Homeless Children in Russia: Legal Remedies or Rhetoric
In a presentation at the Kennan Institute, Sally Stoecker, Project Director of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at American University, discussed the plight of Russia's homeless children. She explained that homelessness has occurred in Russia in three distinct waves, the latest beginning in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent collapse of the social safety net. She also noted that recent statements by President Vladimir Putin illustrate that the federal government is looking for ways to resolve the problem.
According to Stoecker, a lack of nurturing care is the main contributor to the recent rise in homeless children. She stated that many of the children who choose to live on the street come from dysfunctional families, with parents who are alcoholics or drug addicts. She noted that current U.N. data shows that some 20 million children live in poverty in the western part of Russia alone. In order to obtain food or shelter, many homeless children resort to various forms of criminal activity. Stoecker theorized that the plight of the Russian female worker has also contributed to child homelessness. During the economic decline of the 1990s, nearly seven million Russian women, many of who were single mothers, were forced to work two or three extra jobs, leaving many children without parental oversight. Stoecker also pointed out that foster care and adoption are not viable options because neither is widely accepted in Russia.
Stoecker discussed the lasting effects that homelessness has on a child's life. According to several newspaper sources, nearly 300,000 homeless children are not in school, one in five homeless children becomes a prostitute and one in four develop habits of drug or substance abuse. Other reports detail how homeless kids have been used as "mules" to smuggle narcotics in their stomachs from Central Asia into Europe. According to Stoecker, these experiences not only physically and psychologically affect the children, but also set a pattern of criminality for their entire lives.
Stoecker stated that recent attempts by the Russian government to address the problem have produced mixed results. In 1999, the federal government adopted a law on the "Prevention of Homelessness and Juvenile Crime." The law, based in part on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of a Child, was the first codification of children's rights in Russia. Stoecker further explained that under the Soviet System, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) was solely responsible for homeless children and routinely carried out "street sweeps," placing any children found on the street in state-controlled institutions. The 1999 law severely limited the MVD's ability to conduct the "sweeps," and provided for a variety of state and local agencies to track the health and education of homeless youth. Under the new law, the MVD is only responsible for those children who are juvenile offenders (i.e. those who commit crimes).
Stoecker contended that despite attempts at expanded cooperation, various government agencies have been extremely inefficient in meeting the needs of homeless children. She noted that ambiguous, bureaucratic interpretation on issues such as crime classification and government housing causes frustration for officials and child advocates. Stoecker argued that one possible solution is to give authority to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to conduct "street sweeps" again. She stated that many of the practitioners from the MVD do have the best interests of the children at heart, and many times use their own money or resources to help the homeless. Stoecker concluded by saying because children are the future of the entire world, the problem of child homelessness in Russia transcends national borders, and therefore U.S. leaders must be willing to help in any possible way.