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Russia's children increasingly at risk of abuse

September 09, 2007|Bagila Bukharbayeva | Associated Press

MOSCOW — The 15-year-old twins sleep among trash and dirt in a nook under a railway platform and spend their days at a Salvation Army shelter in a grim Moscow neighborhood.

But Denis and his sister Olesya prefer being homeless to living with their parents in Elektrostal, 36 miles east of the capital. They say their mother abused them physically and verbally, then kicked them out in July, telling them to find jobs.

"It was hard at home, not cozy," said Denis, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used.

The twins are among a growing number of Russian children who face abuse and neglect despite an economic boom.

Russia's human rights ombudsman says children's rights violations remain systematic and more parents are victimizing their children. Oil wealth has enriched some Russians, but the poverty, social decay and alcoholism at the root of the child abuse have deepened since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Public sensitivity to child welfare is growing, however, as Russians face up to the fact that the population has shrunk by about 4% a year since 1993, to 142.7 million. President Vladimir V. Putin sounded the alarm in 2006, saying that the country was on the verge of a demographic crisis and that Russia's children needed special care.

Official statistics show the number of children has fallen to 29 million from 36 million over the last eight years, part of an overall decrease resulting from low birthrates, an antiquated healthcare system, poverty, alcoholism and rampant crime.

Child's Right, a Moscow-based advocacy group, says that every year about 2,000 Russian children up to age 17 are killed by their parents or other relatives -- a rate of about 6.9 per 100,000.

By rough comparison, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2005, the overall homicide rate for children 13 and younger -- regardless of the perpetrator -- was 1.4 per 100,000. The overall U.S. rate for children ages 14 to 17 was 4.8 per 100,000.

According to UNICEF, the suicide rate for Russians ages 15 to 19 was 20.2 per 100,000 in 2004. That's more than double the rate of 8.2 per 100,000 for the same age group in the U.S. in 2004, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Child's Right says about 50,000 Russian children -- 1 out of every 580 -- run away from home each year, and 20,000 flee from state-run institutions.

'Orphan-making factory'

Boris Altshuler, head of Child's Right, tells the story of 11-year-old Vlad Yakovlev from the Siberian city of Kurgan. According to police, Vlad's alcoholic mother starved, taunted and beat him. He hanged himself with a belt in November 2005. This year, Vlad's mother was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for driving her son to suicide.

"Many people see children as their property. There is no concept that they bear some social responsibility for their children," said Altshuler.

Authorities can either do nothing or place a child in an orphanage, Altshuler said, but there is no middle ground such as family counseling or monitoring by social workers, and no law that obliges the state to act.

"The whole country is one orphan-making factory," he said.

He said Putin appeared to be trying to reduce the number of children in institutions. But he predicted that the bureaucrats who controlled the $1.5 billion Russia spent each year on orphanages and children's homes would try to derail the effort.

"They need children like firewood to keep this system going," Altshuler said.

The human rights ombudsman said the number of orphans or children whose parents were stripped of custody had risen by almost 20% over the last eight years, to more than 730,000.

UNICEF data show 1,384 Russian children out of every 100,000 lived in an institution in 2005, compared with 709 per 100,000 in Poland and 590 out of 100,000 in Estonia.

Raising awareness

In recent years, the Russian government has established a foster program and created hotlines for child victims. Charities and nongovernment groups have opened shelters, and UNICEF is creating a national network of children's rights watchdogs.

With the Kremlin raising awareness, Russian media are paying more attention to cases such as that of a 7-year-old boy in the Guryevsk, in southwestern Siberia, who was hospitalized with cirrhosis; he had been driven to alcohol abuse by his father, who wanted a drinking buddy.

This year, prosecutors investigated medical workers at a hospital in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, east of Moscow, who allegedly tied two abandoned toddlers to their beds with sheets so they could be left unsupervised.

Workers at a hospital in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, were accused of taping infants' mouths shut to keep them from crying. And on the Pacific island of Sakhalin, authorities said a kindergarten employee gave children unauthorized injections to calm them or to help them sleep.

Carel de Rooy, a UNICEF representative in Russia, says that children's health is becoming a higher priority, but that the change is probably driven more by demographic concerns than awareness of children's rights.

At Moscow's Salvation Army shelter, Denis, Olesya, and a dozen other homeless children wash their clothes, play pingpong and watch a video. The twins still have a hard time talking about their experiences at home.

Did your mother beat you, a visitor asked. Denis looked down and nodded. Were there fights at home? Another nod.

Olesya said she liked her new "freedom," which means begging for money, using drugs and "dating young men."

She said she would think about the future one day.

When? "When I grow up."

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