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Friday, February 09, 2007

The Beeb on Cruelty to Russian Infants

The BBC has done a nice investigation of the "gagged baby" story that La Russophobe reported several days ago. Here it is:

Mobile phone video of babies in a Russian hospital with sticking plaster apparently covering their mouths made headlines around the world but the plight of the otkazniki - the infants abandoned by their mothers in hospital - goes much deeper. For Maxim Gareyev, editor of Yekaterinburg's parenting newspaper Yeka-mama, the story which broke at Hospital No 15 was no great surprise. "We get confidential letters and private messages from officials and others about babies being maltreated in hospitals but nobody wants to speak out because they don't want to lose their jobs or they fear for their reputations," he told the BBC News website. Mr Gareyev has little to say about the "gagging" case, pointing out that city prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation.

But what he can talk about is the circumstances of the babies, because it is something he knows well from both his newspaper's own reporting and his charity work to help them. Babies officially taken into care by the state on the grounds that their parents are unfit to rear them are usually out of hospital and in a children's home within a few days of birth, says Mr Gareyev. But otkazniki are often left behind in hospitals for months, awaiting a vacancy. If a carer is not found, they will be packed off to orphanages at the age of three. And their experiences during those first years of life may mark them permanently.

Nowhere to go

The reported events at Hospital No 15 are a first for Carel de Rooy, the Unicef representative in Russia and Belarus, but the issue of otkazniki is one that he has long been pushing for the Russian authorities to address. "Hospital staff are trained to care for the sick - they are not trained to deal with the cognitive and emotional development of babies," he told the BBC News website. "This has serious implications both for the development and long-term health of the child." Given the potential for damage to these babies' make-up, why do they get left in hospital? The answer, Maxim Gareyev explains, is lack of resources.

"We simply do not have enough children's homes in Sverdlovsk [the region around Yekaterinburg] and Russia in general," he says. "These babies get left in hospitals but there are no funds or trained medical staff or special facilities for caring for them. "Of course, the hospitals make space for these babies but the problem is that in the first year of life a baby needs to be cuddled, it needs to be talked to, if it is to develop as a human being."

Overworked nurses

Charities have stepped in to do what they can for the babies. Olga Bizimova, a 27-year-old married mother of two, became a volunteer in Yekaterinburg's Little Stork group because she felt sorry for them. "We buy disposable nappies and baby food," she told the BBC News website.
"We visit our local hospital. We give the babies a bath, we dress them and, if we get permission, we take them out for walks. Then we come back and we play games and feed them." She also once visited Hospital No 15, which treats infectious diseases, and she had the impression that it was a "good, clean hospital where the kids are looked after well. The only problem was that the nurses in charge of them had an awful lot of work to do looking after sick children and simply did not have the time to look after the abandoned babies too," she says.

When Mrs Bizimova was at No 15, she was warned that some of the babies could have infectious diseases. The city has a children's home specially equipped for treating such children but it is currently full, she says. Carel de Rooy notes that the situation of children infected with HIV/Aids in Russia is particularly serious, with some babies "lingering in hospitals for 18 months or more".


About 730,000 children are growing up in Russia without their biological parents, of whom only 10% are orphans in the true sense of the word, according to Unicef. Almost 75% of them grow up in families through guardianship, foster care, patronage or adoption but that leaves about 186,000 children growing up in institutions. For volunteer Olga Bizimova, the main reasons why mothers give up their babies are lack of money and living-space along with problems such as alcoholism. Mr de Rooy agrees that Russia's economic growth has "unfortunately not translated into support for the poorest families". But he also calls on the state to allow mothers more time to decide about keeping their children and invest in training for families, which "costs less in the long run than care in state institutions". Maxim Gareyev finds a positive in the investigation at Hospital No 15: hospital staff have been given a "good scare" which will make them more careful about babies, he says. Yet he is worried that a successful prosecution may only mask the longer-term problem of babies left neglected in hospitals. "I for one could not bring myself to condemn outright any nurse that is convicted - it is not the job of hospital staff to care for babies full-time," he says.

"I am afraid that she may be used here as a scapegoat when the real culprit is our state."

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