Two boys who were under the care of foster parent Yulia Savinovskikh until August 2017.

© 2017 Yulia Savinovskikh

When Yulia Savinovskikh had a double mastectomy in July, she was aware of the likely physical side effects of the surgery. But she felt the procedure was worth it; after three pregnancies, her breasts were causing her pain and other health problems. What she wasn’t expecting – and the most painful of all – was the removal of two foster children from her care and their placement in an orphanage.

On August 27, without warning, state guardianship agency officials removed two boys, ages 4 and 5, who had been living with Savinovskikh and her husband for three-and-a-half and two years, respectively. One of the children has cerebral palsy; the other has a serious medical condition which requires close supervision.

Guardianship agency officials cited an anonymous complaint about Savinovskikh’s so-called “immoral behavior” and a transgender blog she wrote as among the reasons for the children’s removal. Officials claimed her mastectomy was evidence that she was planning to undergo sex reassignment surgery to transition to male.

Although not citing the law specifically, officials appear to have taken the decision to interfere in Savinovskikh’s private and family life and those of the foster children because of the 2013 discriminatory law banning so-called “gay propaganda” to children, envisaging that after her alleged transition Savinovskikh and her husband would live as a gay couple.

Setting aside the fact that officials had no evidence Savinovskikh planned to transition, any such decision she might have taken would have no bearing on her fitness as a parent.

Savinovskikh was in the process of adopting the children when officials placed them in an orphanage for children with disabilities. Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuse and neglect of children with disabilities in Russian state orphanages and has called on the government to ensure that whenever possible children can enjoy their right to grow up in families, like Savinovskikh’s.

In September, Savinovskikh unsuccessfully appealed to the Ministry of Social Policy to bring the children back home with her.

A November 14 report by the Russian Civic Chamber, a citizens’ consultative body, criticized the guardianship agency officials’ actions as “lacking proper evidence” to merit removing the children and recommended they be returned, but subject to a psychological evaluation to ensure that Savinovskikh is “mentally fit” to care for the children.

Savinovskikh passed a medical evaluation when she first became a foster parent, and the requirement that she undergo an additional one to prove her suitability to continue to be a successful guardian to children who were wrongly removed from her care is arbitrary, discriminatory, and only compounds the injustice of officials’ actions.

The Russian government should act in the children’s best interests, as human rights law requires them to do, and which the evidence demonstrates is not to have them in an institution but in a family-based environment where they will receive the support and nurturing they need – like they did in Savinovskikh’s care.