Social Programs Essential for Youth in Georgia

Editors’ Note: In “A Place to Belong” in the June 2024 edition of ONE magazine, Paul Rimple reports on the work of Caritas Georgia to support street children and empower them to choose a better path for their future. In his audio report, he explains the social need for programs like those operated by Caritas in Georgia, and shares stories of beneficiaries he met through his reporting. A full transcript is available below.

Listen to the audio report:

My name is Paul Rimple, and I’ve been working as a freelance journalist in Georgia for nearly 20 years. I recently had the opportunity to write a feature story about several projects Caritas Georgia is undertaking to help the country’s street children. It’s a topic I’m no stranger to.

In 2014, I wrote about how Georgia’s teenage prostitution problem is part of the larger issue of poverty and the lack of services for street children.

I also edited Save the Children’s 80-page report on street kids in 2008. There hasn’t been a quantitative study on the situation since.

Despite some reforms, the Georgian government places little importance to social services and remains heavily reliant on foreign organizations, like Caritas, to pick up most of the slack.

It is a Sisyphean task, as virtually nothing is done in the country to address the root of the problem, which is poverty.

Talking with Caritas staff, I learned that an increasing number of street children are coming with more behavioral problems than before — that there are juveniles coming from more stable families who simply don’t know how to handle their kids.

Why is this happening? Can this be prevented?

It’s a phenomenon that demands a competent study, but the government, which pays a lot of lip service to family values, just brushes the situation under the rug. This places the onus on organizations, like Caritas, which don’t have the means to safely care and protect so many children from themselves.

Shelters across the country should not be closing their doors, but that’s the reality here.

There are no shortages of horror stories when writing about vulnerable youth. As a parent of an adolescent daughter, these stories are all the more poignant. One girl my daughter’s age assists at Emegobre, the Tbilisi Center.

She is sharp, sweet and attentive to the children she interacts with. She also very recently robbed an adult by knifepoint with her friends and left him naked on the street in the middle of winter. As a 14-year-old minor, she cannot be prosecuted by law. With no reliable legal guardian to speak of, police released her to Caritas, which has no legal rights to prevent her from leaving the center.

Amidst this overwhelming challenge of intervention, the success rate of integration — of getting children off the streets and into schools and into the general workforce — is up to 70 to 80 percent, according to Caritas caregiver Jemal Chachkhaia. And many of these young adults who are helped by Caritas continue to volunteer, or in some cases find work there.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sopo, a beneficiary who reminded me that we had met a few years ago when I did a story about Caritas’s St. Barbare Center for Single Mothers. She was a beneficiary there. Her life has been nothing but a continuous struggle since she was born. She doesn’t know her mother, and her father, who was an alcoholic, died when she was 8.

She had been two years with Caritas, but as a ward of the state, spent her subsequent years in a state orphanage and, later, on the streets. Her first pregnancy was a result of rape, and her following two were from a man who has left and not provided any support. She is on her own, a single, unemployed mother of three, dependent on the day care services Emegobre provides, in addition to the psychological support that comes with her lifelong relationship with Caritas.

Sopo has twice been a surrogate mother, and that’s her only source of income. In the past two years, rent prices across the city have gone through the roof, including Sopo’s. Unable to pay a rent that nearly doubled is a worry that consumes her. But her sole concern is making sure her children never end up on the streets.

Georgia is a country with a very strong family support network. Except, of course, when one has no family. Without Caritas, Sopo and her three daughters would have no chance. Caritas is the only real family she has ever known.

Read “A Place to Belong” in the June 2024 edition of ONE magazine.

Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

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