The Development of Russia's Child Protection and Welfare System

Article excerpt

Abstract: For the past 20 years, Russia has worked to develop child protection and welfare systems in an effort to reduce the high number of homeless youth that has amassed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some notable progress has been made, though it is clearly insufficient to meet this need. Any progress, however, must be measured against the enormity of the task faced and the still-evolving science of child protection systems internationally.

Keywords: child protection, foster care, orphans, street youth

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The number of homeless youth increased exponentially in Russia during the 1990s, constituting the third great wave of homelessness in the 20th century. (1) Each wave was a symptom of major cataclysms within the country. Beginning with the first wave that arose during World War I and the Russian Revolution, the state created a set of child protection institutions that remained largely in place at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union. When massive economic and social disruption occurred during the transition from Communism, Russia attempted to improve its child protection system and reduce the numbers of youth on the streets while simultaneously addressing the broader crises in the country. This process continues to evolve, but progress has been slow.

The problems faced by homeless and other vulnerable youth in Russia, and the failures of Russia's social service and child welfare system to adequately address their needs, have been well publicized both inside and outside the country. Many legitimate critiques can be made about Russia's response to these problems. At the same time, there is often inadequate recognition of the enormity of developing an effective child protection system. Further, those with insufficient knowledge of child and family services in other countries can at times over-emphasize Russia's failures and under-credit its successes in this area, while at the same time over-crediting the successes and under-crediting the failures of other countries that have been working to resolve these same problems for longer periods of time. This article focuses attention on these issues.

This article is the product of ethnographic, literature-based, and documentary research conducted between 2001 and 2010. Program visits, discussions, observations, and interviews with child protection professionals and the general public were conducted in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Omsk, Penn, and Tomsk. Conversations and visits were all conducted under the protocol of confidentiality and thus will be referenced without attribution.

The Problem: The Prevalence of Homeless, Abused, and Neglected Youth in Russia

Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, reports began to appear regarding huge numbers of homeless youth on the streets of Russian cities and villages. By 1995, shelters were being established for an estimated 300,000 homeless children. The children to be served were described as a combination of "victims of domestic abuse or [those who] have been 'forgotten' by drunken parents," as well as orphans and other children found on the streets." (2) Estimates of the numbers of homeless youth have ranged from one million (3) to five million. (4)

The figures above represent a range of 0.7 percent to 3.5 percent of the Russian population; (5) comparison figures from the US range from 0.2 percent to 0.9 percent. (6) Because of the difficulty of locating homeless populations, any estimates of prevalence must be considered unreliable. Definitional issues--specifically what constitutes a "truly" homeless child--compound the problem. Given the unreliability of this data, one cannot with any certainty compare the prevalence of homeless youth from one country to the next.

In conversation, Russians usually cite the economic situation during the transition period as the primary cause for youth homelessness. Research indicates that the reality is more complex. …