Baroness Caroline Cox
Christian Solidarity Worldwide
I would like to say a few words of introduction about myself and the organization with which I work, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). All I ever say about myself is that I am a nurse and a social scientist by intention and a baroness by astonishment. It is God's sense of humor, because I have to confess I do not like politics. When I received a summons to Number Ten Downing Street by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, asking me if I would take a seat in the House of Lords, I nearly fell off my chair with astonishment. I said to myself, "God, what are You doing? You know I do not like politics." That having been said, of course, the House of Lords is a wonderful arena in which to be able to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and to be a voice for the voiceless. But it is a far greater privilege to speak in the house of the Lord and for this opportunity I thank you.
CSW works for victims of repression in many parts of the world, including advocacy on behalf of victimized children. There are no more heartbreaking examples of victimized children than the hundreds of thousands orphaned and abandoned in the former Soviet Union. Often maltreated, institutionalized, abused, and suffering, their situation must deeply grieve our Lord of love, who had a special love for children and asked that they should be brought to Him for blessing.
Misdiagnosis of Orphans as "Oligophrenic"
In the early 1990s in Leningrad, one of the new democratically elected deputies, Alexander Rodin, came to me deeply concerned: "I've been using my new democratic right to gain access to institutions that have previously been completely closed. I'm worried by what I've found. I've gone to some of the orphanages for so-called oligophrenics or imbeciles and I'm puzzled. I'm in the system and I cannot judge. Will you come and give your independent evaluations and assessment?" So I went to an orphanage for so-called oligophrenics and I could see why he was puzzled. Oligophrenia translated from the Russian, means "little brain" or imbecile. But these youngsters were bright, lively, able, and articulate. We played table tennis with them. I am no table tennis champion, but I do not play badly, and they held their own. These children asked me about Margaret Thatcher. They were keen to learn. These children were less oligophrenic than I am. Why were they given this diagnosis? I learned that once they are diagnosed oligophrenic, it is a sentence to a doomed and stunted life. They will not be able to receive a full education, will never be able to choose a career, and will be denied the right to vote and the right to drive.
Alexander (Sasha) said, "If you share my worries, will you help? Will you come back to Russia and bring experts who have international credibility? If through scientific research you find there is cause for concern, then you will have some internationally credible evidence with which to try to challenge and change the system." I organized a team of educational and clinical psychologists, a pediatrician, myself as a nurse and social scientist, and a cameraman, and we went back to Russia to undertake systematic research.
Positive Russian Response to Trajectories of Despair
We found that over 70 percent of children doomed with the diagnosis of oligophrenia were in fact average or far above average in ability. Most of the rest were perfectly normal children. There were very, very few with learning disabilities. I came back to England and wrote a report entitled Trajectories of Despair. I remember sitting at my work in the middle of the night with tears streaming down my cheeks. We went back to Russia to publish the Russian language edition, expecting opposition because it was a stinging human rights report written in a white heat of anger. Nobody likes to be criticized. This is when miracles started. At our press conference, the directors of the orphanage where we had done our research were very positive. They thanked us for our research because it documented what, being in the system, they could never articulate.
To our surprise, Russian officials asked us to set up the first foster family care program in Russia and gave us a building. As a result, our family program was born in Moscow and has flourished. Children come there with heartbreaking case histories. I remember one of our first little children, about five years old. Her mother was a prostitute. One night one of her clients did not like the presence of this little girl and threw her out a window. She survived and came to "Our Family," our children's care center. She now is a happy girl. Give love, and it is amazing what healing that love can bring. Our house parents provide a family atmosphere in that home, along with professional support, including psychologists and pediatricians.
We take our stewardship of the ministry that God has given us very seriously. We want to make sure that we are doing the best we can for Russia's children and for those who are trying to help them. It is my hope and prayer that it will not be too long before, in God's wisdom and love and with the work of everyone who truly cares, the lives of all the orphaned and abandoned children of the former Soviet Union will be transformed from trajectories of despair to trajectories of hope.
Baroness Caroline Cox is president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide and a deputy speaker of the British House of Lords.
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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report