Six years ago, Armenia pledged that thousands of children institutionalized in state-run orphanages for reasons of poverty would be returned to their biological families, or placed with foster families. But, today, little has changed for most of these children.
Eighty percent of the 4,900 children residing in Armenia’s 10 state-run orphanages, as well as 28 other state institutions for those from broken homes, have at least one living parent, according to research by UNICEF, the United Nations’ child-welfare-policy arm. They live in the facilities because their families, quite simply, cannot afford to raise them.
In 2006, the Armenian government, acting on UNICEF’s encouragement, launched a program to encourage parents to take back their children from state-run facilities. Officials hoped the program would enable them to shut down some orphanages, or convert them into institutions where social workers could provide counseling to both children and their parents.
The state has made little headway over the ensuing six years. Only 21 foster families have signed on to the program since 2006, according to officials, who add that a lack of funding hampers their ability to attract participants.
At the same time, the State Statistical Service reports that the number of children living in orphanages is increasing. In 2011, only 56 children were returned to their families from state-run institutions, while another 267 new residents were admitted.
The question for child-welfare specialists is simple: why is it so difficult to reduce the number of orphanage residents?
Some experts allege that the transition to foster-families is lagging because Armenia’s orphanages actually offer lucrative opportunities for a chain of orphanage employees and state officials in charge of procurement for the institutions.
The 2012 state budget allotted 1.7 billion drams (about $4 million) to orphanages, a sum on top of outside donations. The government reports that institutions spend about 1.6 million drams (roughly $3,930) per year on each resident child – significantly more than the 1.02 million-dram ($2,500) subsidy given to a foster family to help offset child-care costs.
An audit last month by the State Commission for the Protection of Economic Competition showed that the funding in state-run facilities is “greatly misused,” primarily for food, which often has been purchased at prices 200-percent above market levels, said Commission Chairperson Artak Shaboian.
“A considerable part of the state-allotted money has not served its purpose,” Shaboian charged. The investigation is ongoing.
In a comment to EurasiaNet.org, Artem Asatrian, the newly appointed minister of labor and social welfare, stated that the ministry, which oversees orphanages, is committed to addressing the issue. “In every sphere, there can be misuses [of money] and our main task is now to reduce these abuses and to make budget funds serve their purpose,” Asatrian said.
Former MP Anahit Bakshian, an opposition member and long-time advocate for reform of Armenia’s orphanages, asserts that the current situation will change only when “corruption is eliminated.”
“The de-institutionalization plan will not be implemented as long as all of the child-care institutions are financed on a per-child basis, which means directors are interested in having more children so that they get more money [from the government],” Bakshian said.
“Orphanages are businesses, and nobody wants to lose their business,” she continued.
Government officials declined to respond to the allegation.
Deputy Labor and Social Affairs Minister Filaret Berikian argues that “Armenia has made a lot of progress” in transferring children back to their biological families. “The children’s de-institutionalization plan has been our priority, and we have been successful,” claimed Berikian. “One should simply want to see and acknowledge the progress.”
Contrary to official data, Berikian angrily insisted that the number of underprivileged children living in orphanages has decreased. He did not elaborate.
But UNICEF Child Protection Officer Eduard Israyelian counters that, compared with Armenia’s northern neighbor Georgia, “progress” has been negligible.
While Georgia was once “in the same situation as Armenia,” Israyelian recounted, today roughly 800 Georgian children live in foster families saving the Georgian government around $3.5 million per year in child-care costs. In addition, small-group homes have been created for those for whom foster families or a return to their biological families is not an option.
Such facilities do not exist in Armenia. “Even if we put aside the child’s right to live in a family and its importance, from a purely financial perspective, the state would benefit from financing foster families rather than child-care institutions,” Israyelian said. “But we do not see the political will to transfer to the new format.”
The will to tackle reported abuses at state-run orphanages also appears weak, say members of a monitoring group on Armenian child-care institutions created by the Open Society Foundation-Armenia. Cases of violence against children at four of Armenia’s child-care institutions have been reported to the government, as well as cases of children being sent to work on outside construction sites or farms, the group found.
“Based on various studies and monitoring, I do not believe for a second that by training the staff of these institutions, the attitude toward the children under their care can be changed,” said David Amirian, the deputy director for programs at the Open Society Foundation-Armenia.
[The Open Society Foundation Armenia operates as part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Foundations, a separate entity in the Soros network].
Amirian believes that Armenia’s child-care institutions cannot be “merely reformed,” but require “radical solutions.” Meanwhile, some government officials overseeing Armenia’s orphanages acknowledge shortcomings, but say “this issue should not be rushed.”
“The process needs serious research,” said Lala Ghazarian, head of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare’s department for Family, Women and Childcare Issues. “The family issues are often too deeply rooted and rushing might be dangerous” for children.
UNICEF’s Israyelian agrees that transforming Armenia’s child-care institutions “might take a decade,” but maintains that “it has to start now with a clear-cut, strategic action plan.”
“Unfortunately there isn’t one,” he said, “because there is no political will.”