Fierce dispute over child protection at forum in Ufa
A scandal has erupted among child protection workers at a forum in Ufa. Speakers from Moscow took to the floor to propose a change to current foster care arrangements, abandoning the current practice of paying foster families in favour of the creation of a national network of children’s homes. Other child protection organisations and children’s charities who attended the forum complained that they were given no opportunity to oppose the motion.
The forum, which took place in Bashkiria on 24-25 April, prompted fierce debate. Tempers flared during the round-table discussion entitled ‘Poverty as a pretext for the unwarranted interference in family life. Removal instead of support’. Yelina Zhgutova and Lyudmila Vinogradova, both members of the Russian Public Chamber, who were moderators for the round-table discussion condemned the current national strategy on child protection and criticised the Institute of Foster Families and its principle of early intervention on social grounds, when the authorities try to identify problem families very early on to prevent potentially dangerous situations developing.
The speakers argued that poverty should not be a reason for the removal of children from their homes. These families in crisis should be given help, not have their children taken away from them. Zhgutova said, ‘We need to change this socially determinist approach, where certain people are deemed worthy of having children simply because they are financially successful and have money while others are not. Above all else, children’s happiness depends on having their parents around. Material comforts are no substitute for them. I often hear the phrase: ‘He’s already got a mother!’ But they argue that in a children’s home he would get a balanced diet, carpeted floors and a routine.’ The moderators proposed that parents in difficulty should be given benefits as a way out of their problems using the savings that would be made from closing down the Institute of Foster Care.
The resolution issued by the forum called for a return to the national system of children’s homes. These institutions providing homes for orphans should become Presidential Lycées of such high standing that all parents would be fighting for the right to send their children to them.
People at the forum left with the impression that all children’s rights activists were calling for a total overhaul of the national strategy to protect children in problem families, just on the strength of a few individual cases, on the pretext of protecting the rights of the poor – not only for children living in poverty but for those facing real physical danger.
Tatyana Nechaeva, who works for the All-Russian Movement The Essence of Time, run by Sergei Kurginyan, said the current system for supporting children in Russia was based on Western models and was, in her view, unacceptable in today’s political climate. She described the current collaboration between professional NGOs and state-run child welfare institutions – care organisations, family support centres etc – as ‘a corrupt alliance between NGOs and state bodies clearly controlled by foreigners’. She claimed that welfare organisations have an incentive to remove children from their families and put them into foster care. She described confidential phonelines for teenagers as a ‘system of informers encouraging children to inform against their parents’.
The Head of the Department for the Protection of Children in Ufa, Tatyana Kvasnikova, hit back at the accusations: ‘These allegations that care authorities have a vested interest in increasing the number of orphans are totally baseless. I have been set entirely different objectives by the Ministry: firstly, to reduce the number of children being taken away from their families, and secondly to reduce the number of children living apart from their parents. I want to stress that children who are placed in foster homes remain on our list of orphan children. Our current system does not reduce the number of children in this category, as they claim.’
The resolution from the forum was based on a single viewpoint. The opinions of the other people at the round table were not taken into account. In protest at the passing of the draft resolution of the round- table discussion virtually all the delegates from Ufa left early, including administrators and experts from local centres responsible for placing children in care, NGO staff and the children’s rights campaigner Milana Skorobogatova.
Skorobogatova commented: ‘Certain things were said which were very difficult to accept. It is actually impossible to comment on them because they are in breach of all the rules that govern Russia and the Republic of Bashkortostan. All I can do ask is to ask people to examine the law which determines the basis on which care institutions are run. It would be wrong to claim that these institutions never make a mistake, but to suggest that there are systemic failings in the protection of children is beyond the pale. There is absolutely no truth in it. You could not describe this round-table discussion as a conversation.’
Tatyana Polonskaya, who coordinates the work of the welfare company Opportunity, also gave her response to the round-table discussion: ‘The organisers only allowed certain people to speak and the statements they made were very confusing. People in the forum kept asking who these people were, what was known about their reputation and history, in what way were they qualified to discuss these issues and what were they trying to achieve.’
The media in Bashkortostan reported that the delegates watching the round-table discussion came away with the impression that the whole Russian Public Chamber was entirely united in its opposition to the national child protection strategy. Yet people working in the Chamber and for children’s rights organisations have many different opinions on how best to deal with problem families. The only idea that they all share is the broad principle that every family needs to be treated on an individual basis.
Members of the Chamber who took part in this and previous congresses are all involved in the drawing up legislation to protect children. The proposal to reinstate children’s homes runs completely counter to the reforms to children’s homes and family support that began in 2015. These reforms were welcomed by children’s rights advocates and were initiated by, among others, the current member of the Chamber, Yelena Alshanskaya. She is also a member of the Russian Chamber Commission on Supporting Families, Mothers and Children, serving alongside Vinogradova and Zhgutova. The National Foundation for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Charitable Foundation for the Care of Social Orphans, which have both been accused of this corrupt alliance with the authorities, are large and highly respected expert organisations who have done an enormous amount to reform the so-called “Russian orphan industry’. The Head of the National Foundation for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is also a member of the Government Council on Social Protection.
In challenging current arrangements for paid foster care, the people who passed this draft resolution in Ufa did not say what they would do in cases where children are removed from their parents and placed with other families not as a result of poverty but for other reasons, including criminality. This was the main cause of complaint among the delegates attending the round-table discussion who were unable to make their views heard.