relative willing to help. If none is found, they usually send the child to a children's home.

Sasha was sent to a home for infants and toddlers. Within several months, he was adopted by parents who already had a child of their own and apparently wanted a second child to claim a larger apartment -- a right afforded parents under the law.

But the new parents quickly found that Sasha was a handful. He didn't obey them. He cried a lot. They returned him to the home six months later.

Michael Eckels / MT
Sasha poring over a favorite book. Ivan says Sasha loves dinosaurs, adding, "He knows everything about them."
Then Sasha struck it lucky. He turned 4, the age when small children are usually sent to facilities for older children. That is how Sasha wound up at Ternovskaya's experimental Children's Home No. 19 in east-central Moscow. The home was completely different from any other: Only a handful of its nearly 200 young charges actually live there. The rest are in foster families.

Ternovskaya, a bubbling woman with wispy brown hair, explained her foster care system this way: "We tried to follow the British and American models of foster placement, and actually the model we created is even better because we have all kinds of specialists gathered together in one place."

What she means is that Children's Home No. 19 is essentially a social services office. It places children in foster families, educates foster parents, offers counseling to the children, and handles the children's legal problems. It was the only such home in Moscow when Sasha arrived, although several others have opened since.

When Ternovskaya saw Sasha for the first time, she asked Vera, "What kind of parents would you like for Sasha?" "Just kind, loving people," Vera replied.

Around the same time, a young married couple, Natasha and Ivan, saw Children's Home No. 19 featured on a television program and decided to call Ternovskaya. The couple, both college instructors, had had no children of their own.

"Sasha was the first child we were introduced to," Ivan said. "He impressed me immediately with his looks and manners. He was a little gentleman."

"His blue eyes could impress anyone," Natasha said. "We thought he was like an angel."

The boy, however, proved to be not an angel, and their first year together was difficult.

"I felt like he was taking revenge on me for all the bad moms he had had before," Natasha said. "Our first year was unbelievably hard. I did need help, and I got it from the psychologists at the children's home and, of course, from my husband."

Ivan said: "He got alone fine with me from the very beginning. His only problem was with Mom. But he finally accepted her and would ask her 100 times a day, 'Do you love me? I mean just me?'"

As in the West, foster parents receive state payments every month. In Moscow, the monthly payment is 4,200 rubles, plus a 3,200-ruble allowance for the child's food and clothes. The children's home provides medical assistance as needed and covers the child's summer vacation, usually a trip to a summer camp.

Ternovskaya said foster placement is 37 percent cheaper for the state than children's homes.

Sasha visits Children's Home No. 19 for a psychological and medical examination once a year. If his parents have problems or need advice, they can come more often. They also must account for how they spend the foster payments each month.

"Sasha is very special. He understands everything about his past," said his psychologist, Maria Kapilina. "He told me that his birth mom is mean and unhappy."

She said Sasha's physical and emotional development is the same as other children his age.

Sasha, now 7, started school in the fall and gets along well with his classmates, his parents said. He likes to invite them to his spacious five-room apartment and show off his favorite toy, a child's archeological set.

"His interest in archeology is remarkable," Ivan said. "He also is very fond of dinosaurs. He knows everything about them."

"We could adopt him now," Natasha said, "but we think it is better for the child to have all the clear advantages of foster care."

Moscow city authorities seem to have a different take on the advantages of foster care. City Hall's education department, which oversees Moscow's 41 children's homes, has drafted a bill that limits the stay of a child in a foster family to six months and strips children's homes of the right to offer social services.

Svetlana Mikhalchuk, an aide in the education department, explained that local social services offices, not children's homes, have the legal right to place children in families, and foster care should fall under their jurisdiction.

She said the bill might become law as early as next year.

"This [bill] is our biggest worry, because the foster care system would be deprived of its social services," Ternovskaya said.

Vera's worry is that Sasha's mother will someday find him and harm him. Under a court order, a portion of the mother's salary is deducted every month and placed in a bank account for Sasha for when he turns 18.

Natasha and Ivan also worry about the mother. But they also fear that his traumatic early years might leave lasting scars.

Sasha's biggest worry, however, is that there won't be any dinosaur bones left to dig up in a few years. "When I grow up I will become an archeologist," he said with a bright smile. "And I'll take my parents' last name."