Emil Sahakyan, communications officer at UNICEF Armenia, writes the following in response to a Letter to the Editor by George S. Yacoubian, Jr., the national Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief (SOAR) president, on the article “Ending the Era of Orphanages in Armenia: Why the Diaspora Should Help the Process of De-Institutionalization” by Nanore Barsoumian.
Dear Mr. Yacoubian,
After re-gaining its independence in 1991, Armenia has ratified numerous international human rights instruments, including the widely acknowledged Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols. Among other key rights of children embedded in the convention, the latter places particular emphasis on the right of a child to grow up in a family, and promotes the principle of the best interests of the child.
Guided by this principle, as well as by the provisions of the convention, the government of Armenia has embarked on the path of child welfare reform that aims at ensuring an environment and systems wherein all children can exercise a full range of the rights accorded to them by the convention.
The realization of the right of a child to grow up in a family was then further reinforced by the adoption of the governmental policy on de-institutionalization (see www.arlis.am/DocumentView.aspx?DocID=11647, www.arlis.am/DocumentView.aspx?DocID=51991, and www.arlis.am/DocumentView.aspx?DocID=57985) and included in the government’s top priority issues in 2011 (see www.gov.am/files/docs/927.pdf).
In 2006 UNICEF, in cooperation with the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), piloted foster care in two provinces of Armenia (Lori and Gegharkunik), and placed 32 children from orphanages with foster families. Its successful implementation and results allowed the government of Armenia to take over the foster care program and commit state funds toward its further implementation and expansion. To date the government continues to allocate funds to run foster care programs. And yet, the number of children placed under foster care has not grown. The reason is that the Armenian Ministry of Finance refuses to allocate state funds to run two parallel systems—orphanages (residential care institutions) and foster care—arguing that the expansion of foster care should be directly linked to the decrease in the number of children in orphanages, which is a valid argument.
That being said, UNICEF would like to respond to some of the statements you made in your response to Ms. Barsoumian’s article, “Ending the Era of Orphanages in Armenia.”
You wrote, “While the idea of foster care is beneficial in theory, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that foster care in Armenia would provide any advantages over the current orphanage system. Moreover, the short- and long-term problems are so potentially crippling that the foster care proposal does not even merit serious discussion.” Unfortunately, this statement does not reflect true real state of affairs in Armenia. The government would not have accepted the inclusion of foster care as part of its de-institutionalization policy and child welfare reform had there not been evidence of the program’s success. Publicly available evaluations and reports, as well as individual testimonies from children and foster families, demonstrate that foster care is both a feasible and beneficial option for Armenia.
In addition to ensuring that a child grows up in a family environment, the program also proved to be cost-effective. A recommendation has been made to re-allocate funds provided to maintain orphanages and other residential care institutions towards the expansion of foster care and other alternative family-based care services, which is in line with the recommendation of the Ministry of Finance of the Republic of Armenia (see www.unicef.org/armenia/Costing_Residential_Care_Institutions_in_Armenia_report_eng.pdf).
To gather further evidence, UNICEF, jointly with Save the Children, has commissioned a new survey that will allow the generation of more data and knowledge on the foster care program in Armenia.
In choosing between foster care and orphanages (or residential care institutions), one must always keep in mind the best interests of the child. It’s quite needless to say that children thrive more and develop to their full potential in a family environment, and not in an institution. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that children placed in orphanages, especially in their early years, may stay behind in their cognitive and emotional development compared to their peers living in families. They often lack socialization skills, and find it difficult to integrate into society and create their own families.
You wrote, “To begin, orphanages in Armenia are not part of some bygone ‘era.’ The significance of orphanages in Armenia trace back to the 1915 Armenia Genocide, where hundreds of thousands of children found peace and security in these safe havens.” In this statement, reference is made to circumstances and events that happened in the last century. Today’s Armenia represents a completely different reality. Today’s orphans are not similar to the ones that appeared because of the 1915 genocide or the devastating 1988 earthquake. Most of them are so-called “social orphans”; they have parents who, out of poverty and a sheer inability to meet their children’s basic needs, placed them in an orphanage. The Armenian media space is abundant with stories of children whose parents simply had no other choice. Many of them are available on the Investigative Journalists site, www.hetq.am. Children from poor families placed in residential care institutions, such as orphanages, get food and clothing, but they are stripped of such important things as emotional bonding with their families, which negatively impacts their development. Moreover, children who grow up in an orphanage often experience stigma from their peers, who may treat them as inferior.
You wrote, “…Tales of abuse and other malfeasance by orphanage officials are broad generalizations made by self-serving zealots.” Numerous reports—produced by the Office of the Human Rights Defender of Armenia, Save the Children, the Public Monitoring Group of the Ministry of Education and Sciences of Armenia, and other international organizations working in Armenia in the area of child rights—have uncovered cases of the abuse or maltreatment of children in such institutions. Recently, the media reported on a number of cases where children living in special education institutions were subjected to sexual abuse or committed suicide (see www.youngarmenians.com/?option=com_content&view=article&id=133:sexual-molestation&catid=43:press-releases&Itemid=124&fontstyle=f-larger, www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-em0BrQu-A). The General Prosecutor’s Office is dealing with many cases of the misappropriation of funds allocated for orphanages and other residential care institutions. These cases triggered public outrage, which demanded the toughest possible sentences for perpetrators of the crime.
Last year, within the framework of the “Every Child Needs a Family” campaign, the Armenian Public Relations Association produced a documentary called “Hostages,” which is abundant with testimonies by former residents of orphanages and special education institutions, recalling their hard lives in those institutions (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dm9QK2JzFUU and www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dm9QK2JzFUU).
You wrote, “The solution is not ‘ending the orphanage era,’ but rather expanding the current orphan system to allocate resources for more intensive supervision of the existing facilities and the establishment of housing that facilitates the transition from orphanage to adolescence to adulthood.” The suggestion to expand the current orphan system does not only represent the old mind set, which is no longer acceptable, but also goes contrary to the human rights principles—including children’s rights—that Armenia, as an independent state, has subscribed to. It ignores the principle of the best interest of the child and puts in jeopardy the nature of the Armenian family, and by extension Armenian society as a whole. Today Armenia is trying to become a part of a civilized world by implementing and re-enforcing international standards in its social protection and social welfare system. Diaspora-based organizations are also part of this important process, which has many challenges. At a recent meeting organized by the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), one of the oldest diaspora-based Armenian organizations, participants sent a strong message on how best to meet the interests of children deprived of parental care. The message was to invest in alternative family-based care services for such children and their families (including foster care); in supporting disadvantaged families to overcome socio-economic hardship, thus preventing children from entering residential care institutions; and in assisting the process of transformation of residential care institutions into resource and family support centres. UNICEF fully shares this vision, which stems from the government’s policy on de-institutionalization, and the commitment to ensure that every child in Armenia enjoys the right to grow up in a family.