Cold comfort: looking after Russia's abandoned children

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They are unloved, uncared for and sometimes sexually and physically abused by their alcoholic or drug-addict parents. St Petersburg has an estimated 30,000 children who are forced to spend some of their young lives on its cold streets.

They are children like Artyom Taraskin, aged just six, whose mother is dead and whose father, Yevgeny, is a violent vodka alcoholic. Or there is Elena Domnina, 13, whose mother Tatyana is doing a three-year jail stint for theft, to which she turned to feed her drug habit. And there is Karina Lukyanova, eight, whose mother has disappeared without trace and whose father is in prison. All are children who have been let down, first, by their parents and then, a second time, by their legal guardians appointed by the state.

Neglected and often left to run wild, many of them develop diseases such as TB as well as serious behavioural problems, while others imitate their wayward parents, drinking cheap spirits and sniffing glue and shoe polish.

They are young people who have fallen between the cracks of a society that is trying to pull itself together after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and youngsters who have never been given a fair chance at a "normal" childhood.

One of the charities The Independent is supporting this year, Children in Crisis, tries to offer these children a way out of the situation they now find themselves in. It funds a Russian organisation called Innovations which works through the Tsimbalina Children's Hospital, the city's only facility to give the kids a home where they receive the first compassion many of them have ever experienced, for anything from a few weeks to a few months.

Tsimbalina Hospital receives state funding for its basic services, though never enough. But what is not funded by the state are the vital extra services which Children in Crisis provides - services such as psychological counselling, rudimentary teaching, taking the children on excursions to theatres and museums, and giving them an extra meal before they go to bed.

Anatoly Zheleznov, the hospital's head doctor, says demand for the facility's 75 beds, which are primarily reserved for children under 13, has never been higher. In 1993 when it first opened, 327 children passed through the hospital's wards. Last year that figure was 1,207 and this year it is forecast to be higher still.

"When the children are brought to us they often have no documents or names, need urgent medical care and their legal status is unclear," he said. "Those children who are allowed to go back home [many of them are returned to social services] are often brought back to us. Once, twice, three times, and so on. We have a black joke that some of these children have membership with us."

Dr Zheleznov's brow furrows as he talks about his young patients - some of whom are HIV positive at birth because their mothers were infected. Others were forced to participate in child pornography films by their drug-addicted parents. Others were raped by their own families.

While most of Russia is experiencing a low birth rate, people on the margins of society are often having two or three children. "They [the parents] use children as a defence against the police. The police think twice before jailing a mother who has a child to look after," says Dr Zheleznov. "And they also use them to get their hands on the modest child benefit money doled out by the state."

By the time the children arrive at Tsimbalina, he adds, they often have several chronic diseases, including syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhoea.

One of the regulars is Artyom Taraskin. He has apparently been here three of four times before but at just six he is too young to remember. He says he wants to see his alcoholic father Yevgeny again but is too afraid to live with him.

"Papa drinks vodka and beer," he says. "And behaves badly." His father shouted at him, he manages to explain, but he still loves him and would like him to visit and bring him presents. Artyom says he is happy at the hospital.

At 13, Elena Domnina is older but no less damaged. Her eyes do not lift from the floor as she describes how her mother, Julia, is doing jail time for stealing in order to buy drugs and how her father, Kirill, has since found a new wife and family.

Karina Lukyanova, a precociously bright eight-year-old, says she doesn't have a father. In fact she does, but he is in prison. "I don't know how long I've been here or what's going to happen to me next," she says.

Life is unimaginably tough for Karina and children like her. Thanks to Children in Crisis they have, at least, a little sanctuary.

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