The Russian government’s recent effort to reshape its child protection system raises public concerns that the new laws and the imported juvenile justice and child care framework may be specifically used to target the families of the poor, and become an extremely efficient tool to suppress the growing popular dissent.
Natalya and Leonid Galaktionov claim they were forced to send their twins Vanya and Maksim to an orphanage after they started receiving threats from social workers that they would have taken the kids anyway. The case of the Galaktionovs, a poor family from Vladimir, provincial city in central Russia, fueled the flaring debate about the rights and wrongs of the country’s child welfare system and became the burning argument for those who oppose the reform.
Once a week Leonid Galaktionov, a retired military officer in his 50s, rings the bell of the local orphanage. He is usually given an hour to hug his twins, give them presents and once again promise he will soon take them home. The problem is Leonid has no home or any other place that may be called home in the eyes of the social workers. This family of five occupies a 120 sq ft unit in a tractor plant dormitory. The temporary permit to stay in this property is the only reward Leonid was granted for his service in the two conflict zones, Tajikistan and Chechnya.
“I was number 800 on the waiting list for public housing, then suddenly I became number 3000,” explained Leonid. “I was number 52 in the line for rental reimbursement, then I’m 121.”
At issue is the definition of neglect. The social services office argues that inspectors had every reason to remove the children because of the parents’ inability to provide “minimal living standards”. But that is exactly the argument that has shocked and outraged parents all over Russia.
In a country still dealing with the aftermath of the ravaging economic transformation, extreme neediness, historically, was never seen as something unusual, not to say illegal.
“At this moment child protection services in Russia almost seized the authority of courts and prosecution, and they apply the mechanism of child’s removal mainly to just two groups of parents: the poor and the politically active citizens,” said Darya Mitina, an ex-member of the Russian Parliament, who is currently heading the youth wing of the new political movement “Left Front”.
Nevertheless even critics agree that the Russian child welfare system is in a desperate situation and does need improvement. Still there’s no unity in this society as of how the old system should be reformed. Pro-government forces in the Parliament are promoting an idea of the new child care system based on juvenile justice, that will dramatically affect the current legal practice. Underprivileged families are seen by the government as the main supplying source for the underworld. Minors are usually subject to direct influence from their parents, proponents of the new law insist, and that is why public services must intervene on early stages, removing children when necessary.
Some may argue the mechanism is already working in absence of juvenile justice. But the proposed juvenile courts if established will deal with these matters independently and in a very expedient way, as trials should not last longer than seven days.
“Juvenile justice is absolutely needed,” said Mitina. “But the near term juvenile justice is empty, it’s like a cover for anything you like. For example though people in Russia today are sent to prison under fabricated charges, it doesn’t mean we don’t need criminal justice.”
What scares the public the most are the precedents when social workers and police were taking children into custody to punish parents for their political activities.
On May 23, 2010 independent journalist Galina Dmitrieva who lives in Tolliatti published an article in the local newspaper about the coming layoffs on AutoVAZ, Russia’s main automobile factory badly affected by the economic downturn. Two days later her apartment was stormed by social workers and the police. Her children, 2 year old Nikita, and 6 year old Alexandra were removed under charges of neglect. In private conversations Dmitrieva hinted that she should not have messed with the factory.
Sergey Pchelintsev has his own unforgettable memories. On February 12, 2010 the small apartment in Dzerjinsk, Nizhegorodsky region where he lives with his wife Lidya, and their own children Maxim, Anna and Darya was host to some unexpected guests. Social workers were accompanied not only by the police, but also by a local television crew. This time the reason for children’s removal was clear and abrupt. Sergey was openly accused of being “too poor” to support the kids, and they were taken away by force. Both sides realized it well that the main reason was Pchelintsev’s involvement in the social protest against the government policies last fall when another Russian automobile plant GAZ was cutting its workforce.
“Our government has slashed and privatized everything: social benefits, pensions, public housing,” said Pchelintsev. “Unlike in the USSR these days they are market, not family oriented. This might help them to contain public dissent for some time. But when massive removals begin – expect a huge social explosion.”