Children in care: the Russian orphan industry

For those in Russia with an interest in preserving the status quo, youth justice is a Western invention with no place in their country. Others disagree. But the two positions share some features, so Boris Altshuler appeals to them to put their differences aside and make common cause for the sake of the children.
Boris Altshuler
31 May 2010

The introduction of youth justice, or the inadmissibility of this concept, is currently one of the most sensitive issues in Russia. Numerous discussions with representatives of the opposing sides have convinced me that the reason for the conflict is that each side reads different things into the words “youth  justice”.

For its supporters, youth justice means the introduction of special criminal court procedures for young offenders, recognising that they are, after all, children. On 18 March a conference was held at the Moscow State Academy of Law to mark the 100th anniversary of the first juvenile court in Russia. Speakers made the point that Russia had been a pioneer in the introduction of “children’s courts”, so they can in no way be considered a threatening “Western phenomenon” as claimed by their opponents.  Yelena Voronova, a judge at Russia’s first modern juvenile court in the Rostov Oblast, stressed that the Russian Orthodox Church too had officially endorsed the humane treatment of criminals, especially children, with the emphasis on reforming them.

Opponents of youth justice maintain that, under the pretext of protecting the rights of children in the family, the use of special courts actually risks destroying it. The supporters agree that a punitive approach towards the family is unacceptable, but emphasise that the existing system is just that, punitive. Indeed, every year 115-120,000 new children with no parental care are „identified” (the term used in state statistics). 80% (250 per day!) of these are new social orphans, who are being removed from their family for ever.

Russia does not have youth justice yet. But the evil which its opponents say will become even worse, should it be introduced, already exists. It has to be said that these fears are not without foundation, as no one has yet been able to buck the tragic Russian formula “We wanted things to work out for the best, but the result was just as usual”.

Yes, violence in the family is a terrible thing. Yes, poverty and child malnutrition in low-income families is unacceptable. But the fact remains that the existing system can only react to these problems by destroying the family. It’s as if a mass “vacuum cleaner” is sucking children away from their families. This machine for “supplying” orphanages with new children is tightly bound up in existing federal legislation, whose main aim is to remove children from parents who are mistreating them. We have a lot to do with the staff and management of various regional child welfare agencies and committees dealing with juvenile delinquents. There are many outstanding, honest and deeply-committed people among them, who are sick and tired of the command and control approach and the complete impossibility of doing anything to rescue problem families.

Today, our strategic task is the fundamental reform of:

  • child welfare agencies: they should have access to professional services, as they did for many years under Maria Ternovskaya, the pioneer of foster care;
  • committees dealing with juvenile delinquents and the protection of their rights: there is some excellent regional experience of re-organising these committees into a single agency to coordinate restorative work with the families;
  • all the social services, which need to move away from the traditional methods of operation:  “distributive” [the technical distribution of benefits to the vulnerable involving a great deal of bureaucratic time and effort] and “appeal-based” [only parents who come in person to ask for assistance for their child get access to the service] to active, helpful restorative work in the social environment, including in the home and the community of the problem family.

What stops these overdue reforms from being carried out?  Excellent Russian pilot experience has shown that they are effective. The problem is that the profits to be derived from large numbers of orphans, the so-called “children of the state”, are considerable. The state allocates considerable sums of money for their care and the law stipulates that their fostering arrangements should be managed in a system which is virtually closed and, therefore, with rich pickings to be had in bribes. This system is rightly known as the “Russian Orphan Industry Corporation”. So far it has been impossible to overcome its opposition to the reforms I have described.

I am firmly convinced that the warring supporters and opponents of youth justice simply must come together and harness their considerable energies to fight this corporation.  This is the only way we shall at last be able to create a protective system for children, one that is focused on preserving the family. After all, the supporters and the opponents of youth justice are in agreement on the central thesis that the child and the family are essentially inseparable.

The author is the chairman of the board of directors of the organization The Right of the Child (Pravo Rebyonka), and a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation.


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