Russian Children at Risk

Mark R. Elliott

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the East-West Church & Ministry Report 16

(Fall 2008), 1-3.

Domestic Adoptions

Fortunately, while international adoptions are declining, domestic adoptions are on the rise. The shift towards less international and more domestic adoptions may be illustrated by the case of attorney Alexander Rodin. In the early 1990s this former St. Petersburg Duma representative enlisted the help of Baroness Caroline Cox, then head of the British branch of Christian Solidarity International, to document and publicize the widespread misdiagnosis of untold numbers of orphans as oligophrenic(mentally deficient).1 Subsequently, Rodin worked for many years facilitating international adoptions. Presently, his new agency, Light of Love, “exists to help Russian Christian families adopt and foster orphans.” 2Similarly, Galina Obrovets, an energetic advocate for Christian women’s social concerns and editor of Moscow-based Sestra magazine, has organized program to promote church support for domestic adoptions. In 2008 this effort led to the publication of a promotional booklet and the production of a23-minute adoption documentary, “Boiya semya[God’s Family],” for use in churches.3

 The Russian government’s preference for deinstitutionalization is also becoming more apparent. President Vladimir Putin’s 2006 state-of the-union address highlighted Russia’s demographic crisis and proposed better child care as one of the requirements for reversing population decline. He specifically advocated a shift from orphanages to smaller group homes, foster care, and domesticadoptions.4

Foster Care

In addition, support for foster care families is becoming a government priority. Under Gorbachev and Yeltsin (1985-99) the state authorized and began to promote alternatives to large orphanages through “smaller, family-type homes” and foster care.5 As for NGOs, in 1990 Baroness Caroline Cox’s “Our Family” appears to have been the first Western sponsor of a Russian foster-family home. In a pair of connected high-rise apartments, foster parents Sergeant Irina Buchtoyarova assumed responsibility for11 homeless children who otherwise would have

been placed in orphanages.6In another innovative experiment, Father Andrei, an Orthodox priest in the Kostroma Region, established a private orphanage at Kovalyovo organized on the basis of semi-independent family groups within the institution. Children are grouped in families led by long-term house parents. Here, orphans of various ages live, shop, and cook together, sharing house and farm chores as would any family.

 Children’s Hope Chest (CHC), Colorado Springs, Colorado, launched a pilot foster care program in 1998 at Lakinsk, Vladimir Region, and separate family-style homes for boys and girls on the property of Lakinsk Orphanage. CHC greatly benefited from Buckner International with its 75years of experience in foster care. This agency even funded training for some CHC Russian staffing Texas. Buckner began its own foster care efforts in the Vladimir Region of Russia in 1995 and now sponsors a range of programs for orphans and orphan graduates in St. Petersburg.

 As Children’s Hope Chest opened additional family-style group homes in the Vladimir and Kostroma Regions, it developed a reputation for innovative alternatives to institutionalization of children at risk. This good name, in turn, led to numerous opportunities to train social workers and ministry personnel in the administration of family style group homes and foster family programs. In 2002 USAID selected CHC, along with Holt International Children’s Services and Charities Aid Foundation, to support Assistance to Russian Orphans (ARO) in the awarding of dozens of grants in Russia to NGOs and ministries undertaking group home and foster care initiatives.7

Russian regional government programs favoring deinstitutionalization developed in tandem witching and Christian ministry alternatives to orphanages. The Samara Region seems to have pioneered the foster care movement in terms of state provision. In January 1999 “Samara had 500 of the876 foster families in Russia.8 The Kaliningrad Region followed suit with assistance from UNICEF. By 2001 approximately 20 Russian regions had approved foster care legislation, including Moscow, Perm, and Altai, in addition to Samara andKaliningrad.9Physicist Maria Ternovskaya partnered with Baroness Caroline Cox in the founding stages of “Our Family” where I interviewed her in May 2001.

By that point she had been researching best practices in care for at-risk children for a decade. Ternovskayasoon left “Our Family” for Moscow Orphanage19 whereshe inaugurated a path-breaking, multi-facetedapproach to serving homeless children. As sheexplained, “We tried to follow the British andAmerican models of foster placement, and actuallythe model we created is even better because we have all kinds of specialists gathered together in one place.”10 Orphanage 19 is a well-kept facility near Baumanskaya Metro Station in Moscow. But of the 130 children in its charge, less than 20are in residence, the rest having been placed in foster families. The orphanage itself doubles as a family social service hub with staff handling child placement, counseling, foster parent training, and legal issues. It all is a realization of Ternovskaya’s philosophy: “The first thing is that a child should be in a family and not in an orphanage. When they leave [orphanages], they can’t cope with normal life because they have no models for family life.”11 To date, Orphanage 19 has placed over 300 children in foster homes. Fortunately, failed placements are low(five to ten percent), while 25 percent of the children eventually are adopted by their foster parents.12Approximately 5,000 children have now been placed in foster homes in 40 of Russia’s 89regions. Still, many bureaucrats and orphanage directors resist the trend because it threatens the vested interest of thousands of staff employed in orphanages, many of whom would lose their positions if foster care and adoptions came to predominate.13 At the same time, to be fair, foster care is no panacea because of too-rapid deinstitutionalization and the trauma of unsuccessful adoption or foster family placements. Furthermore, reports do surface of some foster parents viewing foster children as a means of obtaining government stipends and “free” labor, underscoring the need for careful screening of prospective foster families.14

 In April 2008 the Russian Duma passed legislation on orphan guardianship which has received mixed reviews from children-at-risk advocates. Some, such as staff of Baroness Caroline Cox’s “Our Family,” fear the new law may unduly restrict or curtail NGO and Christian ministry foster care and group home programs. Other specialists believe the new legislation does not pose such threat and may benefit orphans through government stipends for guardianship placements. Nothing yet may be said with certainty regarding the effects of this new legislation. Much will depend upon its interpretation and implementation.15

Growing Russian Nationalism

A fifth trend affecting children at risk is a new wave of Russian nationalism and xenophobia. Positively, we can applaud Putin’s assertion that Russia can take care of its own, as that translates into improved support for children at risk, programs to promote domestic adoption, and funding for properly administered foster care and family-style group homes.16 But re-emerging national pride is regrettable to the extent that it curtails adoption placements abroad and stymies international assistance for Russian children at risk. One longtime veteran of East European ministry believes that the West tends to underestimate the depth of humiliation Russians felt in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. By way of contrast, this Christian leader states that, without reservation, “The driving force in Russia today is the reassertion of nationalpride.”17 This not only translates into a decline in international adoption, but it also spells reduced international humanitarian assistance for orphans.

One casualty has been the Samaritan’s Purse Christmas Shoebox outreach. In 2005 this ministry distributed 600,000 Christmas gift boxes to Russian orphans.18 However, in 2006 and 2007 no Christmas shoeboxes cleared Russian customs. Widespread speculation points to national pride as a likely explanation.19 The blow such gifts deal to national self-esteem may best explain their abrupt end.

 Russian leaders, including Vladimir Putin, increasingly regard Western NGOs as Trojan Horses smuggling suspect democratic notions into Russia, thereby threatening the Kremlin’s hold on power.20 Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, bolstered by Western-funded, pro-democracy NGOs and religious organizations, led directly to the Kremlin’s decision to further restrict NGOs and Western ministries working in Russia. In 2006 Putin had the Russian Duma pass legislation that is now dramatically reducing the number of functioning NGOs. Putin is especially hostile toward those with major Western funding, which he has labeled “puppeteers fromabroad.”21Russia has also been upset with Western involvement in Georgia, the proposed missile defense system in Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s efforts to obtain NATO membership, U.S. support for an independent Kosovo, and U.S. criticism of Russia’s handling of Chechnya. All of the above have led to greater scrutiny of Western NGOs admission agencies. For example, in summer 2007,a regional police official, well disposed to the good work of Western Christian ministries, confided to an American friend that he was no longer in position to approve Western camp ministries; team passports had to be vetted through Moscow. Americans slated to minister in that region were-routed to Ukraine.22 At the same time, many other Western ministry teams did work with Russian orphans in 2007. Thus, as is often the case in Russia, restrictions may not be consistently enforced.

Visa Restrictions

As of October 2007 new Russian residency and visa regulations for non-citizens pose another major new impediment to Western ministry. Humanitarian, religious workers, and business visas, even if issued for one year, permit registration and residence in Russia for, at most, 90 days out of any 180-dayperiod. Receiving a residence permit or a work visa has alleviated this difficulty for some. However, the time, effort, and bureaucratic hurdles involved in securing such documents may substantially curtail missionary service in Russia. Foreign worker quotas set separately for each of Russia’s regions further complicate the picture.23 Some Western missionaries already have gone home, others have moved to Ukraine, Georgia, and other former Soviet republics, while still others have opted to of90 days in-90 days out, in hopes of a future, less restrictive visa regime.24

The Growth of HIV/AIDS

A sixth trend regarding Russia’s children at risk and one of the most troubling, is the increasingly rapid spread of HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus)/AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) among them. Sobering statistics Underscore the threat.

  • • One percent of Russia’s population(approximately 1.4 million) is HIV  infected, giving Russia the third highest number of cases among all countries outside Africa.25
  • • Over 80 percent of Russia’s HIV infected population are youth ages 15 among the most vulnerable groups.26
  • • “In Russia, street children who have lived in orphanages are two times more likely to be HIV positive than those who grew up in homes.”27 Susan Helios the U.S. Centers for Disease Control(CDC) warns of the growing synergy between HIV/AIDS and Russia’s children at risk, meaning orphans and street children are fueling the country’s HIV epidemic while the epidemic, in turn, threatens to fuel an upsurge in the number of homeless children, as inAfrica.28 CDC projects an additional500,000 Russian orphans in the next ten years as a result of parents dying ofHIV.29

 After years of half measures, the Russian government is now taking the HIV/AIDS threat more seriously. State funding for HIV/AIDS and hepatitis programs rose from $140 million in2006 to $300 million in 2007, with $392 million pledged for 2009.30 In the fight against the AIDS epidemic USAID, UNAIDS, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are all working closely with Russian authorities, with NGOs, and in some cases, with Christian ministries.31 Selected examples of projects to combat HIV/AIDS follow.

1) Doctors of the World is working with CDC, providing HIV testing, medical treatment, and counseling to St. Petersburg street children.32

2) Russian Pentecostals sponsor a number of drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, such as at Kingisepp (Leningrad Region),that treat HIV-infected clients.33

3) The Russian Orthodox Church began addressing the AIDS issue in 2001,focusing on prevention, spiritual counseling and social support, and hospice care.34

4) Campus Crusade for Christ and Children’s Hope Chest have collaborated on a Crossroads curriculum designed to foster character development and healthy choices among Russian orphans to avoid HIV infection and drug and alcohol abuse.35

5) Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries hosted a 2006 “HIV/AIDS Forum of Good Practice and Networking” in Moscow with the help of Britain’s Tearfund.36

6) The HIV/AIDS Initiative of Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California, under the leadership of Kay Warren, has hosted three conferences, 2005-2007, on “AIDS and the Church,” with growing attention given to the spread of AIDS in Russia.37

Under-Researched Aspects of Outreach to Russian Children at Risk

A great deal more research needs to be done to determine the breadth of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant orphan outreach. Other phenomena, also insufficiently studied, involve assistance given by Western adopting families to the home orphanages of their newly adopted children and Christian ministry to Russian street children. In the 1980s I compiled data on Western-based East European missions, discovering in the process that beyond the several hundred incorporated on-profits identified, additional myriad projects were afoot in Western Europe and the United States organized by local congregations, even by individuals and their extended families.38 I labeled such initiatives “kitchen-table” organizations to emphasize their informality and their grassroots character. It now appears quite certain that the same phenomenon exists today as regards Western and indigenous Russian outreach to children at risk.

Much Accomplished; Much More to Do

In closing, two contrasting generalizations maybe noted. 1) Much is being done, more than most observers realize, and perhaps more than will ever fully be known, to extend love and care to Russian orphans and street children. 2) Conversely, all efforts combined to date do not begin to meet the present need. Nor do current efforts appear to be capable of meeting the increasing future needs posed by Russia’s looming AIDS crisis and the orphaned children it will leave in its wake. Thus, no room exists for either complacency or despair. A great deal still needs to be done. At the same time, Christian faith is a powerful source of hope, whatever the obstacles. As we read in I Corinthians 16:9 “A great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” St. Paul reminds us that obstacles are to be expected, but they are no excuse for surrender.


1 Andrew Boyd, Baroness Cox: A Voice for the Voiceless (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1998), 94-104;Baroness Caroline Cox, Trajectories of Despair: Misdiagnosis and Maltreatment of Soviet Orphans(Zurich: Christian Solidarity International, 1991).See also Catriona Kelly, Children’s World; Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 596.

2 Cristi Hillis website: For a moving account of the adoption of eight Russian orphans by Brian and Susan Hillis, assisted by Alexander Rodin, see Kay Warren, Dangerous Surrender; What Happens When You Say Yes to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008),91-93.

3 Anita Deyneka interview, 4 April 2008; Galina Obrovets (Sestra Magazine), interview, 4 June 2008.

4 Bagila Bukharbayeva, “A Dark Secret Amid the Boom,” Moscow Times, 30 August 2007, p.4;

George Steiner (Children’s Hope Chest), interview, 3January 2008.

5 Stephenson, “Abandoned,” 188-89.

6 Boyd, Baroness Cox, 110. See also Kelly, Children’s World, 594.

7Assistance to Russian Orphans (ARO), “Early Intervention: Giving Russian Children a Chance,”http:///;George Steiner interview, 3 January 2008; S. Ivanov

et al., In-Depth Analysis of the Situation of Working Street Children in Moscow (Moscow: International Labor Office, 2001), 69; Analiz Gonzalez, “Buckner Takes Foster Care Expertise Around the Globe,”2008,

8 Stephenson, “Abandoned,” 189; Svetlana Sidorenko-Stephenson, “Prostitution and Young People in Russia” in David Barrett, E. Barrett, and. Mullenger, eds., Youth Prostitution in the New

Europe; The Growth in Sex Work (London: Russell House, 2000), 124.

9 Stephenson, “Abandoned,” 189; Svetlana Stephenson, “Street Children in Moscow; Using and Creating Social Capital,” The Sociological Review49 (No. 4, 2001), 530-47

.10 Maria Ternovskaya interview, 14 May 2001.

11Svetlana Osadchuk, “Little Sasha’s Search for Love and Dinosaurs,” Moscow Times, 2 March2007.

12 Ibid.

13 Kevin O’Flynn, “An Orphanage is Fostering Change,” Christian Science Monitor, 10 November

2005; Stephenson, “Abandoned,” 190; Osadchuk,“Little Sasha’s Search.”

14 Nikolai Dimitriev interview, 22 June 2008.

15 Angela Baker interview, 4 June 2008; Zhanna Danilova interview, 2 June 2008.

16 Jeff Thompson (Eastern European Outreach),interview, 18 January 2008; Cristi Hillis (CoMissionfor Children at Risk), interview, 16 January 2008.

17 Anonymous, January 2008.

18 Karmen Friesen interview, 4 January 2008.

19 Ibid.; Jeff Thompson interview, 18 January 2008;Cristi Hillis interview, 16 January 2008.

20 “FSB Says Foreign NGOs Help Terrorists, “Moscow Times, 9 April 2008, p. 3.

21Mike Eckel, “Rights Groups: Thousands of Russian NGOs Face Closure for Not Meeting Onerous Rules,” Associated Press, 16 April 2008.

22 Jeff Thompson interview, 18 January 2008.

23 “Foreigners Have to Go Home to Get Russian Visas,”, 24 January 2008;Fagan, “Russia: Visa Changes”; Connor Sweeney, “EU Slams Russia Over Visa Red Tape,” Moscow Times, 9 April 2008, p. 3.

24 Jeff Thompson interview, 18 January 2008.

25 UNAIDS, 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic (New York; UNAIDS, 2006).

26 Susan Hillis, 3 February 2008, cited in Cristi Hillis and Karmen Friesen, “Russia’s Growing AIDS

Epidemic,” East-West Church and Ministry Report16 (Spring 2008), 1; Davis, Red Letters, 82.

27Dmitry M. Kissin et al., HIV Zero-prevalencein Street Youth in St. Petersburg, Russia (Atlanta:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007);Hillis and Friesen, “Russia’s Growing AIDS Epidemic,” 1; Kathryn Utan, “Collateral Damage: HIV/AIDS Creates a Generation of Orphans and Vulnerable Children,” CommonHealth (Spring2005), 61.

28 Hillis and Friesen, “Russia’s Growing AIDS Epidemic,” 1. See also Utan, “Collateral Damage,62.

29 Hoppe, “Bezprizorniki,” 33; Mark R. Elliott,“I Will Not Leave You as Orphans. I Will Come to You,” East-West Church and Ministry Report8 (Summer 2000), 16;

30 Hillis and Friesen, “Russia’s Growing AIDS Epidemic,” 1; David Novak, “Russia ‘Not Ready ‘for Tough HIV Measures,” Moscow Times, 7 May


32 Ibid., 2; Kissin, HIV.

33 Hillis and Friesen, “Russia’s Growing AIDs Epidemic,” 5.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.; Matt Kavgian, “An HIV/AIDS Ministry Partnership in Eastern Europe and Russia, “East-West Church and Ministry Report 15 (Fall2007), 1-3; George Steiner interview, 3 January2008; Angela Baker (CoMission for Children at Risk), interview, 4 June 2008. Dr. Beryl Hugen, Calvin College, is currently completing a two and-a-half year evaluation of the effectiveness of the Crossroads curriculum in selected Russian orphanages. Beryl Hugen interview, 6 June 2008.

36 Hillis and Friesen, “Russia’s Growing AIDS Epidemic,” 2.

37 Ibid.; Andrew Lossau (HIV/AIDS Initiative,

Saddleback Church), interview, 30 April 2008.

38 Mark R. Elliott, East European Missions Directory(Wheaton, IL: Institute for the Study of Christianity and Marxism, 1989).

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Mark R. Elliott, “Russian Children at Risk,” Religion in

Eastern Europe 28 (August 2008), 1-16.

Mark R. Elliott is professor of history at Southern Wesleyan University, Central, South Carolina, and editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report (