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Orphan scandal prompts scrutiny, action by Kyrgyz authorities

- - Friday, November 16, 2012

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyz lawmakers are considering stricter regulation of international adoptions after officials have been accused of "selling" orphans as thousands of children languish in poorly funded state-run orphanages.

Stricter rules are expected to further slow Kyrgyzstan's international adoption process, which already has been hobbled by the recent license suspension of all international adoption agencies working in the country amid an ongoing bribery investigation.

In September, Ravshan Sabirov, head of the Ministry of Social Development, which oversees adoptions, and his deputy — Gulnara Derbisheva — were arrested and charged with taking tens of thousands of dollars worth of bribes from adoption agencies.

What's more, Kyrgyzstan's international adoptions had been halted from 2009 to 2011 following reports of orphanages falsifying certificates of illness and disability in order to expedite adoptions — accusations that still plague the system.

"Strict rules must be set down," says lawmaker Erkin Sakebayev. "Then, of course, we can give Kyrgyz kids up for adoption to foreigners. It's better that a poor child live abroad and find happiness and normal parents than stay in our orphanages, where the conditions are terrible."

According to the Ministry of Social Development, 11,000 children reside in state-run homes, which officials say are underfunded and poorly run.

As many as 80 percent of the children are "social orphans" who have one or both parents living but unable or unwilling to care for them, according to the Integrated Regional Information Networks, a service of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"Today, a child has become a commodity, and there is no one to protect his interests," says Chinar Kozhobekova, a former orphanage employee who specializes in children with health issues.

"Government agencies assigned to supporting families and children misreport mothers as alcoholics, or as dysfunctional families," Mr. Kozhobekova said. "Orphanages are ready to give children up for adoption in exchange for financial support for the institution."

Particularly difficult to place are children with disabilities.

"Here in Kyrgyzstan, people don't like to adopt unwell children," says lawmaker Shirin Aitmatova. "Sadly, those ill children can't find parents. The best-case scenario is when a child is handicapped and [nurses] wipe kids' butts and put on dry pants.

"But with a single nurse on a tiny salary looking after 50 kids [in these homes], they have no stimulation that could help them overcome their disabilities," she says.

"We can't leave them there as they will rot there — it's sin," Ms. Aitmatova says. "But it is also sin to sell them like goods."

Activists say more should be done to keep children with their families before of sending them to live in far-flung corners of the world.

"First, the state must just take all steps to house a kid in his or her family surrounding, to be brought up in their biological environment by blood relatives," said Nazgul Turdubekova of Defenders of Children's Rights. "And only if there is no such surrounding should a child be put up for adoption."

Edil Baisalov, who has taken over as acting head of the Ministry of Social Development since Mr. Sabirov's arrest, says the top priority is to find adoptive families in Kyrgyzstan but that is not easy, particularly in the case of children with illnesses and disabilities.

"[Illness] is the most likely reason that biological parents bring their children to state orphanages," he says. "We are not going to avoid our duty to those kids. We can't let them grow up and be a burden on our society either as these kids in car often end up being institutionalized or in prison while suffering throughout their lives."

Mr. Baisalov insists that everything is being done to restart the adoption process. He hopes that new legislation aimed at closing loopholes that allowed corruption will be in pace by mid-December, and aims to see the number of international adoption agencies working in the country increase from 10 to 15.

But observers bemoan an atmosphere of paranoia in which accusations of "selling" Kyrgyz children have been aggravated by Russian TV reports in Kyrgyzstan documenting cases of Russian children suffering abuse at the hands of adoptive parents in the U.S.

Meanwhile, three of 65 children set for adoption by Americans and Canadians have died since 2009, as officials wrangle over the shifting bureaucracy.

"No child should wait days, months, years for family, love, caring," says Elena Voronina, a human rights activist in Bishkek. "While state officials decide who should deal with international adoption, how to avoid corruption and what mechanisms should be in place, 36 [of the remaining 62 children] are in need of complex operations, which they will not receive in our country. Are they doomed to a slow death?"