Young people leaving care in Russia
Charlie Walker, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Southampton and BEARR Trustee
Young people leaving care are amongst the most vulnerable members of any society. Compared with the wider youth population, they are at significantly greater risk of educational failure, unemployment, homelessness, poor mental and physical health, and involvement in prostitution and crime (Mendes and Snow 2017). In the context of increasingly protracted transitions to adulthood, with young people depending on parental support well into their twenties, the compressed and accelerated transitions of care leavers amplify the disadvantages they face. Successful outcomes depend not only on the resilience young people are able to build while they are in care, but also on the support available to them both during and after transitions through education, into work, and into independent housing.
Between 2017 and 2020, BEARR Trustee Charlie Walker led a research project investigating the transitions of care graduates in the Russian Federation, where there were an estimated 720,000 orphaned children in 2012. In Russia, as in many post-communist countries, the need for strong forms of transition and aftercare support is especially acute, as the social and economic dislocations rendered by the collapse of state socialism have magnified the importance of family, kinship, and other sources of social capital in negotiating all aspects of the transition to adulthood (Walker 2010). However, what is known about the transition infrastructure and aftercare services in Russia indicates serious problems. In a mapping exercise in 2009, Lerch and Stein (2010) reported a range of chronic problems drastically affecting care leavers’ life chances, including a severe lack of appropriate housing, a lack of support in pursuing further and higher education, inappropriate educational pathways that create permanent disadvantage, widespread exploitation in employment, and a lack of preparation for transitions.
The project conducted by Charlie and co-investigator Tom Disney, and funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust, intended to build a deeper understanding of transitions out of care in Russia by undertaking a mixed methods study into transition and aftercare services and the outcomes of young people using them. The research was intended to shed light not only on the forms of transition and aftercare services available, but on the ways in which care leavers in Russia are able to build resilience to overcome the obstacles they face, either through or outside of such services. Assisted by leading Russian sociologist Zhanna Chernova, Charlie and Tom carried out interviews with 25 young people who were either approaching the end of their time in a children’s home or had already left, and 18 expert respondents who were either professionals working in children’s homes, teachers of young people in care, NGO workers, or social workers. These interviews were all undertaken in Saint Petersburg and in small towns within the wider Leningrad region.
As soon as the research began it was immediately apparent that significant steps had been made in the reform of Russia’s child welfare system, which has been the subject of attention from the state and NGOs since the late 2000s. As Kulmala et al. (2017) find in their research, a series of reforms have replaced most of the large residential care homes used during the Soviet period with a new emphasis on fostering and adoption and the creation of early support services for families in difficulty. Remaining large institutions have been re-formed into Centres for Family Rehabilitation (Tsentry sodeistviya semeinomu vospitaniu), which are much smaller and more home-like. In addition, changes to the education system mean that young people in such centres now attend mainstream schools rather than being taught within their children’s homes. All of these shifts are part of a global trend towards the deinstitutionalisation of child welfare systems (Kulmala et al. 2017).
Despite these positive changes, however, this project found that the various forms of assistance provided to care leavers once they begin their independent lives remain highly problematic. In relation to education, while the recent reform has been a positive step in terms of integrating young people in care into mainstream transitional pathways, most of the young people in this project had experienced education in an exclusionary manner. Children’s homes, schools and vocational colleges had all conspired to track respondents into a narrow range of professions in primary vocational education – since vocational colleges had accommodation for them – rather than facilitating pathways through higher education, which remained exceptional. In turn, the employment opportunities available to care leavers were limited to precarious forms of manual and service work in which exploitation remained a problem. With regards to housing, many of the respondents were not aware of their rights to state support and had received rooms in communal properties rather than their own apartments, and, as Abramov et al. (2016) also find, local and municipal authorities were placing large numbers of care leavers in housing blocks next to each other, thus creating a form of ‘ghettoisation’. In some cases social workers had been a great help to respondents, especially in navigating the bureaucratic processes involved in acquiring accommodation, but in other cases they had been no help at all. One educational worker complained that social workers would attempt to make first contact with a young person after they had already gone to their independent accommodation, by which time they refused contact.
Writing about care leavers in the UK, Mike Stein (2006) describes the young people he has encountered in his research as falling into one of three categories: ‘moving on’, ‘getting by’ and ‘going under’. Given the challenges they were facing or had already overcome, the young people who participated in this project had all been resilient to some degree, albeit those who were ‘going under’ would be very hard to reach in social research. Drawing on research by van Breda (2015) in South Africa, the project identified a number of psycho-social resilience processes in which those ‘getting by’ and ‘moving on’ were engaged. These included: striving for authentic belonging – care leavers have often experienced a loss of or lower levels of attachment, such that striving for a genuine experience of being loved and of fitting into a social system, such as a family, is a driving force for many; networking people for goal attainment – care leavers ‘network people’ in their social environments to help and partner with them in ‘attaining their goals’ of getting ahead in life; building hopeful and tenacious self-confidence – the belief that they can effect change in their environments and that they really can carve out a better future for themselves; and contextualised responsiveness – many care leavers still live within adverse social environments that continuously threaten them in some way, so need the ability to respond positively when such threats arise. For example, while striving for authentic belonging had led some respondents into subcultural groupings that pulled them away from formal opportunities when they were younger, most of the respondents now had aspirations to start families and become mothers and fathers once they had found their feet. In turn, contextualised responsiveness was evident in the positive attitudes many respondents had towards their limited employment and earning opportunities, one young man pointing out that ‘you can be poor but live well’. With regard to building hopeful and tenacious self-confidence, although many care professionals felt that the ‘ghettoisation’ surrounding care leavers’ accommodation was highly problematic, care leavers themselves saw their first steps on the housing ladder in very positive terms, as enabling them to earn lower wages in the present and providing a building block for the future.
While it was thus highly encouraging to observe the resilience of young people overcoming adversity, it was also clear that many care leavers were still ‘going under’, with many respondents citing the death of former classmates as a commonplace outcome. As such, there is still much to do to overcome the dysfunctionality of the transition infrastructure surrounding care leavers. Some of this work is being undertaken by NGOs operating in the region and contacted through this project, including ‘Sunflower’ (Podsolnukh), which has received support from London-based St. Gregory’s Foundation and provides a range of services for care leavers, including counselling and assistance with housing. Another NGO helping care leavers was Know How (Znaesh kak?), a youth volunteer movement set up by a former care leaver now employed as an educational professional at one of the vocational colleges in the project. Know How produced publications targeted at care leavers and the professionals working with them, and made educational theatre productions which toured schools locally and further afield, providing its volunteers with invaluable opportunities to build their confidence and resilience (see pictures). These forms of NGO work are vital in overcoming some of the systemic problems facing care leavers, albeit only in the relatively small number of cases these organisations are able to reach. As was illustrated by The BEARR Trust’s NGO survey conducted in 2020, however, while there are many NGOs working with vulnerable children at a younger age, there are very few working with care-experienced young people at the point when they reach independence. Ultimately, although harder to reach at this point, such young people continue to need support.
Abramov, R. N., Antonova, K. A., Grach, E. A., Ilych, A. V., Liubarskii, G. Y., Chernova, Z. V., (2016) Traektorii sotsial’noi i professional’noi adaptatsii vypusknikov detskikh domov v Rossii.
Obzor issledovatel’skogo otcheta. SB Group: Moscow
Kulmala, M., Rasell, M. and Chernova, Z. (2017) ‘Overhauling Russia’s child welfare system: Institutional and ideational factors behind the paradigm shift.’ Journal of Social Policy Studies 15(3): 353-356.
Lerch, V. and Stein, M. (2010) Ageing out of care to adulthood in European and Central Asian Societies. Innsbruck: SOS Children’s Villages International.
Mendes, P. and Snow, P. (2017) ‘Introduction.’ In Mendes, P. and Snow, P. (eds.) Young People Transitioning from Out of Home Care – International Research, Policy and Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp xxxi-xli.
Stein, M. (2008) ‘Resilience and Young People Leaving Care’, Child Care in Practice, 14:1, 35-44
Van Breda, A. (2015) ‘Journey towards independent living: a grounded theory investigation of leaving the care of Girls & Boys Town, South Africa’, Journal of Youth Studies, 18:3, 322-337
Walker, C. (2010) Learning to Labour in Post-Soviet Russia: Vocational Youth in Transition. London: Routledge.