A Child’s Rights Restored

Church-run programs pave the way to ending child and youth homelessness in Georgia

text and photographs by Molly Corso

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On a quiet, tree-lined side street in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, a large abandoned Soviet-era institution languishes on an overgrown property. The ominous concrete edifice contains dozens of small dormitory rooms and an industrial-size kitchen and eating hall. A crumbling playground outside reminds passersby that not long ago it served as an orphanage for hundreds of children.

Up until just a few years ago, over 5,000 orphans lived in Soviet-built institutions around the country. Many were so-called “social orphans,” or children whose parents either surrendered or lost custody of them as a result of extreme poverty, addiction or child abuse.

The now vacant institution, however, also stands as a testament to a shift in recent years in how the Georgian government deals with orphaned and homeless children and youth.

For the past four years, Minister of Health, Labor and Social Affairs Andria Urushadze has led efforts to dismantle the nation’s Soviet-style system of large institutions for orphans and homeless. In its place, he and his colleagues have established smaller group homes that provide children more individual care and as much access to family members as possible, depending on the circumstances.

The new system also integrates public institutions and services with existing homes run by charitable organizations — in particular, those of the various churches, which have been running group homes in the country for more than a decade. These Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant homes for children provide the government working examples of best practices. Their family-like environment and emphasis on individual care serve as an alternative model for Mr. Urushadze and his colleagues.

For the minister, the large, impersonal public orphanages — what he refers to as “collective factories” — represent a part of Georgia’s history he would like to forget. While the outdated institutions succeeded in keeping at-risk children off the street and fed, the children did not receive individual, nurturing care, which, Mr. Urushadze says, is every child’s basic right.

“I want them to have their own bedrooms and bathrooms, so that their privacy will be respected,” says the minister. In the new group homes, he continues, “they will find friends, they can cook and they can look after themselves. And they have the right to choose their clothes: The children will not all wear the same color, the same size and the same type of boots or shoes.”

The reforms spearheaded by Minister Urushadze signify a radical step forward for Georgia — a country grappling with widespread poverty and unemployment. Their seeds, however, were planted some 15 years ago by Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II of the Orthodox Church of Georgia.

At the time, civil unrest consumed the nation, which began soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s subsequent independence in 1991. The violence would persist unabated until the Rose Revolution of 2003.

For 12 long, bloody years, a weak Georgian state teetered on collapse. Once one of the richest republics in the Soviet Union, Georgia descended into an extreme and erosive poverty that ate into core Georgian values.

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Tags: Children Poor/Poverty Georgia Orphans/Orphanages Homes/housing