Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Mark Mackinnon

p. A3.

An epidemic of street kids overwhelms Russian cities

Moscow, St. Petersburg rife with children suffering from neglect, MARK MacKINNON reports

MOSCOW — In the photo, six-year-old Anya and her nine-year-old brother Maxim look as though they have just been rescued from a concentration camp.

The girl's stomach, swollen from malnutrition, bulges from an otherwise skinny body. Her brother's ribs protrude so far they stretch at the skin. Both are naked, and their sunken eyes show fear.

When the picture was taken, aid workers in Moscow say, the two had just been removed from a home where they lived "like animals" with their alcoholic parents.

"In their home, everything was broken. There was no furniture even, and nothing like toys for the children. They slept on piles of dirty clothes," said Sapar Koulianov, director of Moscow's oldest shelter for children, Way to Home.

He has seen thousands of similar cases. Two brothers, eight and nine years old, were found in a phone booth, where they'd lived for six months after running away from their alcoholic single mother. Another four-year-old boy was left parentless when his mother was jailed for knifing his grandmother.

Stories such as these are common the world over. But in Russia, slightly more than a decade after it emerged from Communist rule, the number of such cases has reached epidemic proportions. And those working in the underfunded social system say it's impossible to cope.

An estimated three million children — almost one child in 10 — are now considered to be neglected. Street kids, a rarity during the Soviet era, now crowd by the dozens into Moscow's metro stations and underpasses.

The International Labour Organization estimates that between 30,000 and 50,000 children live on Moscow's streets and another 10,000 to 16,000 in the other major metropolis, St. Petersburg.

President Vladimir Putin calls the unhappy state of the younger generation the most "threatening" of his country's economic and social indicators. Mr. Koulianov has a photo album filled with evidence that shows Mr. Putin is not exaggerating. The children taken in by his shelter in the past few years have arrived suffering from everything from bruised faces to a missing eye. Some, not yet in their teens, already have the same addictions as their parents.

The problem, Mr. Koulianov said, is born of the wrenching economic change the country undertook after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Millions who once had steady jobs suddenly lost them; crime and alcoholism spiked wildly. Parents desperate for cash made use of new laws allowing the sale of private apartments, and left their families homeless in the process. Thousands of children were left on the streets.

"In the past 10 years there is a generation that lost their jobs, lost their ideology and lost their lives," said Irena Osokina, deputy head of the city of Moscow's social protection department. "Their children suffer from that."

At the same time, the once-vaunted social safety net disappeared, and there was little to take its place. When Way to Home opened in 1992, it was the only shelter of its kind in Moscow, a city of 15 million.

Ten years later, the city has seven shelters for children, offering just a few hundred beds. There's a waiting list to get into Way to Home, which offers schooling and medical services to the 35 children it can hold, even though it can barely pay its staff a decent wage.

Police, who once scooped children off the street on sight, are now prohibited from doing so unless the child has committed a crime. So most of the children are left where they are, and many are believed to have fallen into the growing prostitution and drug trades. Some of Moscow's tabloids feature ads that promise customers escorts "under 13."

The situation is a stark contrast to the glossy exterior Moscow presents to many outsiders. The city at times seems to exude wealth, as so-called New Russians cruise the main boulevards, clad in furs and driving luxury cars. The ILO says that gloss is part of what draws streets kids to the capital. Often the children are from small villages where industry died with the Soviet Union.

"The availability of legal and illegal jobs make the capital an attractive place for the needy and destitute," said Pirjo Mikkonen, of the ILO's Moscow office. "Children, for various reasons … have become the cheapest and least protected labour force available on the market."

In the West, many such children would be placed with foster parents. In Russia, however, there is simply no such tradition, and adoption is a similarly alien concept. According to the government, 7,000 of the country's orphans were adopted in 2000, with foreigners adopting nearly as many as native citizens.

At Way to Home, the staff are expecting another influx of new arrivals as some spots are found for children at orphanages. One of the most recent arrivals, 14-year-old Keeril, came in off the streets just days ago. His parents died in a car crash and his grandmother "can't manage" caring for him, he said.

Keeril would not give details about how he arrived at the shelter, and he was not worried about where he might live next. Instead, he shyly waited his turn to use the shelter's computer. "I haven't played video games in a long time," he explained.

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Created: April 16, 2002
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