Russia has some 650,000 children without parental care; yet most of these children have living parents. This figure has barely changed since the early 2000s, and plans to deinstitutionalize the system remain solely on paper. Svetlana Biryukova has examined various approaches to the socialization of these highly vulnerable children in Russia, Europe, and the U.S. Her report 'Family Placement of Orphans: Comparing Russia's Approach to Those of European Countries' offers a number of new solutions for better social adaptation of children without parental care.
Internationally, there are a number of public and public/private arrangements for orphans: the former include orphanages and other residential institutions, and the latter are commonly represented by adoptive families or foster homes, where the costs of raising the child are fully financed by the state and the caregivers receive an allowance.
A foster family is an imported western concept, which is relatively new to Russia and still lacks a clear definition. Foster families often serve as a provisional arrangement; in western countries, such families provide a temporary home for children who for some reason have to be removed from their natural family. The main difference between foster parents and guardians or adoptive parents is that foster care is provided by professionals, such as trained psychologists, educators, or social workers. Many children, having spent some time with a foster family, will go back home when it is safe for them to do so. Foster care can be described as a minimally damaging option for children whose parents are unable, for some reason or other, to care for them.
However, Russia continues to institutionalise orphans, Biryukova notes. Some 15.7% of all children left without parental care end up in orphanages. Placement with foster families as an alternative to institutional care has increased from 2.9% in 2006 to 15.5% in 2012.
Other forms of family placement are stagnant or declining; adoptions – which are considered the preferred form of placement under Russian law – have declined from almost 22% in 2006 to 19.3% in 2012, while the share of custody and guardianship has dropped from 52.2% in 2006 to 49.5% in 2012, being partially replaced, according to Biryukova, by adoptive families. Meanwhile, adoptive families in Russia tend to reject a large proportion of orphans.
Biryukova identified four main groups of orphans likely to be rejected by adoptive parents and caregivers: children aged 10 and older (some 60% of all orphans in Russia), children with disabilities (between 15% and 25% depending on the region), children with siblings (50%), and the children of immigrants.
Adoptive families rarely adopt siblings, preferring to adopt just one child from a group of siblings or avoiding siblings altogether.
As a result, many Russian orphans spend their childhood in residential institutions and then go on to live independently as adults (if they are healthy) or are transferred to specialised institutions for adults (if they have serious health problems).
Biryukova believes that Russia could benefit from other countries' experiences and has identified four areas worth noting, including the form and duration of placement, availability of support, and whether contacts with the child's natural family are encouraged – a common practice in many countries, but extremely rare in Russia.
Biryukova has grouped countries into four categories based on their approach to child placement: the U.S. and the U.K.; the Nordic countries; Southern and Western Europe; and Central and Eastern Europe.
According to Biryukova, Russia has a certain degree of similarity with these two countries inemphasising permanent adoption over other forms of more temporary child placement.
However, temporary placement options are much more diverse in the U.S. and the U.K. compared to Russia, in terms of duration, as well as the objectivesof such placement. Forster care in the U.S. often provides temporary placement for children waiting to be safely reunited with their families or while waiting for adoption.
Biryukova notes that countries with well-developed foster care systems offer a variety of temporary placement options, which have been found to facilitate permanent family placement.
Child welfare services supervise and support adoptive families, but supervision often comes first in Russia, as well as in both western countries, while support and assistance are offered to families facing a crisis. However, in the U.K. (but not in the U.S.) child welfare caseworkers, rather than substitute parents, bear the main legal responsibility for the child, Biryukova notes.
Biryukova also says that "wherever possible, children in foster care are encouraged to keep in touch with their birth parents."
In Nordic countries, foster families are the preferred form of placement for children removed from their birth family, but contacts with the latter are supported while the child is in foster care – and in some Nordic countries, adoptive parents are responsible for maintaining contacts with the child's biological parents even after adoption.
Adoptive families receive a lot of support from social workers.
Biryukova also highlights a return to residential care in Sweden and Denmark, however these new orphanages are much smaller and more open to the public than they used to be, and non-governmental organisations are actively involved in their operation. The return to residential care in Denmark and Sweden has been informed by research demonstrating similar outcomes in terms of socialisation between children raised in residential care and those in foster families.
Where a family crisis is the main reason for placing a child in foster care, major decisions affecting the child are made jointly by the child welfare authorities, foster parents, and the biological parents.
Temporary placement in foster families exists in these countries (particularly in Spain) alongside permanent forms of substitute parenthood, such as kinship and adoptive families. Substitute parents have to take a training course and can access professional assistance as needed, but otherwise supervision is not mandatory.
Biryukova notes Russia's similarity with CEE countries in that guardianship and custody are currently the most common forms of child placement, while other alternatives are taking longer to develop, just like in Russia.
In most CEE countries, foster families often provide a permanent placement and are supervised by child welfare authorities; supervision comes before support, and contact with biological parents are not emphasized.
By encouraging foster families, Russia has made an attempt to use them for temporary placement, as in the Nordic countries, but foster care often ends up providing a permanent solution, alongside custody and guardianship, while orphanages still remain the only option for temporary care.
Biryukova believes that Russia’s lack of professional foster care leads to a situation where children rather than prospective parents are subject to a selection process. In addition to this, a lack of support and encouragement for the child's birth parents makes it unlikely that children will ever be reunited with their birth families.
Biryukova concludes that Russia could benefit from creating a system of professional foster and adoptive parenting, complete with skills certification, training opportunities and an adequate support network.