How to avoid child cruelty in foster homes
At the end of October a Moscow couple were arrested for beating their foster children. A video recording showing a woman hitting her foster son over the head was posted online by the boy’s older sister.
Yelena Alshanskaya, President of the Charity ‘Volunteers Helping Orphaned Children’, has a link to the video on its web page. Click here to view it – разместила She said that the foster mother had been approved by the Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights, known as ‘Childhood’, and was under the supervision of the child welfare authorities. Anna Kuznetsova, the President’s Representative on Human Rights, announced that the foster parents’ contract with the authorities had been revoked and the children are now receiving specialist support. Click here for her statement – сообщила
‘Burnt out’ parents
Yelena Machinskaya, a psychologist at the Charity ‘Change one Life’, explained how these incidents can occur when foster parents find themselves under enormous stress and ‘burn out’: ‘Children take a long time to adapt to new environments, often they have been through traumatic experiences and as a result they tend to exhibit challenging behaviour. The problem lies not only with the child but also with the parents who sometimes have unrealistic expectations of their role. Fostering is a difficult and draining job, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no days off, no holidays and no option to walk away. As a result, foster parents ‘burn out’ quickly and frequently.’
When somebody is suffering from severe stress and feels ‘burnt out’, a doctor will usually advise them to take a break. However, foster parents often find they have nobody to leave the child with, even for half an hour, to give them time to themselves. Consequently, the situation deteriorates; psychological problems, like depression and anxiety develop, and chronic neurological illnesses can deteriorate.
Machinskaya added: ‘Obviously, under extreme stress a person can easily ‘flip’ and harm themselves or other people, including a baby.’
Yelena Machinskaya believes the ideal solution is for foster families to be given a ‘support family’. Click here for details – «фостерные семьи» This would be a friendly family that is in regular contact with the foster parents and is willing to look after the children when difficulties arise. Machinskaya described it as a kind of ‘safety net’ family that would visit regularly and the child knows; if the foster mother is not managing in some way or feels trapped, she can call her support family and ask them to take the child for a short period. It would be like calling relatives. It is, however, important that this kind of support should not be compulsory or linked to the foster care authorities because otherwise foster parents might feel reluctant to ask for help if they thought it would jeopardise their right to foster. The idea of this support network is to assist the foster parents, not to control them.
Machinskaya acknowledged that some kind of support systems are already in place for foster families in some of Russia’s major cities, but in general there is not enough support and there are too few qualified specialists in this field.
Professionalism of the foster care authorities
Commentators on the video argue that the risk of child abuse can be reduced by raising the standard of professional training given to staff working for child welfare authorities.
Machinskaya commented on the lack of professionalism in foster care: ‘Unfortunately, the professionalism of some staff leaves much to be desired. There are cases of staff who clearly lack the appropriate level of specialist training or who allow their personal opinions to undermine their work; they take it upon themselves to decide if a family is ‘unsuitable’ for fostering and remove the children from them. I recently learned that a member of staff had told a woman who had been divorced twice that she was not fit to raise children because ‘normal women do not throw out their husbands’. There is nothing in law to prevent divorcees from fostering but this member of staff tried to deny this woman her right to foster.’
Machinskaya believes that people working within the care system should receive specialist training. At the moment it is only available in certain institutes in Moscow; there are few opportunities to train in smaller, regional towns and cities.
Law, control and support
Tightening up the law on domestic violence may help to deter some parents from assaulting children in their care. However, the most pressing issue is the problem of ‘burn out’ due to a lack of support for foster parents. Summarising the situation, one expert commented: ‘In most cases parents hit out not because they enjoy using violence (although people like that do exist), but because they believe that hitting children is a normal part of bringing them up properly. From what I have observed, in most instances a parent – or indeed any person – hits out because they have run out of arguments, they are exhausted and cannot cope. They know that it is wrong to hit children and that they could be penalised for it, but they cannot control their actions. Dealing with these families requires great sensitivity; sometimes they just need the support of a close friend. In my opinion, this would be far more effective solution to the problems of child abuse than relying on laws, controls, bullying or restrictions.