Orphans in Georgia: a new approach

Article published on Feb. 25, 2014
Article published on Feb. 25, 2014

When the Societ Union collapsed, Georgia was left with an awful legacy of harsh Soviet institutions which were supposed to 'look after' orphans, although abuse and suffering was rife. Now Georgia is striving to modernise, what is the best approach to take with the large orphan population?

She sits in a cor­ner, her eyes fo­cused on the walls. She doesn’t want to talk to any­one. Her boy­ish hair­cut, se­vere pso­ri­a­sis and oc­ca­sional fits of hys­te­ria and neu­ro­sis leave her iso­lated from the rest of the world. Tamari is only 13 years old. She does not know where her mother is and her fa­ther has been ac­cused of mo­lest­ing her. She and her two sis­ters can’t live at home any­more.

Tamari is not the only child in Geor­gia who is un­able to live with her par­ents. Many chil­dren are forced to leave their homes due to poverty, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence or be­cause their par­ents were al­co­holics, faced time in jail or just aban­doned them. Ac­cord­ing to Unicef, 95 per cent of in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized chil­dren in Geor­gia are known as “so­cial or­phans”.

These chil­dren, raised in or­phan­ages, face lit­tle op­por­tu­ni­ties and a life of poverty. More­over, their life in these in­sti­tu­tions leaves them with­out the nec­es­sary skills to find em­ploy­ment, and many find them­selves in­volved in street crime, drug deal­ing, and pros­ti­tu­tion. Over the years, sev­eral re­ports and ar­ti­cles have brought these dire sit­u­a­tions to light. In order to ad­dress these is­sues, the gov­ern­ment part­nered with Unicef to de­velop a new pro­gram that aimed to close down all state or­phan­ages and find these chil­dren new homes. Geor­gia ran about 72 or­phan­ages in 2003, serv­ing about 8, 000 or­phans. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics, only three or­phan­ages re­main out of the 49 that op­er­ated in 2005. The gov­ern­ment has made it clear that it wants to erad­i­cate these So­viet-style in­sti­tu­tions.

There­fore, in co­or­di­na­tion with the Min­istry of Labor, Health and So­cial Af­fairs of Geor­gia, the Char­ity Hu­man­i­tar­ian Cen­tre ‘Abk­hazeti’ (CHCA) started a new pro­ject in 2011: small group homes. These homes pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive to tra­di­tional or­phan­ages and fos­ter care. Un­re­lated chil­dren live in a home-like set­ting with ei­ther a set of fos­ter par­ents or a ro­tat­ing staff of trained care­givers. 

The boys and girls re­sid­ing in these homes are be­tween the ages of 6 and 18 and come from a va­ri­ety of eth­nic back­grounds. The homes aim to cre­ate a fam­ily style en­vi­ron­ment for the chil­dren, to sup­port their ed­u­ca­tion and de­vel­op­ment, and to pro­vide them with the pro­fes­sional skills nec­es­sary for an in­de­pen­dent life.

In Geor­gia, there are three mod­els: fam­ily-style homes for a max­i­mum of seven chil­dren, spe­cial­ized homes for a max­i­mum of 10 chil­dren, and SOS type homes that house around seven chil­dren. CHCA runs three homes in the Kakheti re­gion, but in total there are about 50 small group homes in Geor­gia and more than 10 providers: Car­i­tas Geor­gia, Di­vine Child, Child and en­vi­ron­ment, Bres Geor­gia, Bi­liki, SOS, and oth­ers.

After hav­ing lived in CHCA’s Small Group Home for two years, Tamari is a dif­fer­ent child. As she strokes her beau­ti­ful long brown hair, her eyes light up when you talk to her and she shows off her gor­geous smile. CHCA spent a lot of time work­ing to im­prove her psy­cho­log­i­cal state. Her pre­vi­ous ag­gres­sive­ness, neg­a­tive at­ti­tude and reser­va­tions have dis­ap­peared. She is able to speak about her suc­cesses at school and has sev­eral friends with whom she spends time. She is also learn­ing how to sew, and she now has her own sewing ma­chine. For the first time in her life, Tamari sees the fu­ture brightly.

How­ever, these small group homes are a tem­po­rary so­lu­tion. Around eighty per cent of these chil­dren have at least one par­ent who re­tains parental rights but is cur­rently un­able to care for their chil­dren. There­fore, the gov­ern­ment, in co­or­di­na­tion with Unicef and other providers such as CHCA, launched a cam­paign to re­unite these chil­dren with their bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents or rel­a­tives.

As a con­se­quence, Tamari’s life changed dra­mat­i­cally. After hav­ing lived in a small group home for two years, an uncle came for­ward. This last New Year was the first time that Tamari and her sis­ters did not spend in the or­phan­age. In­stead they cel­e­brated with lov­ing rel­a­tives. The girls ap­peared to be the hap­pi­est chil­dren in the world that day.

For Pri­vacy rea­sons the names in the ar­ti­cles have been changed.

Pho­tos cour­te­sey of Onnik James Kriko­rian. The pho­tos do not por­tray CHCAs Small Group Homes, but are a col­lec­tion of vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren in Geor­gia.