Inside a ‘children’s gulag’ -CBC News

By CBC News
CBC News

April 23, 2010

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Russia has temporarily suspended child adoptions to the United States following the alarming case of Artyom Savelyev, an eight-year-old Russian boy who was put on a plane back to his native country by his adoptive mother.

Tory Anne Hansen, from Tennessee, sent Artyom back to Moscow alone, with a note saying she couldn’t cope with him anymore because of his allegedly violent outbursts.

The case has horrified people around the world and cast a spotlight on child adoptions from Russia.

Russian authorities were outraged and pledged to place Artyom with a foster family in Russia.

A foster home might be a welcome change from the Russian orphanage that Artyom left in Russia’s far East, part of a vast network of Dickensian-like institutions that house hundreds of thousands of homeless Russian children.

In the mid-1990s, Sarah Philps, the wife of a British journalist living in Moscow, met a Russian boy with cerebral palsy in an orphanage where she was volunteering.

Philps was so moved by the plight of six-year-old Vanya that she became actively involved in trying to get him adopted.

In the end he was, by an American woman, Paula Lahutsky, and he became one of very few disabled orphans to escape the Russian system.

Vanya is now called John Lahutsky, 20, and is the co-author of The Boy From Baby House 10: From the Nightmare of a Russian Orphanage to a New Life in America.

CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon interviewed John (Vanya) Lahutsky and his mother Paula Lahutsky, as well as co-author Alan Philps and his wife Sarah about the brutal, Russian orphanage system that has been thrust back into the world spotlight.

CBC News: It’s almost painful to read about conditions in Baby House 10. And yet they are typical of other orphanages in Russia. Describe what it’s like there.John Lahutsky: I remember the silence even though the room at the baby house was full of children. They just didn’t speak or make any sounds. I rarely even heard a child cry.

The room was mostly dark, even in the daytime because the drapes were closed. We didn’t really see much sunlight. I remember seeing many children tied so they couldn’t move around.

I remember a reddish black carpet in the middle of the room. I must remember it because I looked at it a lot. I rarely had a toy to play with.

Sarah Philps: The most distressing rooms are where the so-called incurables are kept. These children are deemed to need only feeding and changing, and the carers do not pick them up when they give them their bottles.

In Canada, many of these children would not be considered severely disabled, but only in need of speech therapy or physical therapy or a minor operation. Because they spend their days lying down, their limbs atrophy and then they are invariably given the diagnosis of cerebral palsy. CBC News: There are said to be about 800,000 children in the care of the Russian state. Why so many?Alan Philps: Very few – less than 10 per cent of the total – are real orphans, in the sense of having no living parent. The rest are “social orphans”

That is, they have been abandoned by their parents, or more likely the state has taken them away from families who cannot cope.

Very large numbers – 120,000 a year, by some estimates – are taken into care because this is often the only recourse that social services have if a mother is poor, addicted, or homeless, or the child has special needs.

Child protection in Russia is a blunt instrument which does only one thing, take the child away from the family.

CBC News: In 2006, then president Vladimir Putin vowed to reform this system of children’s institutions. What has the Russian government accomplished since then?Alan Philps: There have been some superficial changes since Vanya’s day. More money is spent on institutions and, where Vanya had a bare plastic mattress, these days there are sheets and pillows.

But these changes do not address the real problem: the children should be in families. Russia now has a children’s rights commissioner who can highlight the problems, and these are openly discussed in the media. So the level of public awareness of the damage done to children by institutions is higher. What Putin and his successor Dimitri Medvedev did not achieve was to convince the bureaucracy that the money currently spent on big institutions should be paid to individuals – either to the mothers, or to long-term foster parents.

These institutions provide jobs, power and patronage for the bureaucracy, which would be removed if the budget was transferred to a proper social care network. CBC News: Children with mild disabilities in state institutions are diagnosed as “incurables,” which makes their conditions worse. Why this almost punitive attitude?Alan Philps: As soon as a child enters the door of an institution, he or she is assumed to be flawed and from alcoholic and/or drug-addicted parentage.

The Russian medical profession is very conservative, and tends to over-diagnose children and give them the label of “invalid” rather than setting out to treat their disabilities.

Once in an institution, children fail to develop mentally, emotionally and physically so the bad diagnosis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The staff feel powerless to change the fate of the children, and are inadequately trained in child development.

CBC News: John Lahutsky’s story is a miracle. You describe how his own personality was crucial to his survival. He stood out. Sarah, describe the little boy you met in 1994.Sarah:Vanya [John Lahutsky] was in the room for incurables, the worst room in the baby house. The atmosphere was one of oppressive silence, like a hospital ward full of dying people, not a room full of small children. All the other children were fading away.

Vanya seemed to be the only child with any life in him. He was sitting at a little table with his friend Andrei. He hailed me from across the room, asked me my name, told me his.

I gave him a metal toy car. His first reaction was, “Do you have one for Andrei?”

I thought this an incredibly mature response, particularly for a child with no possessions.

The caregiver pointed out that, at the age of four, he could not walk. I saw his feet were constricted in a romper suit for a much younger child.

Even if he had wanted to get off his chair and pull himself up, he could not have done so. CBC News: Why so few happy endings?Alan: At the age of four or five children are assessed for their mental capacity. Once children have been labelled “ineducable,” they disappear into the asylum system.

Normally no child would be put on the adoption register once they had been sent to an asylum, nor would they come to the attention of foreign adoptive parents. So they just would not have any chance to escape.

John had supporters [Sarah] outside the system, but that is really a unique case. CBC News: John, the case of Artyom Savalyev seems especially tragic when one reads this account of life inside a Russian orphanage. What are your thoughts on his situation?John Lahutsky: I am very sad for Artyom. It must have been very scary for him to fly alone on the plane and I wonder how much he understood what was going on.

I do think that once a child has gotten out of the Russian system, he should never have to go back.

The United States is very wonderful with lots of resources to help children. I just don’t understand why Artyom’s situation reached the point of his mother sending him back like that.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation