Thousands of Russian children abandoned to state orphanages are exposed to appalling levels of cruelty and neglect, according to a 213-page report released in Moscow by Human Rights Watch. The report is a year-long investigation accompanied by a series of powerful color photographs providing further evidence of malign neglect and inhuman treatment.
Entitled "Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages," the report documents that "children in state custodial institutions are deprived of basic human rights at every stage of their lives."
"The abuse in orphanages cannot simply be attributed to Russia's economic crisis," said Kathleen Hunt, author of the Human Rights Watch report. "The problem of scarce resources does not justify the appalling treatment children receive at the hands of the state. It wouldn't take more money for Russia to change these policies immediately."
Hunt said that many of these children do not need to be institutionalized at all, but could be better cared for at home, or in foster homes, at considerably less expense. "The population of these orphanages is far too high and it's growing," said Hunt, noting that about 200,000 children live in state institutions in Russia.
Beginning with infancy, orphans classified as disabled are segregated into "lying down" rooms of the nation's 252 "baby houses," where they are changed and fed but are bereft of stimulation and lacking in medical care.
Those who are labeled retarded or "oligophrenic" (small-brained), face another grave and consequential violation of their rights around the age of four. At that time, a state commission diagnoses them as "ineducable," and warehouses them for life in "psycho-neurological internats." After this diagnosis, it is virtually impossible for an orphan to appeal the decision. According to official statistics, some 30,000 children are confined to these locked and isolated institutions, which are little better than prisons.
The orphans may be restrained in cloth sacks, tethered to furniture, denied stimulation and are sometimes left to lie half-naked in their own filth. In both "baby houses" and "internats," children may be administered powerful sedatives without medical orders.
In a throwback to the abhorrent abuse in Soviet psychiatric institutions, orphans and institution staff also told Human Rights Watch of cases when children who tried to run away were sent to a psychiatric hospital for punishment or treatment.
Not only disabled orphans suffer violations of their rights in Russian state orphanages, according to Human Rights Watch. Even 'normal' abandoned children---whom the state evaluates as intellectually capable of functioning on a higher level---may be beaten, locked in freezing rooms for days at a time, or sexually abused.
Public humiliation was one of the forms of punishment recorded by Human Rights Watch in interviews with children from three different regions of Russia. "The teacher would punish children by bringing everyone into the classroom, and then making the ones who did something wrong get undressed and stand in front of the open window when it was very cold," according to an orphan interviewed in St. Petersburg. "Several children would be stripped and have to stand like that while the others had to watch...as a threat," the orphan said.
Official statistics indicate that children have been abandoned to the state at a rate of 113,000 for the past two years. This figure is up dramatically from 67,286 in 1992.
Human Rights Watch points out the wide variation among state institutions and cites an independent program in one psycho-neurological internat that has made remarkable progress with disabled children.
Among its recommendations to Russian authorities and international community, the human rights organization calls for the state to "immediately take steps to end the gross neglect, and the physical and psychological abuse by staff working in the custodial institutions of the three ministries involved: Health, Education, and Labor and Social Development."
The report also urges the state to develop humane alternatives to huge custodial institutions by reallocating existing resources to more family-based care.
The photographs accompanying the Human Rights Watch report are available through the Saba Photo Agency in New York, telephone 212-477-7722 or through the photographer, Kate Brooks, in Moscow at (M) 7095-763-6603, or (P) 7095-203-4610.