Russia’s Treatment of Disabled Kids ‘Deplorable’ : Study

A 93-page report from Human Rights Watch describes the violence, educational deprivation and neglect faced by children with disabilities who are placed in state orphanages. By: Olivia Ward Foreign Affairs Reporter, Published on Mon Sep 15 2014

“The staff used to hit me and drag me by the hair,” says Nastia Y., a 19-year-old woman who spent most of her life in a Russian orphanage. “They gave me pills to calm me down.”

Nastia was one of an estimated 30 per cent of disabled Russian children who are confined to state orphanages, where their futures are often blighted.

In Abandoned by the State, a chilling report released Monday, Human Rights Watch details the testimonies of disabled former residents, orphanage volunteers and others who describe a cacophony of violence, forced drugging, physical and emotional abuse, neglect and educational deprivation of those who are placed in the institutions as babies or children.

The 93-page report comes at a time of rising political tensions when Western countries have slapped sanctions on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, and Russia has toughened rules against foreigners including Americans and Canadians who seek to adopt handicapped children.

Americans are barred from adopting Russian children, and Canadians, including several Ontario couples, have had their adoption processes halted or rejected because of laws against adoption by countries that allow same-sex marriage.

But in Russian institutions the outlook for disabled children is bleak, says Human Rights Watch.

“Violence and neglect of children with disabilities in orphanages is heartbreakingly and completely deplorable,” said the report’s author, Andrea Mazzarino, a Europe and Central Asia researcher.

“The Russian government should establish a zero-tolerance policy for violence against children in institutions and immediately strengthen programs to keep children in their families.”

President Vladimir Putin has waged a vocal pro-family campaign to boost the birth rate in Russia, which has been hit by a demographic crisis for more than a decade.

The government has also created policies to end institutionalization and support ways of keeping children at home if they have living parents. An overwhelming 95 per cent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent, but the report says health care workers often pressure them to give up disabled children by warning them that the children will never lead normal lives, and are likely to die young.

The study found that many institutions are understaffed and run by workers who are untrained in the physical and psychological needs of children with disabilities. Long-held Russian beliefs also discriminate against those with long term disabilities as “vegetables,” unable to be educated or lead productive lives, according to the study.

In interviews with more than 200 former inmates, family members, orphanage volunteers, doctors and staff across eight regions, researchers heard accounts of children restrained in cots, tied to furniture and kept in “lying down” rooms where they lose the use of their limbs after months or years.

One 10-year-old diagnosed with cerebral palsy could neither walk nor talk and was kept in a crib with his arms bound to his body. A malnourished 15-year-old girl, diagnosed with “imbecility,” was confined to a crib wearing only diapers.

Former residents complained of beatings, threats and insults by staff, and punishing terms in psychiatric institutions. Andrei, a 25-year-old former resident, said, “they constantly gave us injections and then they sent us to the bedroom so that we would sleep.”

The report said that some staff worked hard to help the children increase their capacities, but lacked information and training on non-violent methods of calming them, as well as the personnel needed to deal with large numbers of disabled children.

It called on the Russian government to end violence, ill-treatment and neglect of disabled children in state homes, and to guarantee children’s rights to food, education and play. And it urged the government to act on initiatives to stop health-care workers from pressuring parents to give up disabled children.

Once placed in institutions, the report said, disabled children face “numerous obstacles” to adoption and foster care, including lack of government mechanisms to locate Russians willing to take them, lack of support for those who would and biased attitudes against the disabled from some officials that discourage would-be parents.

Westerners are still keen to adopt Russian children with disabilities. But Russia barred Americans from adopting them as part of a political tit-for-tat after Washington slapped sanctions on Russian officials implicated in the death of tax lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. Moscow claims that Americans cannot be trusted because at least 19 Russian children have died after U.S. adoptions.

Canada is also wrestling with the Russian government’s rules to discourage adoptions in countries that recognize same-sex marriage, unless they have a bilateral adoption agreement with Russia. They are apparently meant to prevent Russian children adopted by heterosexual couples from being passed on to same-sex couples.

Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services says that licensed adoption agencies are not authorized to accept clients for the Russia program pending clarification on Russia’s requirements. And, it added in an email, “it’s unfortunate that Russia is imposing sanctions that may prevent Ontario families from adopting Russian children.”

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