[b]Ten years ago, only incurable optimists would believe that state orphanages would close in Belarus due to lack of need. However, the incredible has happened[/b]In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its former republics had to determine their own path of development into unchartered territory. As ‘self-awareness’ peaked and enterprises closed, leaving people without jobs or salaries, orphanages founded during the Soviet years were flooded with children whose parents felt unable to care for them. These children may have been left to the mercy of fate by their parents but became a priority of state protection. Foster carers and teachers replaced their own dear family.
In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its former republics had to determine their own path of development into unchartered territory. As ‘self-awareness’ peaked and enterprises closed, leaving people without jobs or salaries, orphanages founded during the Soviet years were flooded with children whose parents felt unable to care for them. These children may have been left to the mercy of fate by their parents but became a priority of state protection. Foster carers and teachers replaced their own dear family.
At the time, everyone understood that the system was not ideal, since nothing can replace the love and nurture of one’s own family, giving us experience and social skills for life. However, during those times of economic instability, the most vital thing was to protect the children, providing them with safe shelter, quiet sleep, good nutrition, warm clothes, an education and encouraging words.
Years later, when those troubled economic times had become a thing of the past and the country had gradually gained strength, a new state strategy was outlined for such children. Family upbringing again became a priority. In early 2000, the foster families began to develop in Belarus, with foster carers employed by the state. The advantages were immediately evident. In most cases, it was successful, with foster parents chosen carefully and receiving training. Children from orphanages at last gained a ‘real’ family with whom to share joys and sorrows.
The next step in state policy was Decree No. 18, adopted by the Head of State in 2006, ‘On Additional Measures for the State Protection of Children from Troubled Families’; this stipulated parents’ responsibility for children and for their future. The aim was to try to keep children with their biological parents. Where both mother and father abdicated responsibility (sometimes suffering from alcoholism) they were obliged to undertake community work to compensate for the expense of the upbringing of their children. It wasn’t an easy path, since many were unused to working — or were unwilling to work — but, eventually, it inspired many to rethink their lives.
In 2005, Belarus felt the wind of change when the first orphanage was dissolved in Gomel district — the Teryukha Children’s House. It had once been ‘packed’ with orphans but its last director, Regina Karpezo, recollects the closure without regret.
“We spent years working with foster families and looking for new parents for our children. Within five years of joint effort, the number of children under state care fell several fold and we decided to close our institution. Teachers from our children’s house became foster parents, adopting the remaining children, as we didn’t want to pass them on to other state institutions. The children desperately needed families.”
The association of foster families in the district — one of the largest in the region — continues to work with children’s own biological families, helping preserve the family unit and rehabilitating parents to allow them to take responsibility for their children again after a break. It organises meetings, holidays and training seminars.
Today, its experience has been disseminated throughout Gomel region, which is demonstrating the best results in the country. Over the last five years, four state institutions for homeless children have closed, with two more soon to close. Out of 5,000 children, over 4,000 are now being brought up by foster and other families. A professional trade union has been formed, in addition to associations, and they have their own festivals and honours board. The greatest victory of recent years is the decision to close down the largest school for homeless children in Gomel region.
The school opened in 1963, housed in a pre-war building. It initially catered for about 140 children, with the number rising steadily. By the 1990s, it was overcrowded and, ten years ago, the authorities tried to solve the problem by moving it into a new building. It was hoped that 12 residential and household buildings, accommodating 350, would provide the necessary facilities, but it was not to be…
By the early 21st century, it was falling into ruin, trying to accommodate around 450 children in its tight space. Crowds of children would rush down the dark and narrow corridors. I recall seeing them peer through the iron grids of their balconies, strictly regulated by the rules of the school, with no exceptions.
Today, just 66 pupils, aged 10-17, are resident. More than half will be finishing this year, entering secondary special and higher educational establishments. Eight children are being prepared for their chosen foster families. By the end of the summer, the remaining 20 children will also have new homes lined up for them. It’s crucial that no mistakes are made.
Family has been a state priority for some years, as well understood by the District Education Department. “We’re working hard to find children families and only leave them with the children’s house in Gomel as a last resort,” notes the Head of the boarding school, Yelena Barkova. “The balconies are unusually empty.”
“Are children at school or away recuperating?” I ask. “There aren’t any children here,” Ms. Barkova tells me. “It’s home to junior pupils for a short while longer but we haven’t received any small children for some time. Last year, the building was locked up; we’re using just 5 buildings out of 12.”
Alumni girls remove curtains from the windows of the empty room. Their next plans are to study. Sveta Mishura is entering the Architecture Department while Kristina Yeliseeva is to become a junior school teacher. “I have a little sister here but I’m not worried,” Kristina notes. “Our elder brother, who is now 22, will take her and is now filing for guardianship. On one hand, it’s somehow sad that the school is closing, since we’ve spent so many years here. On the other, it’s good…”
By Violetta Dralyuk