Why the Diaspora Should Help the Process of De-Institutionalization
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.