In his childhood poems, my father grappled with the absence of his mother. He lost his parents by the age of eight, and spent years in an Aleppo orphanage, until he graduated. More than anything, he wanted his mother’s arms, and her hug. The poems are moving, and acutely painful.
“The orphanage is the opposite of a mother. This is the reason that an orphanage is so terrible,” Armenian journalist Mher Arshakyan, an orphanage graduate, once said.
Around 5,000 children in Armenia spend all or most of their time in residential childcare institutions, such as orphanages and boarding schools. Over 80 percent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent. The government of Armenia adopted a plan in 2006, as part of their child welfare reforms, to secure the rights of children through the closure of orphanages or their conversion into family and child support institutions. UNICEF has supported this initiative, gently prodding the slow-moving process forward.
“The right of a child to grow up in a family could not remain on the sidelines,” Emil Sahakyan, communications officer at UNICEF Armenia, told the Armenian Weekly in an interview. “We have been actively working with the ministry of labor and social issues and ministry of education and science in order to design the so-called de-institutionalization strategy which envisaged either return of children living in institutions to their biological families whenever possible or creation of alternative family-based care services,” he said.
Seven state-run orphanages and three private ones currently operate in Armenia. In addition, there are 23 special education institutions for those with mental and physical disabilities, and 8 night-care (boarding) institutions, where children from poor families spend most of their time—about 250 days, according to Eduard Israyelyan, a child protection officer at UNICEF Armenia.
“Children in these institutions are more of ‘social orphans,’ as they ended up there because their families were unable to meet their basic needs—such as nutrition, clothing, education, and proper healthcare,” Sahakyan said.
High unemployment, poverty, and migration contribute to parents’ inability to care for their children. In Gyumri, the situation seems especially bleak, where there’s currently one orphanage for children with disabilities, two night-care centers, two private institutions, and one state-funded daycare center. “Half of the male population has left the region looking for jobs outside of Armenia—for example, working in Russia—so they keep their families by sending remittances to them,” explained Sahakyan.
A child from a poverty-stricken home will find food, clothing, education, and healthcare in an institution. However, he or she will lack emotional sustenance. “When you look at children who graduated from orphanages, you will immediately discern them from the rest of society. They’ve had no family model to follow. It is very difficult for them to form a family because it is difficult for them to understand what family is,” he said.
According to Anna Mnatsakanyan, the international relations coordinator of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) in Armenia, children in orphanages are not only deprived of parental care, but they become part of a “sub-culture” of orphanage graduates, often marginalized by society at large. “They have considerable difficulties in finding employment, in creating a family, in securing housing, and, most importantly, in establishing communication with the rest of society, where they are seen as the ‘children of orphanage,’” she told the Weekly, adding that all these factors result in their being assigned a “marginal identity.”
Most institutions do not have in-house social workers or counselors that monitor the psychological and physical wellbeing of the children. “In most institutions they only have the position of social worker, but the people working there are just filling papers,” explained Israyelyan.
Instances of abuse can go unnoticed in these institutions, as was the case at the special needs school in Nubarashen, where the complaints of sexually abused female students were ignored or attributed to “overactive imaginations” until a human rights activist, Mariam Sukhudyan, turned the issue into a national scandal.
Canadian-Armenian human rights advocate Araz Artinian has chronicled the plight of disabled children in Gyumri’s “Children’s Home” orphanage. She found the children there neglected, and deprived of medical care. She also observed that instead of receiving state-funded surgeries, which they were entitled to, the children’s operations were being funded through donations solicited from the diaspora. Artinian is also an advocate for children’s reunification with their parents.
Institutions do not allow unannounced visits; an advance notice is required. They are mainly closed-door institutions, according to Sahakyan, although there is a monitoring group comprised of various NGOs that pay periodic surprise visits to the ones under the ministry of education.
Foster care program
With the premise that children need families to thrive in a healthy environment, UNICEF launched a foster care program in 2005. Around two-dozen suitable families were trained, and 25 children were placed in their care.
UNICEF initiated the project and established guidelines for the selection of the families. The program is currently in the hands of the government, which has allocated funds to support the project since 2008. However, the program has not grown and the number of children has not increased. The government says it lacks the funds.
“The ministry of finance made it clear that it cannot maintain two systems—residential care institutions and foster care—and requested the ministry of labor and social issues to decrease the number of children in orphanages, which will release funds that could then be channeled to the foster care [program],” said Sahakyan. “Some officials within the ministry of labor and social issues also contest that foster family is not something where the government should invest financial resources; rather the government, according to those officials, should invest in the return of children to their biological families, which as those officials say is currently being implemented.”
The reunification of children with their families is in fact moving forward in Lori province. Since 2006, the government has been engaged in a de-institutionalization project for children in Vanadzor’s orphanage. The government plans to reunify 40 children with their families and prevent the institutionalization of 10 children every year. The government provides each family with a financial assistance package worth 15,000 AMD (38.5 USD). The project costs the government 22 million AMD (around 56,500 USD).
That amount is small and insufficient in meeting a child’s basic needs. For the project to succeed, families need additional financial assistance. Aravot, the organization tasked with implementing the project, must find other sources of funding—from private donors to other non-governmental organizations—explained Sahakyan, adding that the assistance families actually need to be able to afford reunification is around 87,000 AMD (223 USD), which is the amount currently provided to foster families.
Gate-keeping and other challenges
The issue is not only how to de-institutionalize children, but how to keep them from ending up in these institutions in the first place. Sahakyan says de-institutionalized children are constantly being replaced by newcomers—what he characterizes as a “vicious cycle.”
Sahakyan suspects that corruption plays a role in impeding the de-institutionalization process, particularly in terms of funding. “These institutions are receiving budgetary funds per child, which means the more children are placed there, the more funds that institution will receive.” Humanitarian workers we interviewed say orphanages receive around 5,000 USD a year per child.
UNICEF is now helping the government to establish a new agency—Integrated Social Services—which will have case managers who monitor vulnerable families and assist them in their troubles as a “gate-keeping” method. According to Sahakyan, the department of social services is currently preoccupied with distributing financial assistance packages to families, but falls short of assessing family situations and referring them to specialized services.
Employment is another challenge. The ministry of labor and social issues fears further job loss, as the unemployment rate in the country is already high. In their current state, these institutions provide employment to thousands of workers. For instance, the Vanadzor orphanage (founded in 1996) employs 70 workers for 110 orphans; in other places, including institutions for children with disabilities, workers far outnumber the children. Yet, Sahakyan says that unemployment is not necessarily the result. “Closing orphanages must be followed by their transformation into family support institutions, where the skills and knowledge of the former orphanage workers will be required,” he argued, but admitted that workers may need to undergo a retraining process.
UNICEF has helped establish such alternative family support and daycare centers in Gyumri, Tavush, and Gapan. The centers help parents with job placement, financial support, legal counseling, and psychological support. According to Israyelyan, the project is particularly successful in Tavush. “We have four daycare centers in Tavush for children with disabilities. In all the institutions, there are no children from this region,” he said, adding that Tavush should now serve as an example. Israeylyan believes that this is an area the diaspora can invest in, as the government lacks the funds to support such centers (which are often supported by organizations like Bridge of Hope).
UNICEF was the first organization to establish a model of community-based daycare centers in Armenia. One of the first centers was set up in Gyumri. The Armenian government took up this model and, since 2005-06, the centers have been receiving funding from the state budget. There are seven daycare centers that are currently funded by the government. Similar centers are also being run by non-governmental organizations.
Plans to transform two special education institutions in Syunik province—the Goris Special Educational Institution for Children with Vision Impairments and the Sissian Special Education Institution for Children with Mental Disabilities—into daycare centers have already been drafted. The ministry of education and science has also planned to transform one special educational institution in each province—beginning with Yerevan—into resource and assessment centers within the next 5-10 years, according to Sahakyan.
Redefining the diaspora’s role
The diaspora has consistently supported orphanages and institutions in Armenia—often moved by the memory of orphaned genocide survivors, and the more recent earthquake in Armenia that left many children parentless.
“The word ‘orphans’ resonates very well with Diasporan Armenians,” said Sahakyan. “They start to immediately feel associated with that cause, and become ready to donate money. We are trying to tell them, let’s give it to families rather than orphanages.”
“We don’t want children to step foot in orphanages,” he stressed.
Sahakyan believes that the process of de-institutionalization has been hampered by the diaspora’s “heavy funding” of residential care institutions. “Some institutions have been turned into highly comfortable well-equipped and furnished premises owing to funds from private Diasporan Armenians as well as diaspora-based organizations, funds, and associations,” he said. “This, in turn, attracted many vulnerable families and seduced them into placing their children in institutions that provide, as they erroneously believe, the best for their children.”
Sahakyan hopes that the diaspora will cease to assist these institutions, and instead support their transformation into family support and daycare centers.
“UNICEF encourages the diaspora to invest funds in strengthening ‘gate-keeping’ mechanisms, such as daycare centers, in establishing new social services for vulnerable families in communities; in supporting alternative family-based child care models, such as foster care; as well as in investing in Integrated Social Services, which UNICEF is now trying to introduce in Armenia in close cooperation with the ministry of labor and social issues,” said Sahakyan. “The diaspora’s support is desperately needed by both UNICEF and other non-governmental organizations working in the area of children’s rights,” he added.
“The mother of a child with Down syndrome can easily care for her child if she has support—a doctor, a social worker who can visit her,” said Sahakyan. “She wouldn’t take her child to an institution. The same goes for other families, especially for parents of children without disabilities. If you take your child to an orphanage just because you are poor, then let’s solve your poverty problem; let’s get you a job, and a salary,” he added.
The transition will be a challenging process. Closing down residential care institutions will bring the country closer to dealing with the roots of problems afflicting the more vulnerable segments of the population instead of the syndromes. Transitioning to an alternative care of family and child support might bring with it an array of other unforeseen problems. For now, Armenia is taking one small step at a time.