Georgians love to love, and they especially love children.
As a mother of a preschooler, I am constantly being stopped by strangers eager to catch her smile, give her a piece of candy or make her laugh. Even passing acquaintances always seem to remember her name, and if I let it slip that she is sick — well, I am overcome with a flood of advice, home remedies, doctor recommendations and well wishes.
Georgia’s fantastic attitude toward children is one of the reasons I love living here, this paradise for kids.
So when I started reporting on the life of social orphans, children who are abandoned by their parents — left to either fend for themselves, or be raised by an institution — I was shaken by the cruel reality of life in Georgia outside the safe, nurturing embrace of family ties and relations.
It would be unfair and untrue to say that there are more children abandoned in Georgia than elsewhere. There are no real reliable statistics, but the accepted estimate puts roughly 1200 children in the state system. The number of children living on the street without status, however, is unknown.
I have lived in Russia, been to other places in the region, but was shocked to learn that this happened here, in the children’s paradise, too.
And I was curious, what happened to Georgian families — which typically extend to third and fourth cousins, and can encompass the distant relatives of in-laws and even their in-laws — that something as precious as a child would be allowed to waste away in an institution?
It would also be unfair to blame something particularly Georgian for the children who have fallen outside the traditional safety net of family, friends and relations — an intricate weave of blood and alliance that cushions the life and fate of most Georgians.
And the answer is simple: poverty. Poverty, and all its usual attendant ills, from alcoholism to prison, mental illness and abuse.
Poverty is the main cause for abandonment — a process that used to be as easy as dropping a child off at the door. Parents retained their rights, the child was never in danger of (or entitled to) an adoption, and the state provided some semblance of basic care: a bed to sleep in, food to eat and a school in which to study.
But in reality, the institutions were a non-solution, an empty space for children to tread time while they slowly became adults, before being spit back into the world, unprepared for anything more than another round in a cycle of poverty, neglect and want.
The new reforms for child welfare embrace an equally simple solution: instead of pushing new generations into poverty, the government is trying to pull parents and guardians back into society. Training programs, stipends and counseling are at the core of a new strategy to end a legacy that allowed material need to erode family ties.
Progress is slow, and there are many gaps to be filled. But for now, there are at least more options for children left outside of Georgia’s rich and nurturing network of family, friends and relations. Small group homes, foster care programs and, in rare cases, even adoption, are putting the emphasis on a child’s right to be wanted and to be nurtured into a member of society, prepared to shower down love on the next generation.