Russia: Children with disabilities victims of violence and neglect, Human Rights Watch

End the “orphanage” system; promote family care

A boy crouches on the floor of a state orphanage for disabled children in the Sverlovsk region, Russia.

© 2013 Andrea Mazzarino/Human Rights Watch

(Moscow) – Almost 30 percent of all children with disabilities in Russia live in state orphanages, where they may experience violence and be neglected, Human Rights Watch said in a report published today. Russia should end these human rights abuses against disabled children living in state care and help them to live with their families or in other family circumstances rather than in state institutions.

The 93-page report “Abandoned by the State: Violence, Neglect, and Isolation for Children with Disabilities in Russian Orphanages” documents that many disabled children and adolescents who live or have lived in state orphanages have been victims of severe abuse and neglect by the staff. The development of the affected children was thus lastingly impaired. Some of the children with whom Human Rights Watch conducted interviews reported being beaten by orphanage staff, sedated with narcotics, and taken to psychiatric hospitals for days or weeks at a time. These measures served to control and punish the children.

“Violence against and neglect of children with disabilities is heartbreaking and deeply deplorable,” said Andrea Mazzarino, a member of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia department and author of the report. “The Russian government should establish a zero tolerance policy towards violence against children in state institutions. In addition, it should immediately promote programmes aimed at not separating children from their families.”

The report is based on more than 200 interviews with children, family members, stakeholders and orphanage staff, as well as visits to ten state orphanages throughout Russia where children with disabilities live. Most of the children living there have families. However, staff at the facilities visited by Human Rights Watch sometimes tried to prevent visits by parents or other family members, as such contacts would “spoil” the children. The children would get used to too much attention.

Children and child rights activists reported that children in orphanages often have no access to health care, healthy food, care and play facilities. In addition, many children receive no or inadequate education. One of the main reasons for the behaviour towards the children is the lack of staff in orphanages as well as the lack of adequate support and training for the staff. Children have few, if any, real opportunities to seek help or report abuse.

At least 95 percent of children living in Russian orphanages or in foster care still have at least one parent. The Russian government has made a public commitment to end the policy of excessive placement of children, including children with disabilities, in state institutions. However, government officials have not paid enough attention to the special situation of children with disabilities who are housed in such institutions.

In cases documented by Human Rights Watch, many children with disabilities were placed in orphanages after health care officials exerted pressure on parents. The officials had claimed that the children lacked developmental potential and that the parents could not care for them. The lack of access to adequate schooling, rehabilitation, health care and other state support in many regions of Russia also affects parents’ decision to place their children in or leave them in a state institution.

Human Rights Watch documented that in orphanages those children whose disabilities are considered by staff to be “the most severe” were separated from the others and placed in so-called “recumbents”. There they have to lie in caged beds or are tied to pieces of furniture with rags. Many of these children receive little attention unless they are fed or wrapped. Many of the children in these rooms rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to leave their beds, come into contact with other children or go outside. This practice of placing children in those “recumbents” is discriminatory and should be stopped, Human Rights Watch said.

“Many children with disabilities in the “lying rooms” suffer from physical, emotional and intellectual developmental disorders,” says Mazzarino. “This tragedy could be avoided if all children with disabilities were given decent food and access to health care and education to which they have a right,” Mazzarino said.

Human Rights Watch spoke with many orphanage workers who expressed their desire to help children realize their development potential. However, children are often treated by orphanage staff in an unacceptable manner because they lack adequate support. For example, there is no training on non-violent disciplinary methods or on the physical and nutritional needs of children with various forms of disability.

Under international law, Russia is obliged to protect children from all forms of violence or neglect and to ensure that children with disabilities are not separated from their parents against their will. Children must also be protected from all forms of discrimination.

One of the steps the Russian government has planned to address the high rate of children in state institutions is the development of the National Action Plan on Children’s Rights from 2012 to 2017. This document provides that children will not simply be deported to state institutions and that the number of children in state institutions will be reduced. However, these and other policies pay too little attention to the special needs of children with disabilities. There are also no concrete plans for the implementation and monitoring of the measures.

Now that the government has recognized the need to reduce the placement of children in state institutions, clear, feasible plans must also be made to achieve this goal, Human Rights Watch said. The government should support the children so that they can stay with their families, or, where this is not possible, expand the care and adoption programmes.

Russia lacks a nationwide system for placing children with disabilities in foster or adoptive families. In addition, such families reported hurdles in their communities, such as lack of support and sourpusses for education and other services. The families also reported negative attitudes among government officials.

The Russian government should draw up a time-bound plan to end the excessive placement of children in orphanages, Human Rights Watch said. Such placement in state institutions is intended to be a short-term solution that will only be used in clearly defined circumstances that make it the best option in the child’s best interest. Furthermore, housing must be in accordance with international law. The government should also provide social assistance and other services to help families raise children with disabilities at home.

International and national donors should provide funds for programmes that help children find their way out of orphanages into a family environment. Support will also be given to programmes that promote the integration of children into the community, including access to schools and health care.

“As long as the Russian government and donors do not act, tens of thousands of Russian children will live in four walls, isolated from their families, environment and other children. They will be denied the opportunities that other children have,” said Mazzarino. “The Russian government can do much more to help parents educate children with disabilities and not to deport them to state institutions.

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Christina Cherry
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