RUSSIA — In a new campaign to increase adoption of its estimated 700,000 orphans, the Russian government this month started airing national TV advertisements and launched a website with 180,000 children searchable by sex, age, hair color and eye color. Profiles include a photo and a description of the child’s personality, such as sociable, lively, shy, and calm.
The campaign comes as overall adoptions decreased in 2004, but particularly those by Russians. Over the past decade foreign adoptions have been increasing and domestic adoptions decreasing, and many Russians, out of a sense of nationalistic pride, do not want foreigners adopting Russian orphans. Rumors spread that many American adoptive parents are murdering or abusing their Russian-born children, that they sell the babies for profit or harvest their organs, and that they aim to deplete Russia’s population.
Russia now has more orphans than the Soviet Union did following World War II, which saw Soviet casualties estimated as high as 27 million, and the number is rising by tens of thousands each year, due in part to their struggling economy. The Moscow Times has called the institutional care of orphans and disabled children “one of the country’s most serious social disasters.”
The majority of institutionalized children are “social orphans” who have a living parent. Russian doctors routinely advise parents to give up children with disabilities, and the government often forces children of the poor, ill, alcoholics and the imprisoned into its institutions. The state is trying to replace the family and failing miserably at great human and financial cost.
The lingering attitude of Soviet propaganda — that the state could nurture children as well as, if not better, than parents — is encouraging institutionalization, although a 2004 study by the Russian government found that of graduates of orphanages, 40% end up in criminal gangs, 40% become alcoholics or drug-addicts (widespread alcoholism and drug dependency among Russian men contributes to the world’s largest gap between male and female life expectancy), a further 10% commit suicide, and a mere 10% live “normal” lives.
Worse still, up to two thirds of children put in orphanages designated for the disabled have been misdiagnosed, according to separate recent studies by the World Bank, Mental Disability Rights International, Human Rights Watch, and Christian Solidarity International. Often a treatable physical defect is presumed to be a mental defect — children with a cleft palate, club foot, simple speech defect, dislocated hip, crossed eye, or even tight tendons are classified as “idiot” or “imbecile” and the state deems them “ineducable” and puts them in institutions without regular schooling. In the U.S., children with arthrogryposis, a congenital fixation of joints, have an above average I.Q. (they use their brain less for physical and more for rational activity), while in Russia they are denied education and simple medical treatment.
Institutionalized children fall behind one month of growth for every 3.4 months in a Russian orphanage, according to a University of Minnesota study. This comes not just from lack of food and health, but also the nurturing needed for a child to grow. Medical evidence is clear that human contact is necessary for proper mental and physical development of children, especially babies. No amount of medicine, schooling or feeding can create healthy children without simple touching, caring and loving.
AT THE DERBISHKY ORPHANAGE, in the western territory of Russia known as Tartarstan, children with untreated hydrocephalis have heads twice their normal size. Without treatment, the condition leads to mental retardation and death before adulthood; early medical care results in a normal brain and life expectancy.
In a room for children suffering injuries from before or during birth and brain and central nervous system problems, a child’s untreated cleft palate has left blobs of flesh on either side of a nostril, with her upper gum exposed. A nurse sits on a mat with two children who cannot prop up their severely undersized bodies. Three gaunt children in wheelchairs watch as a two-year-old girl with Down syndrome and her tongue sticking out rocks herself repetitively, a common sign of neglect. Two nurses manage the dozen children.
The orphanage is surrounded by smokestacks, heavy, dark forests and, a few hundred yards away, a graveyard. The nearby city of Kazan hosts a statue of Vladimir Lenin.
Many of the children at the orphanage have abnormalities associated with fetal alcohol syndrome (caused by the mother’s ingestion of significant amounts of alcohol around conception or during pregnancy) — a small head, small eye openings, droopy eyelids, short noses, a small jaw. Other children’s faces are covered in open sores and blue stains from the iodine used as an antiseptic.
In such state institutions children only get worse. Those incapable of walking are subject to “lying-down rooms” where they spend most of their lives. Mildly disabled children are not taught to feed or care for themselves. So-called “orphans” often die prematurely and are reportedly buried in unmarked graves.
“Deformed kids in the U.S. are treated or prevented, in Russia they’re warehoused,” says Jonathan Baker, who in 2000 gave up half his $10 million fortune to create Firefly Children’s Network, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of Russian orphans abandoned due to real or perceived physical or mental disabilities.
Baker founded his charity after he learned about the awful conditions of Russian and Romanian orphanages from the TV news series 20/20. He saw naked, underfed children sitting in their own feces and urine, and infants starving to death because of treatable conditions such as cerebral palsy and anemia.
While many nonprofit organizations try to improve orphanage conditions with more medical equipment and information, Baker believes the problem is not that these institutions need change, but that they exist at all. Orphanages should be replaced with rehabilitation centers so that children can live at home, he says. The state can’t substitute for families. Rather, he says, it must help them support their children.
Keeping the orphans at home would not only be better for them, but also the economy, as the cost to the government of supporting families with disabilities is far lower than that needed for institutionalization, according to studies. Like Russia now, the U.S. used to put most of its developmentally disabled in public institutions, but today about 90% of the U.S.’s 4.5 million disabled live in private homes. Washington, D.C. and eight states have closed every large, public institution for the disabled. Instead of being sent to orphanages, disabled children live in homes and have access to rehabilitation centers.
One such rehabilitation center in Russia is the Hope Center in the city of Nizhnekamsk. The center provides early intervention, support to families so as to prevent abandonment of disabled children, and a resource center with medical journals, Internet access, and developmental toys that can be checked out.
During Baker’s recent visit to the Hope Center, the children put on a good show for him and other foreign visitors, reciting their own poetry and singing. A pretty, tall teen who is here because of a serious heart defect sings a pop song. A six-year-old girl reads a rhyme about putting out food for a bird so it will feel more cheerful. In a sunny room three children play with paper boats among plants, pools of water, and chirping budgies in a cage.
Nina Bukhanova, head of the center, says she wants to create a sense of comfort and beauty for the children. Parents are often largely concerned about whether their child will be able to walk, but Bukhanova emphasizes the equal importance of other skills such as being able to feed, dress and go to the toilet by oneself and to have social skills and a good self-image. She frames the children’s artwork and puts it on the wall.
“In the end the child is convinced he is an artist,” Bukhanova says.
As Baker leaves the center a baby girl, seen earlier naked on a table receiving a therapeutic massage, looks like a little present as she is bundled up warmly to be taken home by her mother.
The Russian government’s new campaign will send more children home, whether that be to Russia or abroad. Of about 24,770 Russian children adopted last year, 38 percent were adopted by foreigners and 5,841 by Americans. The campaign’s new website is currently in Russian only but an English language version is scheduled to be launched within a month.