ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Child’s Rights Restored

Ending child homelessness in Georgia

On a quiet, tree-lined side street in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, a large abandoned Soviet-era institution languishes on an overgrown property. The ominous concrete edifice contains dozens of small dormitory rooms and an industrial-size kitchen and eating hall. A crumbling playground outside reminds passersby that not long ago it served as an orphanage for hundreds of children.

Up until just a few years ago, over 5,000 orphans lived in Soviet-built institutions around the country. Many were so-called “social orphans,” or children whose parents either surrendered or lost custody of them as a result of extreme poverty, addiction or child abuse.

The now vacant institution, however, also stands as a testament to a shift in recent years in how the Georgian government deals with orphaned and homeless children and youth.

For the past four years, Minister of Health, Labor and Social Affairs Andria Urushadze has led efforts to dismantle the nation’s Soviet-style system of large institutions for orphans and homeless. In its place, he and his colleagues have established smaller group homes that provide children more individual care and as much access to family members as possible, depending on the circumstances.

The new system also integrates public institutions and services with existing homes run by charitable organizations — in particular, those of the various churches, which have been running group homes in the country for more than a decade. These Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant homes for children provide the government working examples of best practices. Their family-like environment and emphasis on individual care serve as an alternative model for Mr. Urushadze and his colleagues.

For the minister, the large, impersonal public orphanages — what he refers to as “collective factories” — represent a part of Georgia’s history he would like to forget. While the outdated institutions succeeded in keeping at-risk children off the street and fed, the children did not receive individual, nurturing care, which, Mr. Urushadze says, is every child’s basic right.

“I want them to have their own bedrooms and bathrooms, so that their privacy will be respected,” says the minister. In the new group homes, he continues, “they will find friends, they can cook and they can look after themselves. And they have the right to choose their clothes: The children will not all wear the same color, the same size and the same type of boots or shoes.”

The reforms spearheaded by Minister Urushadze signify a radical step forward for Georgia — a country grappling with widespread poverty and unemployment. Their seeds, however, were planted some 15 years ago by Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II of the Orthodox Church of Georgia.

At the time, civil unrest consumed the nation, which began soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s subsequent independence in 1991. The violence would persist unabated until the Rose Revolution of 2003.

For 12 long, bloody years, a weak Georgian state teetered on collapse. Once one of the richest republics in the Soviet Union, Georgia descended into an extreme and erosive poverty that ate into core Georgian values.

Fighting across the country displaced tens of thousands of people. Many flooded the capital, desperate, hungry and homeless. For the first time in living memory, a new population appeared in Georgia: street children.

“I think it was a shock for all Georgians to find the children on the street,” recalls Elena Kiladze, the country director for American Friends of Georgia, a nongovernmental organization that provides aid to the country’s most vulnerable citizens. “It’s hard to believe, but in Soviet times we had almost no children on the streets. There were a few gypsy children selling chewing gum. But they and their families were just passing through. But then all of a sudden to see children all alone on the street begging? And the elderly? It was heartbreaking.”

Concerned about the growing number of street children in Tbilisi and elsewhere in the country, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II called on Abbess Mariam Mikiladze to take the lead in housing, caring for and rehabilitating Tbilisi’s homeless children and youth. To make the effort possible, the catholicos-patriarch designated the Transfiguration Convent in Tbilisi as a group home for street children.

For the nun who had intended to live a cloistered life, the task at first daunted her. Yet she never once hesitated. She remembers her impulse to rescue Tbilisi’s street children as “spontaneous” and driven by her faith in God.

“God is doing everything and helping you. The thing is not to be scared and just say ‘yes,’ ” explains the abbess. “Sometimes you have the faith to do something, and sometimes you don’t. And sometimes someone else is doing something and you are just empty without any grace. But this time, we said ‘yes.’ ”

In the early days, only a handful of children came to the convent. But within months, some 120 children — many of them siblings — had moved in with the sisters. Since space was limited and the weather was warm, many of them slept on mattresses outside on the balcony.

Abbess Mariam remembers some of the children as “wild” who arrived straight from the street. Some, she says, were addicted to glue or drugs, and many had developed a habit of stealing. At first, they wreaked havoc on the serenity the nuns had nurtured, and they terrorized the elderly who had taken refuge there.

Most of the children had living parents. However, these adults often fared worse than the children. Many struggled with severe alcohol and/or drug addictions and sent their children out on the streets to beg and steal. Others, confined to mental institutions or prisons, never saw their children.

However, as word of the home got around, a group of committed volunteers from American Friends of Georgia, led by Ms. Kiladze, decided to help the nuns. They appeared at the convent each morning and worked until nightfall. They and the sisters lavished the children with love and worked to rebuild their sense of trust, instill values and teach life skills.

“As soon as they feel loved, they are very receptive, more so than kids from the so-called good families,” says Ms. Kildaze. “Because they appreciate everything you do for them.”

“There was a kind of happiness that we were all together,” recalls the abbess. “These young people were here and the children who were really fond of them. Sometimes it was difficult, but it was always very interesting.”

As winter approached, it became clear the children needed a larger facility. With assistance from church leaders and the authorities, the nuns acquired a former psychiatric hospital in Dzegvi, a village 13 miles northwest of Tbilisi. They quickly converted it to a convent and group home and moved in with their charges.

As the children became more independent, the program evolved to accommodate their needs. Some children requested their parents live with them in the facility, to which the sisters agreed.

The nuns also secured funding for, and in 1999 purchased, several individual houses in the village of Bediani, about 30 miles southwest of the capital. Each house accommodates about eight youth and two volunteer chaperons, who live together as family, sharing responsibilities.

Young children, youth with severe problems and parents and other family members still live with the nuns in Dzegvi.

For over ten years, the group homes in Bediani have helped once deeply troubled and homeless children and youth mature into independent and productive members of society. Their success has inspired similar projects around the country.

Now, Minister Urushadze has made it his mission to place all of Georgia’s homeless children and youth in similar group homes or foster families.

Transitioning to group homes and foster care has not come easily to either policymakers or social welfare workers. Nonetheless, they have managed to implement several major reforms and polices, which together have whittled down the number of street children in Georgia to around 1,200. Though the number of children on the streets spiked during the 2008 Georgia-Russia crisis, it stabilized soon after, as displaced families returned to their homes or were resettled elsewhere in the country.

Major international donor agencies, such as UNICEF and EveryChild, have hailed the new set of measures as a major step forward in modernizing Georgia’s safety net for children.

Under the new policies, government authorities first must do everything they can to help parents or other family members regain custody of their children. To do so, social workers have teamed up with local and international nongovernment organizations to investigate and assess the family circumstances of every child in a group home or foster care.

If a family proves to be willing and able to care for the child responsibly, the designated guardians must complete a parenting skills course. They also receive a monthly stipend for each child to help ease the financial burden and to ensure that poverty alone does not separate children from their families. If implemented, further reforms will either help the guardians find meaningful work or subsidize job training at a nearby vocational school.

In the case no parent or extended family member can care responsibly for a child, social workers now decide between two new government programs: foster care, in which the child is placed with a qualifying family, or a small group home, similar to the church-operated ones in Bediani. Typically, government-run group homes accommodate eight to ten children and two trained professionals.

The government also encourages charitable organizations operating homes for homeless children and youth, such as Georgian Orthodox Church, to expand their services. Orthodox religious already have agreed to open group homes in Achara — a semiautonomous region in the country’s southwest — and other areas.

The Catholic humanitarian agency Caritas Georgia (a partner of CNEWA) is one of several nongovernmental organizations that manage the government’s new small group homes. A leader in providing care to Georgia’s vulnerable children, it currently operates four government-built group homes.

Tamar Sharashidze, director of Caritas Georgia’s youth program, praises the new reforms. However, she expresses concern that many children remain homeless.

“There are about 2,000 children on the street. That is a very high number for a country of four million people like Georgia.”

The government’s 2011-2012 plans stipulated for the construction of two shelters for street children. Each facility, however, will house only 40 children, leaving hundreds without care.

“They are working on the 2012-2015 plan. We are part of the working group and we are asking that they consider the issue of street children,” says Ms. Sharashidze. “This problem is now included in the government plan and there should be some progress.”

Among its efforts to combat child and youth homelessness, Caritas Georgia regularly sends workers into underserved neighborhoods in and around Tbilisi to locate street children and provide them with food, clothing and basic health care. This work takes time and money, says Ms. Sharashidze, because the children often do not trust the social worker at first.

The agency also runs a large network of free and low-cost day care centers, which enrolls more than 400 children around the country.

By helping at-risk families and caring for children before they end up on the streets, the centers serve as powerful tools of prevention in the fight against child and youth homelessness.

“When a family is really struggling, and the parents are gone, trying to work, the children are left without attention. The center helps prevents children from ending up in an institution. They are fed and provided with education, activities and psychological therapy,” says Ms. Sharashidze.

“Strengthening day care centers and opening more of them is the best way to keep children off the streets.”

Other organizations, such the Salvation Army, also run free or low-cost day care centers for at-risk children in Tbilisi. Care varies from center to center, but most follow a formula of meals, help with schoolwork, life skills and art therapy.

These day care programs are expensive, and organizations rely heavily on donor agencies and other benefactors for funding.

Today, the nuns in Dzegvi and American Friends of Georgia continue to assist the first 120 or so street children they took in 16 years ago. They work with a variety of donor and charitable agencies to help secure funding for the young people’s education.

Caritas Georgia also runs vocational and job placement programs for youth graduating from its daycare centers and group homes.

“You should teach them something. You should give them some skills in addition to providing them food and shelter. You should change their mentality,” says Ms. Kiladze.

“You should show them that there is a different kind of life — even if you are poor — and that they can learn skills and build such a life for themselves. This is the most important thing you can teach them.”

Photojournalist Molly Corso lives and works in Tbilisi.

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