Prague, 24 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Eight years after the revolutions of 1989 raised hopes for a brighter future in the former Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the children of the region are living some of their darkest days. "Betrayed" was the word used by Rudolf Hoffman, the Deputy Regional Director of UNICEF's (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) efforts in the area, to describe the childrens' condition.
Hoffman's office released a 170-page report in Bonn earlier this week, detailing how social reforms in the region have left the children behind. Hoffman told RFE/RL that at least one million children are now trapped in state care between what he called "the gulf of economic progress and social impoverishment."
The annual UNICEF report examines data from national statistics bureaus from 18 countries across the region and supplies specific recommendations for improvement. UNICEF calls on the former communist countries to develop a new long-term approach to support families and to help them carry out their child-raising more effectively.
The study suggests countries of the East examine child protection services available in the West, such as community nurses, day-care centers --where parents can leave their children-- and family centers that offer parenting skills courses, legal advice and financial services.
Hoffman told our correspondent that a regional commitment to the de-institutionalization of children could serve the broadest interests. He notes that placing a child in an institution costs four times more than bringing a child up within a family. And, as Hoffman put it, "An institution can never replace the love and security provided within a traditional home."
Hoffman said that, given such a commitment to change, children in Eastern nations could witness a real improvement in their lives within the next five to ten years.
Hoffman said one of the primary reasons for the decline in children's well-being is that public systems for child welfare, dismantled or drastically reduced after the fall of communism, have not been replaced. "A virtual collapse," is how the report characterizes child protection systems in present day Moldova, Georgia and Armenia.
In addition, the report says the number of infants --defined as up to three years old -- being placed in homes has soared by 75 percent in Estonia and nearly 40 percent in Latvia, Romania and Russia since the collapse of communism.
Hoffman told RFE/RL that another important reason for the children's plight is that families across the region are struggling with soaring costs of living. He cites Russia as an example where, according to recent statistics, more than 60 percent of families with children under seven are living in poverty. That figure represents a nearly 40 percent increase from September, 1992.
Across Central Europe, UNICEF says, the number of children living in poverty has ballooned in the past several years from one million to 2.5 million .
The plight of children is generally reported worse in the former Soviet Union, but children are also said to be suffering in countries that are starting to achieve prosperity --like the Czech Republic, Poland and Estonia. Teen-age alcohol addiction, drug abuse and pregnancies have risen, as have divorces, contributing to the youngsters' stress.
In Estonia, 44 percent of births in 1995 were to single mothers, while in Russia, Bulgaria and Moldova, one in five babies born in 1995 were to teenage mothers. The report cites prostitution by minors as another big problem for Estonia, affecting 20 to 30 percent of the nation's youth.
In Poland, nearly one in ten children aged seven are reported to be left without adult supervision for more than two hours a day by working parents. And in the Czech Republic, close to 15 percent of secondary school students are reported to be regular drug users.
Asked about the lack of statistics in UNICEF's report on the nations of Central Asia and the Balkans, Hoffman cited a lack of proper reporting infrastructure, due to war and displacement. But he said UNICEF hopes to include these regions in next year's report. Hoffman said the 1998 report will focus on education.