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Russia: Homeless Children -- Helpless Victims Of Collapsing Welfare, Family Systems

  • Francesca Mereu

Thousands of children live on the streets of Moscow. Some left homes far from the capital to escape poverty or violent parents. Experts say the situation is the result of a decade of transition that has stripped the country of its Soviet-era social- and family-welfare systems. The problem of homeless children has grown so acute in recent years that Russian President Vladimir Putin in January called on the government to take action and find a solution to the growing number of street children. But some observers say the situation has yet to improve.

Moscow, 19 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Fourteen-year-old Erika Ulyamaeva is one of the thousands of homeless children who are picked up off the streets of Moscow each year. Some of them have fled from homes far away to escape poverty or abusive parents. Erika said she left Ukraine six years ago after her impoverished mother sold her and her younger sister, Anya, to a group of transients. "We used to live at home [in Ukraine]. I was a child of about 8 or 9 years old when our mother sold me [and my sister] to the gypsies. We came here to Moscow with the gypsies and they forced us to beg. But I ran away many times. When we asked for money, we used to work in [the central] Arbat street," Erika said.

Three years ago, while working on the Arbat, Erika said, she met "nice people" who helped her and took her to the Way Home shelter for homeless children. Her sister, she said, now lives in another Moscow center for abandoned children.

Sapar Kulyanov is the director of the Way Home shelter. He said such centers are only a temporary solution. Usually, he said, children live in shelters for about six months and are then reassigned to orphanages. But in Erika's case, the shelter, which is home to 30 children at any given time, made an exception. Like other children from the former Soviet republics, she has no legal status in Russia and cannot be transferred to an orphanage.

"We have children who have been living in our [shelter] for three or four years. And we don't know what to do with them, since they left their country and in our country they do not have [legal] status. We have one [14-year-old] boy [Dmitrii Knyazev, from Tajikistan] whose mother is in jail. By the time she gets out, he will be 19 years old. There is no place we can send him, but we also can't keep him, since a shelter is not the place where you keep children for a long time. But we cannot send him to an orphanage, since he doesn't have legal status," Kulyanov said.

Kulyanov said there are many children like Erika and Dmitrii without legal status in Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the economic and political instability that followed, the number of people flowing into Russia from the former republics has skyrocketed.

Dmitrii, who has been living in the Way Home shelter for four years, fled Tajikistan with his mother in 1994, two years after the outbreak of civil war. He said he and his mother made their way to the Russian capital in hopes of finding better living conditions, but things only grew worse. "I came here [to Moscow] with my mother. We thought we could find some place to live, but we didn't. We moved from place to place around Moscow for about a year. Then we lived in the country [not far from Moscow] with an old woman. After that, my mother went to prison again," Dmitrii said.

Boris Altshuler heads Russia's Right of the Child humanitarian organization. He said immigrant children from the former Soviet republics are only a small part of Russia's growing problem with homeless kids -- most of Moscow's street children are Russian citizens. Altshuler said there are more homeless children today than in the wake of the 1918-20 civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. The majority of today's street children, he added, have been abandoned by their parents. "After the civil war we had homeless and neglected children. These children didn't have a house or they didn't have parents or their parents were killed during the war. Now we don't have children with those problems. Children are abandoned now. They have parents, a house, but their parents lack parental responsibility. And this situation is taking on a catastrophic dimension," Altshuler said.

Asked what is responsible for such a disturbing shift in Russian society, Altshuler said the economic hardship the country has suffered over the past decade and the disappearance of family-welfare networks are to blame. "In Russia there are two reasons why families abandon their children. The first one is poverty and the socioeconomic crisis [of the past decade]. The second reason is the lack of a support system for [families with problems]. For example, there are cases where a child repeatedly asked for protection from a father who drank and beat him. In one particular case, the child hanged himself because no one did anything to help him. I'm talking about Petr Kalenin, from Krasnodar Krai. One-and-a-half years ago, there was the case of Aleksandr Belikov. His neighbors spent seven years trying to get help from local authorities -- [his] mother was a drunk. He eventually set fire to his house and died. No one from the local authorities ever went to that house to see the way [that child] was living," Altshuler said.

Altshuler said the problem of street children can be fought by rebuilding a social-support system for families. Until then, he said, the number of homeless children will continue to rise.

Experts say it is nearly impossible to estimate how many homeless children are living in Russia nationwide. The Prosecutor-General's Office has stated the country has as many as 1.5 million "neglected" children, a term that does not always mean the children are homeless.

In Russia's two largest cities, the problem appears especially acute. The Russian Education Ministry estimates that in the year 2000, there were some 3,600 children in Moscow living outside of parental custody. In 2001, the number rose to 4,500. A similar increase was seen in St. Petersburg, where the number rose from 2,600 to 3,300.

Those estimates may be conservative. The Russian Interior Ministry, working together with a street-children city center, has said there are 33,000 homeless children living in the capital. The Moscow office of the International Labor Organization says the number may actually be as high as 50,000.

Kulyanov of the Way Home shelter, said the plight of homeless children is relatively new in Moscow. As recently as a few years ago, city police were responsible for taking children off the street and placing them in so-called TsVINP shelters, Moscow Centers for the Temporary Isolation of Minors. At such centers, children could receive shelter, food, and medical help for up to 1 1/2 months while authorities determined their place of residence and provided a return home to their parents. But a law passed in 1999 prohibited police from taking nondelinquent children to the TsVINP shelters.

Human-rights activists at first welcomed the new law, saying the police system appeared to equate child homelessness with criminality. But since then, Kulyanov saids, people have changed their minds, especially since the city has failed in its promise to provide an alternative to the TsVINP shelters, which helped some 6,000 children per year and could house up to 300 children at a time.

The problem of street children has become so acute, and so visible, that in January, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly demanded the government take action to find a solution. In March, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov signed a decree dividing responsibility for the problem between the Labor and Social Development Ministry and local authorities.

Kulyanov said initially the program saw quick progress in Moscow, with authorities establishing a complete welfare system within weeks. A number of hospitals created wards to house street children. But the program's success, Kulyanov said, was short-lived. Many of the medical personnel staffing the special wards, with no training in coping with difficult children, were quick to let street children go once they became unruly. Kulyanov called it a classic illustration of the Russian principle "no children, no problems."

Irina Osokina, is the president of the Moscow government Committee for Social Defense of Moscow Citizens. Her group is now working on a city program to help street children, and Osokina said she has already begun to see some improvement. "We had this situation at the beginning, after Putin's speech [about homeless children in January]. We had to take extreme measures in order to find a solution to that serious problem. At the time, we had only a few orphanages. But in the last three months the situation has changed for the better," Osokina said.

Osokina said the Moscow government is now working to build four shelters and two specialized centers able to house a total of 120 children.

But according to Kulyanov and Altshuler, the long-term solution to Russia's problem of homeless children involves taking active steps to offer support to struggling families. Ideally, they say, at-risk children should be located and guided through rehabilitation together with their families. For now, however, both men say Russian authorities have failed to understand the importance of such intervention.