Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestan's Sickness Scams

A state allowance for ill children is being abused by some parents and underused by others.
Six-year-old Zainab Karayeva has a chronic intestinal disease, which makes her, according to doctors, eligible for invalid status and its accompanying state benefits. But for several years her parents have failed to register her, because they have not managed to acquire the right documents.

“For doctors to examine Zainab and send her for the right expert treatment, she needs to spend more than a month in hospital,” said her mother, Napisat. “But she absolutely refuses and will only agree if I am with her all the time. But I have to work. Although I only earn a tiny amount, at least I help my husband support the family.”

Dagestan has registered the highest number of invalid children in the whole of Russia - more than 32,000. Few doubt that it is a real problem. The paradox is that parents of deserving children like Zainab are not receiving the benefits they’re entitled to, while there is compelling evidence that the parents of healthy children are cheating the system.

“There are a lot of children like Zainab,” said Aishat Magomedova, who heads the Dagestani organisation the League of Protection of Mother and Child. “About six months ago, I got a letter from the Rutul region [in the mountainous south of Dagestan] containing a list of 122 invalid children, who can’t get their legal benefits because they can’t leave the region and collect all the necessary papers.”

Magomedova travels the length of the republic, investigating the issues that affect Dagestani women and also runs a hospital where women seek not just medical help but also legal and psychological support.

“What’s more, everywhere I’ve met families in which completely healthy children are listed as invalids,” she went on. “So for example two families live next door to one another in one of the villages of Sovetsky region. In the first one there are five healthy children claiming invalidity benefits, in the second there are two sick children who not only don’t get any money, but are not even registered as invalids.”

Irina Guseinova, deputy minister of labour and social development in Dagestan, told IWPR she doubted these findings, but conceded that she did not have precise figures and that some parents might be resorting to desperate measures.

“There are definitely a lot of sick children in our republic,” said Guseinova. “And as far as I know, they all get benefits they deserve. Even if there are people who get money and don’t deserve it, I don’t think that parents are living off their sick children. They are just surviving.”

Medical experts have traditionally said that the high levels of sickness and disability in Dagestani children stems from a high incidence of in-breeding and environmental pollution.

Recently, the specialists have been citing another factor, the very poor standard of living especially in mountainous areas, where unemployment rates are sky-high. For parents desperate to provide for their children, invalidity benefit can bring in a stable income of 2070 roubles (80 US dollars) a month.

“I should really condemn parents who register their sick children as invalids, but I can’t really open my mouth and do so,” said Aishat Magomedova. “And anyone who’s been in the mountains and seen what kind of lives people live there will agree with me.”

The Abdusalimov family - father, mother and three children of 14, 13 and 11 - lives on the outskirts of the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala. All the children have been diagnosed as having speech defects.

“My husband has the same diagnosis as the children,” said the children’s mother Kalimat Abdusalimova. “And he can’t find work because he practically can’t speak. But we need to live on something, to feed and clothe the children.

“So we registered the children as invalids based on my husband’s diagnosis and citing genetic inheritance. Thanks to this every month we get four benefit payments which together make up our family budget.”

Tamila Nabieva who gives an expert opinion on children’s mental deficiencies said, “We’ve had cases where parents asked us to write on the certificate we are writing for the medical and social expert report that their child is poorly intellectually developed or is mental retarded. They say that they need money. But how can we say that if we see that the child is basically healthy?”

Viktoria Shchemeleva, a medical official who registers sick children for benefits, told IWPR that last year her bureau had refused 53 per cent of applications, but blamed doctors more than parents for this.

In the mountains of Dagestan, there were not enough qualified doctors, said Shchemleva, and inexperienced medics gave the wrong advice to parents. Furthermore, new government regulations had restricted the eligibility of people for official invalid status, she said.

Dagestan’s sickness scams are having some strange and unforeseen effects.

“When a child sees that he is providing for his family, his self-confidence goes up,” said Patimat Omarova, a child psychology expert at the Dagestan State Pedagogical University. “But at the same time, he has a new way of putting pressure on his parents that turns him into a little despot. And if his invalid status is fake, that can spoil a child. He comes round to the view that it is good, beneficial and useful to cheat the state.”

A Dagestani named Zairbek recently visited his home in the Akusha region in the mountains. Returning to Makhachkala, where he now lives, he reported that it has become popular to marry your son to an invalid girl. In other words, promise of regular sickness benefit has become the best possible dowry in Dagestan’s uncertain times.

Anna Zhuzhleva is a freelance journalist in Dagestan.

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