Saving the family: How to save families in crisis situations discussed at the Russian-French forum
Representatives from NGOs and social organisations at the Help and Support for Families in France and Russia forum discussed the challenge of supporting families facing complex situations and the defence of their rights, sharing various potential solutions.
As a rule, the role of Russian and French associations that work with families is to support them and defend their rights. These NGOs most often help families that are confronted with difficult life circumstances: domestic violence, emigration or raising children that have been adopted or with special needs.
According to Elena Topoleva, the director of the Agency for Social Information, the sphere of social politics as a whole, and the expectations of Russian citizens in particular, have hugely changed over the last twenty-five years: people change and are accustomed to a new standard of living.
Topoleva said, “Of course, problems remain: poverty, unemployment and many others. But the majority of people now have more complex desires, not limited to the simple satisfaction of food and shelter. The state sometimes has difficulty responding to these requests, but it can fulfil its social obligations in cooperation with citizens and NGOs. However, it is important to speak not only about the new role of the state in regards family support, but also about what non-governmental organisations can do in this area.”
According to Anna Bitova, the director of the Centre for Curative Pedagogics, the situation surrounding the families of children with disabilities reflects the state of society.
Bitova noted: “We understand that a more open and humanistic country is a more accommodating environment for the families of disabled children, who remain one of the most marginalised groups.”
The centre has been helping disabled children since 1989, including those with autism-related conditions, epilepsy, genetic syndromes, mental disabilities and learning difficulties, among others. It was founded by a group of parents and teachers.
Bitova said, “At that time we thought that institutionalisation was the only helpful option. Unfortunately, the situation today is much the same: Moscow has greatly improved, although children with autism-related disabilities still do not have sufficient help. In some of the larger regions there is a growing interest in improving the situation, but there are places in which a person still cannot find help. Either a child lives at home and receives no help, or is forced to move into an orphanage.”
“The progression in the regions fascinates me: everyone is finding their own path. For example, in Chelyabinsk there are no schools that accept children with severe developmental disorders. But on the other hand, there is a wonderful law in the region, according to which a mother receives 22,000 rubles a month if she home educates her child. Several parents also banded together and opened a private school. I was in awe”.
In Bitova’s opinion there must be a change in the law and first in line should be reformation of orphanages.
Bitova asserts that “We are unable to move forward while places to which children are sent away remain. Therefore, the centre, along with other social organisations that are working towards the reformation of orphanages, now wants to initiate the reform of institutional hospitals. We must appeal to society and the government in order to make them see that this kind of institution has no place in Russia.”
Marjorie Fontenile, a spokeswoman for UNAIDS, an organization established to address the HIV and AIDS epidemic and its consequences, is also convinced of the need for systemic change.
Marjorie said that “A disease like HIV has a terrible impact on life for the whole family. Unfortunately, many people face this challenge, and in Russia such a diagnosis is seen as a life sentence. Our goal is to prove that this is not the case”.
According to Fontenile, in Russia the number of registered cases of people living with HIV has grown by 10% annually since 2006, but the true figure may be twice as high.
Fontenile underlined that “Russia must adopt and execute a nationwide strategy. Access to regular treatment for people with HIV must be ensured, not to mention the fact that people need to be aware of their condition.”
She also noted positive changes taking place. The rules have now been loosened for those who wish to be reunited with their family living in Russia.
Create not duplicate
Yulia Kurchanova from the Volunteers to Help Orphans Fund, which supports families at risk of abandoning newborns and does preventive work on the abandonment of children, believes that the country needs changes at the system level. The expert emphasised that a family is the primary requirement for the full development of a child.
“One of the most import tasks for the fund is the creation of services that for whatever reason the state cannot provide, without the function of any two services overlapping. The Foundation also implements a programme for the prevention of the abandonment of children. It focuses on four areas: helping families in challenging circumstances, preventing the rejection of newborns, a crisis centre for mothers with children, and helping families in which the parents face mental challenges”.
“In the best interests of the child, we try to preserve the family providing that nothing threatens their life or health. Our goal is to provide assistance in a comprehensive and targeted way. For cases of challenging family circumstances, in which a child is at risk of being sent to an orphanage, the foundation strives to preserve and strengthen the family”.
According to Yulia, with regards to preventing the rejection of newborns it is especially important to provide emergency psychological assistance to any woman in the maternity hospital who expresses a desire to abandon the child to whom they have given birth. If necessary, the fund takes such a family for further support.
Women with small children who have no place to go can live in a crisis centre. There they receive comprehensive assistance, psychological and legal support. A year later, when the child has grown, the woman continues her life beyond the crisis centre.
The fourth area, helping parents facing mental health challenges, raises the most questions. According to Kurchanova, it is not yet clear how to support the growing number of families in which the mother is battling mental illness. The goal of the foundation is to provide timely social, medical or other assistance so that a mother can cope with her parental duties.
The National Family Allowances Fund, or CNAF, is part of the French social security system. There is one national and 101 regional family allowance offices throughout the country.
According to CNAF spokeswoman Frederic Leprens, 32 million people receive financial assistance annually, of which 14 million are children. The families of children with disabilities under 20 years old receive these payments, but special attention is paid to those who have small children under three years old. The payments are also received by single-parent families.
The National Family Allowances Fund of France cooperates with 30,000 non-profit organisations throughout the country, and also financially supports about 50 NGO federations. In addition, a special agency was created in 2017 to collect unpaid alimony: unfortunately, there are quite a few separated families in France. According to Leprens, these agencies have been very effective.
To support families with children with disabilities, the National Household Benefit Fund has helped reduce the cost of nurseries for children with special needs. Now, on average, in France, 3% of all children attending a nursery are children with disabilities. In addition, 95% of children with disabilities attend a preschool.
According to Leprens, in 2019 France plans to introduce a bonus for creches that admit a child with a disability.
Frederic reported that “Additional money will be paid for each child, even those without a disability, if at least one person with a disability is trained in the institution. I think this will be a very good incentive. Moreover, the bonus is promised to increase with each new disabled child admitted to a preschool”.
Irina Kirkora, from the “World of the Family” centre, deals with family mediation. This entails assistance in resolving conflicts, disputes and conflicts between family members. Psychologists and lawyers lead this complex work. Often, disagreements within the family arise because of the inability to listen to each other and unwillingness to take responsibility, in which case the support of a mediator can help the family to reach an agreement. However, if divorce is inevitable, the centre tries to help the parents minimise trauma for the children.
Kirkor is sure that “Parents are not always ready to hear each other, and children are the first to suffer as a result. Because of this, we have childhood abandonment and psychological trauma”.
Helping to repatriate
The organisation Caritas works in 198 countries, and among other things helps repatriating families to re-socialise to their homeland. Caritas has been operating in Russia since 1992. People who have returned home from emigration face a number of problems.
The organisation’s representative, Elena Poslanchik, said that “it is primarily a psychological shock, especially for children and adolescents who have lived abroad for several years. They arrive and find themselves in a completely different environment. In Russia, people discover a completely different culture, despite the family maintaining some traditions. There is a completely different social support system, people have a totally different demeanour”.
Many of the people helped by Caritas need to recover documents. This primarily effects those who left their homeland before 1991 and are returning to different country. Another big problem faced by repatriates is misinformation. Often they do not know how to get work in Russia, among other important things.
Poslanchik says that “sometimes they are told that everything is great in Russia, that you arrive with three children and immediately receive status as a multi-child family etc. In fact, this is not always the case, and we are trying to show people a complete, reliable picture of what awaits them in Russia so that their return will not be a bitter disappointment”.
Caritas specialists provide psychological assistance to all family members, help to recover lost documents, receive state and social support, and to open their own business.
Poslanchik noted that “in some instances we will provide further support in person, but we mostly ensure that people can familiarise themselves with social services and establish their lives in Russia.”