Thousands of Babies Left in Limbo at Hospitals
Seven hours after Kristina Smirnova, 17, gave birth to her son, the doctor came into her room and said she should hand the baby over to the state.
“The baby is ill. He will not live more than a week. I think signing rejection papers is the only wise thing for a girl like you to do,” the doctor said, Smirnova recalled.
Smirnova had the baby at the Motorshchiki maternity ward in the east Siberian city of Barnaul on the morning of Oct. 31, 2005. She had no identification papers, no relatives, no place to live and no money. She had spent the last year living with her boyfriend, the baby’s father, but he broke up with her when he learned that his son was ill.
But Smirnova refused to sign the rejection papers, sparking a 2 1/2-month struggle to prevent the boy from joining thousands of babies caught in a hospital limbo. The babies, usually referred to as otkazniki, live in almost every children’s hospital in the country. No accurate figures are kept because the babies themselves do not officially exist. The babies are only counted once they are moved to orphanages — a process that by law should take no more than four months but in practice can take several years. While they wait, they are often neglected and sometimes abused.
Hospital staff commonly advise mothers who are single, very young or struggling financially to give up their babies, even those who are healthy.
“If Beethoven’s mother had been in one of our hospitals, they would have told her to give him up because she was from a poor family and ill with tuberculosis,” said Igor Beloborodov, head of Maternity and Childhood Protection, a nongovernmental organization.
Mothers of sickly babies often heed the hospital staff’s advice, including about 85 percent of those whose children are diagnosed with Down Syndrome, said Sergei Koloskov, head of the Down Syndrome Association. His wife was told to leave their daughter, Vera, at the hospital when she was diagnosed with the genetic disorder. She refused.
Ten years ago, Moscow health officials advised city maternity wards not to discourage new mothers by telling them that they would be unable to care for their babies. But that has not changed what people say privately.
Smirnova was released from the Barnaul hospital after a week, but the baby was kept in intensive care. Each time she returned to check up on him, she was urged to sign the rejection papers.
“Doctors, nurses and even cleaning ladies told me that I was stupid to ask for my baby back,” Smirnova said during a recent visit to Moscow to get medical treatment for her 19-month-old son.
Even though she had never seen the baby, she gave him a name — Vladimir. The boy was the only relative she had in the world, she said.
Her mother and grandmother died in her home village of Gordeyevo when she was 14. She tried for a few months to live with her father, who had divorced her mother and lived in another town with a new wife and their children. “I was a burden for them. I came back to my village and stayed with friends,” she said.
She met Vladimir’s father in the neighboring village of Belmesevo, and they fell in love. Smirnova said she thought he was a reward from heaven for the loneliness she had felt after her mother’s death.
Many young women who give up their babies share similar stories, Beloborodov said. They are from poor families and are in relationships where they sought a substitute for parental love. They often live with landlords who would evict them if they had a baby. In Moscow, many babies are given up by mothers who came to the city from the regions seeking a better life, Beloborodov said.
The procedure to give up a baby is simple, said a spokeswoman for the family, maternity and childhood department of the Health and Social Development Ministry. A married or single mother just needs to write a statement on a blank sheet of paper that she wants to put her child up for adoption for financial reasons or “difficult family circumstances,” the spokeswoman said.
After the statement is signed, the child usually is placed in the nearest children’s hospital until all bureaucratic procedures are completed.
Two cases of abuse have made national headlines this year. Yekaterinburg prosecutors opened a criminal investigation in January into a nurse suspected of taping babies’ mouths shut to stop them for crying at the city’s Infectious Diseases Hospital No. 15. In March, prosecutors in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, a town 85 kilometers east of Moscow, began investigating a hospital where children were tied to their beds with sheets. In both cases, hospital patients photographed the abuse with their cell phones and the pictures were shown on state television.
The rejected babies are a burden to the children’s hospitals, said Boris Altshuler, who advises ombudsmen Vladimir Lukin on the problem. Most hospitals do not allocate money to feed them or hire nurses to care for them. That means nurses typically visit their rooms three times a day — to feed them and change their diapers. Some hospitals don’t even have diapers, so the babies lie in wet sheets for hours, Altshuler said. Feeding is also a problem. Nurses rarely have time to hold a bottle of milk for each baby, so they put bottles into the babies’ mouths and leave them; if a bottle falls out, the baby goes hungry.
When mothers visiting their own children in the hospitals try to pick up the babies, they are often told, “Don’t touch them. They will then get used to being touched and will cry after you leave,” Altshuler said.
Since hospitals are closed institutions in Russia, volunteers are not welcome as they are in the West, said Nadezhda Davydova, who volunteers at several Moscow hospitals under a special agreement with administrators. “The administration has no right to let in sympathetic people,” she said.
Davydova said she, other volunteers and children’s rights activists were lobbying the government to place the babies in foster families and get them adopted. “It is naive to think that the problem is bad nurses all around the country,” Davydova said.
In a rare exception, a Christian charity is paying for a new hospital ward for 40 rejected babies in the city of Pskov, about 20 kilometers east of the Estonian border. Initiative Pskov, a Protestant-sponsored group, is also covering the salaries of a team of specialists to care for the babies and help place them in families.
By law, the babies can be adopted while still in the hospital. But information about them is entered into a national adoption database very slowly and is often incomplete.
Two years ago, prosecutors in the Altai republic fined a social services official for failing file information about a baby who had lived at a hospital for 18 months.
Some children never recover from their months in the hospital without someone to walk them, talk with them and hug them, Altshuler said.
“When the time comes to decide whether to place them in a regular orphanage or one for the mentally disabled, they are at risk of being placed in the second. This means they will never go to a regular school,” Altshuler said.
Smirnova only got her son, Vladimir, out of the hospital when a friend helped her obtain a passport and rent an apartment. She receives 3,000 rubles ($115)) per month from the state to care for the boy, who has neurological and heart problems. Doctors still advise her to give him up.
Smirnova recently invited another young woman, Nastya, to move into the rented apartment with her. Nastya’s sad story mirrors her own. She is expecting her child in August.
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