Human Rights Watch Urges Closing Orphanages in Armenia, Integrating Disabled Children and Orphans

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NEW YORK — Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based humanitarian organization, in February released a report on the fate of children in Armenian orphanages, especially those who are mentally or physically handicapped.

The report pointed out two problems: first, many children end up in orphanages because of the parents’ financial situation. Second, most children with physical or mental handicaps never get out of the system.

According to Jane Buchanan, the associate director for Europe and Central Asia for HRW, “Parents are often compelled to make a decision because they have no other option. Whether it is just with respect to a child with disabilities or basic social support, it is not available in the community. [They end up] behind the walls of these institutions. They [parents] make decisions they shouldn’t have to make.”

Buchanan said that the government is responsible for the care of those children and that they provide no alternatives for indigent parents.

“The situation of children with and without disabilities” is dire, she said.

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Inclusive education for children with physical or mental disabilities is virtually unavailable in schools.

Buchanan and her team made four visits in 2016 and spent a total of four weeks in Armenia conducting research.

These findings and recommendations go beyond suggestions; the changes recommended need to be enacted to be in compliance with the United Nations Convention of Rights of people with Disabilities. The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities concluded its meetings with Armenia on March 30, providing its suggestions to Vigen Kocharyan, Deputy Minister of Justice of Armenia. Kochayan said a draft law on the protection of persons with disabilities is now before Parliament, laying the ground for a transition to a rights-based model of disability and the participation of persons with disabilities in social and political life on an equal footing with others.

Armenia’s ambassador to the US, Grigor Hovhannissian, speaking from his office in Washington recently, concurred with many of Buchanan’s findings but added that the country has started addressing the issues, though there is a long way to go.

Hovhannissian praised the international community for the detailed studies which have been conducted in the country. He said he found the Human Rights Watch full report to be a “moving and compelling account.”

He noted that he is especially touched as in his “previous life” he dealt with humanitarian issues. Before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hovhannissian served in different locations with the United Nations, including the Palestinian Territories, Jerusalem and Iraq, as well as serving in the office of the UN Commissioner for Refugees in Yerevan.

He agreed with Buchanan and HRW that the protection of children in orphanages could and should be improved.

“There have been tremendous strides to meet the standards” suggested, he said. He explained, however, that Armenia “inherited the Soviet system of institutionalized child care” and therefore it started off at a disadvantage both in terms of infrastructure and attitudes.

“The totalitarian heritage [from Soviet times] is based on the premises of isolation and taking children out of context to make society healthy,” he said. “It is handling people with handicaps —  or any type of dissidents — people outside the mainstream,” the same way, which is to edit them out of society.

He noted, “I had the opportunity to see some of the institutions first hand at age 17-18,” he said, adding that he was affected by the way in which his “fellow countrymen” lived and the “total lack of resources.”

Hovhannissian did defend the country to say that the number of children in institutions is “pretty small. There are fewer than 700 orphans,” he said. Those included in that number are children that have no parents. There are, he said, about 3,700 children in institutions, a number that comprises “children with one parent as well as without any living parents [but a family member], in addition to children both with disabilities and without.”

“Resources do exist but it is a matter of reallocating them from those closed institutions,” Buchanan said. The parents, she said, need that money that is spent on institutions for “food support, transportation, services like rehabilitation, medical services, social work, etc.”

“It is a matter of being sure they are set up,” she said, as many of the families are financially and socially vulnerable.

Special Education Virtually Unavailable

Buchanan stressed the country needs “more inclusive education. Often, children with disabilities cannot be accommodated.”

As things stand now, children with intellectual or psycho-social disability are often excluded, the report indicates.

Therefore,  she noted, these disabled children, when they age out of institutions, because of a total lack of education, are virtually condemned to lead isolated, impoverished lives, one in which they cannot have any control over any decisions, including financial ones.

To make sure that disabled children have access to everything alongside their able-bodied peers is not only something Armenia is required to do, but “it is the humanitarian thing to do. It is good for society,” Hovhannissian said.

He noted that while some schools in Armenia provide special needs education, they account for a fraction of the 1,400 schools in the country. He stressed that new special education teachers would need to be trained also to handle and help students who suffer from mental challenges and emotional difficulties.

In some cases where a school accepts a child who has a disability, one parent ends up having to stay with the child, Buchanan noted. “Parents stay with children in classrooms,” she noted. “It should not be the responsibility of the parent to stay with the child” during the school day.

They may need to physically massage the child to ease their bodies or repeat the instructions of the teacher to try to make them understand.

Buchanan concurred, adding that existing attitudes need to change regarding children with disabilities, and that inclusive schools and families are the first and foremost ways to provide the best care. In addition, the community will see children who are different simply  a part of society.

“A diverse peer set, parents seeing how children with disabilities are included in classrooms are key things,” she said.

Otherwise, she said, myths and untruths about children with disabilities, such as that they are dangerous or that they pose health risks to others, can still continue.

She urged that the government provide “proactive messaging” and said that after talks with government officials, they indicated their support for HRW’s findings.

Buchanan said they reassured her and her team that “there are equal rights for all.”

“It is a long process and we have started,” Hovhannissian concurred. He agreed that the entire system needs to change.

“We need to try to deinstitutionalize kids using schools,” he said. “That is the next step.”

Armenia should seek a higher level of development, he said, adding the country is “fully committed.”

“It is a dramatic change [envisioned] and a massive effort,” he said, noting the government has pledged its financial commitment.

“I spoke with our colleagues and there is an understanding and acceptance of the rights of children,” he said.

He noted the deadline given by the United Nations for complying with the suggestions is 2021 and that Armenia intends to meet it.

“The Republic of Armenia was one of the early signatories to the charter on the protection of children’s rights at the United Nations,” Hovhannissian said.

Lack of Foster Care

One concern HRW wrote about is that almost all children who are considered orphans, whether because they are abandoned by one or both parents or have no one else, end up in orphanages rather than foster care. There are only about 25 foster families in the whole country. Adoption, be it domestically or internationally, is not encouraged nor made easy.

She added that the group urges the training of more foster families.

While the ambassador agreed the number of foster families should increase, “however equipped and dedicated they are, they don’t replace [permanent] families.”

“The findings are very productive. Some fundamentals [facts] are correct” and “we need to move to the next level to integrate the children,” he said.

On a positive note, Buchanan said, the government has closed some orphanages and the overall number of children in institutions has decreased, but unfortunately the concentration of children with disabilities has increased, Buchanan said.

Said Buchanan “After we released our report, we met with all key ministers, including education and justice, as well as the Yerevan municipality, etc. and they are certainly aware of some of our conclusions.”

She added, “There is still a lot of work to do, but we had a positive reception.”

Minister of Education Levon Mkrtchyan, she said, released a statement that said parents are keeping children out of the education system.

“He misplaced the blame on parents rather than looking at what the government needs to be doing,” Buchanan said.

“There are a lot of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] doing great work already on those issues,” she added, recommending that the government start a constructive dialogue with local NGOs.

Hovhannissian admitted that in Armenia, the idea of adoption is not one that is readily embraced. “Public opinion is not that opposed to orphanages,” he said. This, again, is a legacy of Soviet thought.

Buchanan said that one factor is that “adoption is underdeveloped domestically and certainly that of children with disabilities.”

She also stressed there are parents who give up their children into institutions yet do not fully relinquish their parental rights. Therefore, the child cannot be adopted by other families and will be confined to institutions.

Hope Going Forward

“I am hopeful,” Buchanan said. “I have a healthy dose of optimism for change. Hope translates into all this becoming reality.”

She added, “It is going to take very strong political will from the government to make it happen.”

“We hoped our work will bolster and add a voice to those that are working. It is a matter of the government hearing it from a lot of different ones,” she stressed, including disability rights and legal representation.

Other countries nearby, including Russia and Serbia, have the same issues and challenges, Buchanan added.

“Some fundamentals are correct and we should take those and move to the next level to integrate children,” Hovhannissian said.

To access the report by HWR, visit (https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/22/armenia-children-isolated-needlessly-separated-families).

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