A lost generation

Russia Russia needs to completely revamp its approach to social services in the face of the poverty now gripping many families. Setting up a dedicated ministry would be a start, says Natalia Lovtsova.   

The most discussed topic in social policy and social work in the 1990s has been family values. The debate emphasised the family as a problem for society. However, any debate over the family soon becomes a debate over the state, and what role, if any, it should play in regulating family affairs. Because boundaries between state and family are often confused there is great scope for conflict over the state’s intervention into family life.

This debate emphasised the idea of families in crisis, which implies that there’s something fundamental and perhaps fatally wrong with Russian family. The erosion of family values is said to lead to moral and social disintegration – a failure to carry out family socialisation, reproduction, care and protection in ways acceptable to society. Symptoms of this crisis include fewer marriages and rising divorce rates, a rejection of parental obligations and a fall in levels of personal satisfaction with family life.

Since 1993 Russia has passed more than 120 pieces of legislation about the family, among the most important being laws on child protection. Despite sharp falls in the birth rate in Russia since the late 1980s, the number of children living permanently or temporarily in care (orphanages, large and small homes, hospital and foster care) has risen to about 400,000.

Born in the early days of socialism, the institutional care model (with its associated high death rate, higher risk of disabilities and emotional harm) still follows the early collectivist ideology and acted as a rescue system for destitute, neglected, disabled and unwanted children.

Numerous difficulties, including decreasing financial resources and insufficient support for reforms, have restricted any improvements or a shift to more humane placement options.

The increasing rates of children in public care, aside from being a serious problem in their own right, are also an outcome – and a barometer – of the higher risks many children have been facing in families and the community. Many families have had to cope with growing poverty. In many situations, the skills, social values and life strategies developed in earlier decades have proved inadequate for the new Russia.

Millions of families with children have suffered huge falls in income. Children in Russia have been more affected by the rise in poverty than have other traditionally vulnerable populations, such as older people. Russia shows evidence of growing child maltreatment, including the harmful use of child labour.

Reforms to family and child protection programmes can only be effective, however, if more proactive support is also made available. This means developing a full new infrastructure of family support which has at its core flexible social services. The professional social work and care personnel, however, will not make it alone. Social services need to develop in a co-ordinated way with the health, education and juvenile justice systems, and the voice of the child needs to be heard better in this process.

However, responsibility for family and child well-being is shared between several government ministries. This results both in inconsistency and ineffectiveness of developing and introducing of policies and measures, and also an apparent duplication of tasks. The development of unified policy is lost not least because of the struggle between the ministries for influence and financial resources.

The creation of a single ministry of family and child protection could be a first serious step to solving these problems.

Natalia Lovtsova is an assistant professor and fellow at the department of social anthropology and social work at Saratov State Technical University, Russia.

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