East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 2001, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Foster Care for Russian Orphans

Mike Douris

Buckner International Adoption and Maternity Services was founded in Dallas, Texas, in 1879 to provide help to post-Civil War orphans. It now has some 1,000 employees working across Texas in childcare programs, residential and foster care, counseling, and both domestic and international adoption. Buckner Orphan Care International provides services to children in Romania, Russia, China, and in the near future, Africa.

A Buckner--Children's HopeChest Partnership
In launching our first transitional living centers in Russia, we partnered with Children's HopeChest in the Vladimir Region.  We provided curricula and training for HopeChest staff and house parents and distributed humanitarian aid through volunteer trips. We also help with orphanage improvement and renovation. When society provides nice facilities for children, what it communicates to them is that people truly care for them. Almost all orphanage workers in Russia really care about the kids, but because of economic conditions the orphanages themselves are often in need of many improvements. So when we make improvements in a facility, what those kids see is that people care enough about them to provide them with a nice building. Conditions were awful the first time I visited Technical School 26 in the Vladimir Region, which has orphans as boarding students. The building had no heat in freezing weather, the showers worked poorly, conditions were unsanitary, the lighting was depressing, and sinks had no faucets. Children's HopeChest and Buckner combined resources to pay for a boiler, so they now have heat.

From Laundries to Bible Studies to Shoes
We also build playgrounds and laundries in Romania and Russia. Right now we are renovating several laundries, which are a big deal when workers are washing clothes by hand for 200 children in an orphanage. This is a huge problem for the directors. We have been fortunate enough to partner with laundry equipment companies that are helping us in this project. We also help fund orphanage program development and foster care services as well as provide training and curricula for these programs. In addition, we host camps for about 1,400 orphans each summer with the help of U.S. churches, which staff the camps. We have discipleship staff on site, and we do small group Bible stories with the kids after the volunteer teams leave. On mission trips we provide medical supplies and equipment, clothing, developmental toys, food, and shoes. In 1999 we collected 20,000 pairs of new shoes for kids in Russia, and in 2000, 50,000 pairs. We have groups going to Russia and Romania delivering shoes. One might not think that putting a new pair of shoes on a child's feet would be a moving experience, but it really is.

Introducing Foster Care
Our foster care programs started in 1997 at Lakinsk Orphanage in partnership with Children's HopeChest. At a conference in Vladimir I presented the concept of foster care, which was received warmly. It took approximately a year to develop the program, establish policies and procedures, and translate training curriculum. When children are removed from their natural family, everything else is second best. In contrast, placing children in an institution involves the most restrictive level of care. Foster care is a better system because children remain in a family environment and receive more individual attention compared to an orphanage. Infants especially receive more individual attention in contrast to baby rooms in orphanages with two workers having to care for 20 babies. There also is potential for adoption by foster care parents. In addition, foster care reduces dependency and helps children become part of a community and develop a safety net within that community.

Ultimately foster care is cheaper because the government does not have to build more orphanages. One orphanage we have worked with had about 60 children, but now, because of foster care and transitional living centers, that orphanage has 20 children. In another orphanage with 50 children, we placed 20 in foster care and now 30 children are in a building designed for 30. A major obstacle to the growth of foster care in Russia--or anywhere--is politics, because foster care threatens the livelihood of orphanage workers. If foster care expands, fewer institutional workers are needed, so sometimes expanding foster care meets with resistance.

Choosing and Training Foster Families
A key element in foster care is extensive and careful interviewing of potential foster families. One of the dangers of foster care is the possibility of placing a child in a home that will be abusive. For that reason, in the beginning we used workers in the orphanage as foster families because they knew the children and we knew them well. In order to have good checks and balances for the safety of the children, we established a comprehensive training program for foster families, almost 50 hours in the beginning, plus ongoing training every year. We also have very low caseworker-to-child ratios, one worker for every ten homes. In Russia Buckner makes frequent visits to foster homes, at least once or twice a week. After foster care most of the children attend and graduate from a tech school. On holidays or weekends, whenever they can, they come back to their foster family and it becomes part of who they are. However, children with separation issues and attachment disorders do better in group settings than in foster care. So not every child is appropriate for foster care. Staff need to be trained in identifying children who are appropriate for foster care. Matching the right foster family with the right child is key.

Nastya illustrates the difference a foster home can make.  When we first met, she would not look me in the eye once. Her face was on the floor and she would barely shake my hand. Then when I first visited her in her new foster home, she ran up to me and gave me a big hug and was talking away, a tremendous difference in this child because she received the individual attention that she needed.

Helping One Child at a Time
I would like to conclude with an illustration of how we can make a difference. We were working with a teenager who was about to turn 16. She was Russian-African, born after the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and abandoned by her mother. The orphanage director told us that this child had no future in Russia and asked if we could find her a family in the West. We did find a single parent who adopted her and enrolled her in a private school in Dallas. Later, this young lady invited me to her high school graduation. As the date approached, I thought to myself that she probably would not miss me. I was tired, it was raining, and the traffic was terrible. But then I realized I needed to go; she had taken the time to write me a note, so I needed to be there. As soon as I walked into the room she saw me and the expression on her face made me realize that the effort I took was well worth it. She was so happy to see me. I was not ready for the emotions I felt when she walked across that stage. I started crying and thought to myself, "There is one; there is one who was saved." She graduated that day and now is a student at Baylor University. Looking at all the children we work with and the overwhelming problems, I know I cannot help them all. But we can help those God puts in our view. Our ministry is about helping one child at a time. 

Mike Douris is vice-president/COO for Buckner International Adoption and Maternity Services, Dallas, TX.

Mike Douris, "Foster Care for Russian Orphans," East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Spring 2001), 10-11.

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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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