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

Kazakstan: Kids Flee Abusive Care Homes

High incidence of “escapes” from children’s homes indicates serious problems.
By Anton Dosybiev
Dima struggles to remember how many times he has run away from the children’s home in Almaty, Kazakstan’s second city. He says the reason he absconds so often is that he is regularly mistreated there.



Just 13, Dima says he is liable to be hit or deprived of food for the slightest misdemeanour at the children’s home.



“I got punished for tipping a bowl of porridge over during dinner by accident,” he said. “I had to kneel in the corner all night.”



Inevitably, he is always picked up by the police after spending some time on the streets, and faces a different punishment every time he is brought back to the home. Once he had to clean the toilets for a week, another time he had to sleep in a cold room, and he has also been beaten.



Dima’s story reflects the experiences of many children in care in Kazakstan, as IWPR discovered in interviews with children and staff at state-run homes.



Further evidence of ill-treatment in children’s homes was provided by a report last October by Kazakstan’s prosecution service.



A carer who gave her first name as Alma told IWPR, “I’ve been working at the home for only a year, but I want to leave. I can’t watch all the shocking things that happen there.”



She said mistreatment was widespread, arguing, “The attitude to the children is entirely incompatible with the rules of teaching – it’s normal to clip them round the head, and misbehaviour is punished in very inhumane ways. One boy who was involved in a fight was taken outside into the cold without any warm clothes. He fell ill afterwards and had to be hospitalised.”



The care home worker also alleged that the children were not fed properly.



“They are fed very poorly – they only get good food when someone arrives to do an inspection and everyone knows about it in advance,” she said. “The management and staff steal food from the canteen, and the children are given what’s left.”



Alma said she could well understand why children try to get away from places like this.



“They don’t want to live here; I wouldn’t be able to stand it myself, and children are very sensitive,” she said.



Dima says he started running away from care institutions when he was seven. His mother is an alcoholic who is no longer in contact, and he has never known his father.



He relishes his brief spells of freedom, when he teams up with other boys in the same predicament.



“When I’m living in the city, I and the other boys sleep in basements – it’s warm down there,” he said.



As a minor, he cannot legally work, but he does whatever it takes to survive on the streets.



“Sometimes you do something [an odd job] at the market and you get food or a bit of money,” he said. “Mostly we beg for money, and use it to buy a hot dog or a kebab, which I especially like.”



Every time Dima runs away he hopes he will not have to go back.



“I don’t want to stay locked up indoors – all the doors in our orphanage are locked and there are high walls around it like a prison,” he said. “We see other children out for a walk with their parents or by themselves – it’s so unfair.”



His temporary freedom only lasts until the next of the regular police raids that conducted in all major cities as part of a policy of preventing crime and tackling homelessness among minors.



“Raids are conducted twice a month at locations where children in the at-risk category congregate – railway stations, markets, basements and attics,” Colonel Aigul Shopshekbaeva, deputy head of department for public security in the Almaty police force, told IWPR. “We have a map where we mark all such places in every district.”



She said that as a first port of call, the police take the children to temporary holding and rehabilitation centres. “About 2,000 kids are sent there every year,” she said, referring to figures for Almaty only. “Most of them, 80 per cent, are from the ‘near abroad’ – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – as well as from the [Kazakstan] provinces,” she said.



Saule Abizova, the head of a children’s home in Almaty, claimed that it was only “difficult” children from particularly dysfunctional families who made a habit of running away.



The vast majority of the children in her home were not orphans but instead had relatives who could not or would not look after them, she said, adding that such children often had not had much schooling and were “prone to vagrancy, theft and crime”.



Alma disagreed that all the runaways had an “inclination to vagrancy”.



“There are simply children who have an acute sense of justice, and that’s why they run away,” he said. “Those who’ve already had a taste of freedom won’t be deterred by any punishment.”



Abizova’s description of the problem is not shared by the national prosecution service, either. It issued a stinging account of the state of child services in Kazakstan in October.



The result of 18 months’ work on child crime and homelessness, including spot checks on care facilities, the report cited cases where mistreatment was the prime reason for children running away to a life on the streets, where they were vulnerable to abuse.



“Where children were absent, the management at these institutions explained this by saying they had left of their own accord,” said the prosecution service statement. “However, the inspections established that escapes were frequently a consequence of illegal actions by staff members in these institutions.”



The inspections led to a criminal case against the head of a children’s home in Semey, northeastern Kazakstan.



In central Almaty, Panfilov Park is a favourite gathering place for street children. The Cathedral of the Resurrection is located there, and a Russian Orthodox priest there, Father Alexander, tries to do what he can for them.



In his view, “The children run away because of the situation in the homes. Children like this come often to our cathedral and I have a feeling that no one cares about them. They tell me they feel unwanted.”



He added, “They don’t ask for much, mostly food and clothes, and we help them.”



Bolat, a taciturn boy IWPR met near the cathedral, said he ran away because things were so bad at the home, and the older boys there beat him up.



“It’s cold now, so I don’t stay away from the home for long,” he said. “It’s very nice here, beautiful trees and kind people who go to church – they give us money and sweets.”



Some childcare experts believe the only long-term solution is to get more children from homes placed in families.



Arujan Sain, who heads a children’s charity called the Voluntary Charity Society, whose Russian acronym DOM means “home”, criticised the current adoption process in Kazakstan for being too cumbersome.



“People in Kazakstan are queuing up to adopt a child,” she said. “At the same time, there are tens of thousands of children in children’s homes. Our legislation stands between the children and those who want to take them into their families.”



Sain is also unhappy with rules that give preference to the natural parents, whatever their circumstances, which can mean a child is not eligible for adoption.



“Instead of protecting the rights of the child, the state is defending the rights of the biological parents who really have no need for those rights,” she said.



The children’s home worker Alma believes that even state-run institutions could be reformed into more homely, child-oriented units.



“The only solution…. is to create conditions closely resembling the family environment,” she said. “Children should be loved and treated as individuals. No one would even dream of mistreating their own children like this.”



(Names of children have been changed to protect their identity.)



Anton Dosybiev is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.