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With Economic Collapse, Children Are Facing Increased Hardship

The number of Russian children surrendered to state custody has doubled over the past five years, to some 113,000 annually. This deaf girl -- like many children at her juvenile detention center -- had her head shaved to help stop the spread of lice. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo)

M O S C O W — Bath-time is over, and 20 girls face one another in two straight, silent lines along opposite walls of a corridor. Half are combing their hair. The others watch; their heads were shaved for lice as soon as they arrived at the juvenile detention center.

This is a crossroads for Russia’s high-risk children — between the tough life on the streets, the stifling existence in state-run institutions, and the alcoholism, violence and neglect some fled at home.

The kids are in for everything from begging to homicide. From here, some will be sent to prison, others to orphanages, and many right back to their families—only to run away again.

Unable to Cope
Many families have weathered Russia’s rocky transition from communism, raising bright, healthy and motivated children in spite of the social upheaval. But others have proven unable to cope, flooding state institutions and the streets of Russian cities with neglected children.

“I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to go back on the streets, either,” protests Julia, a sullen 15-year-old in black patent-leather pumps who was arrested after she ran away from her family and spent three months working as a prostitute.

“What am I supposed to do, go straight to the cemetery and dig myself a grave?”

The economic slumps and legal chaos of the eight years since the Soviet collapse have brought long-standing problems of child neglect out into the open.

Ragged children trudge through Moscow’s subway trains, carrying hand-lettered signs with appeals for money. Kids in thin jackets and torn boots huddle over steam vents on the wintry streets, sniffing glue, drinking vodka, killing time.

Home or Not?
The post-Soviet law on education has allowed parents to keep their children out of school, in exchange for a promise to teach them at home.

“Children 11, 12 years old end up on the streets, washing windshields. They have papers saying they’re studying at home, but who is there to teach them?” said Tatyana Maximova, director of the Juvenile Crime Prevention division of the city police department., the juvenile cop.

And so they join the army of street children, many of whom ended up homeless when their parents sold apartments and houses. Marginalized families — the poor, the mentally ill, alcoholics — were the first targets of crooked real estate speculators in the early 1990s, when their free housing suddenly became a valuable commodity.

“People would sell apartments for a crate of vodka,” said Oleg Zykov, a psychiatrist who heads the No to Alcoholism and Drug Abuse foundation, which works with street children.

State Struggles to Cope
More and more youngsters are ending up in state custody only after spending time on the streets.

“Earlier it was easier, a lot of children were coming from their homes,” said Natalya Kuryshova, the deputy director of the Saltykov children’s home, a 140-bed orphanage in a cheerfully decorated brick building just east of Moscow.

“Now we have children who know what vagrancy means, who’ve felt real hunger, who’ve been taught to steal, who’ve used toxic substances.”

The latest economic crisis, which exploded in August, has exacerbated the problem. Prices have soared, already paltry state child-support payments are almost worthless, and opportunities for even the occasional job that kept many families going for years have shrunk. Free lunch programs have been cut back in many schools.

Tales of Abuse
The number of mothers and fathers stripped of parental rights because of child abuse has grown.

Some of their children will be placed with relatives. Others will enter the state system, where they’re marked for life, often with incorrect diagnoses of mental and physical problems that haunt them into their adult years.

Andrei Sadukhin’s case illustrates the vicious circle. He was abandoned at birth and placed in an orphanage home near Rostov, in southern Russia. At age 4, a doctors commission judged him mentally handicapped and he was channeled into an institution for the disabled.

The only tacit agreement that he was normal came from the army, where Sadukhin served two years after leaving the institution. But when he returned to Rostov to claim the housing that is legally due to all orphans, he was refused, and offered a place in a mental hospital — a locked institution no better than a prison.

Today, the 23-year-old sleeps in doorways and basements in Moscow.

Judith Ingram

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