TALLINN - Oksana was about eight when a social worker took her away from her drug addicted mother and placed her in a Tallinn home for at-risk children. But for her 16-year-old-sister, fate was less kind: she was placed in one of Estonia's inhospitable orphanages.
Erki Korp, manager of the Tallinn Center for Children at Risk, says Oksana's humble abode, in which her bed is one of 16, is far better than the alternatives. Importantly, the children who live there now agree. As a result, youngsters who for whatever reason can no longer stay with their parents often turn to this shelter.
"They provide food, clothes and opportunities to wash. Why shouldn't these children want to come here?" says Alo, who has been at the center for a year.
After the center, Alo will go to the SOS-type children orphanage in Tallinn's Maarjamae area, part of the city's system of orphanages. Alo says he will live with a family with six other children from similar walks of life. One will be a friend from the Tallinn center.
Alo was a victim of an untimely family death. After his father died, his mother could not cope with raising five children. Deprived of parental supervision and a sense of family, Alo decided to go all the way and live life utterly free of restrictions and negativity.
"I did not want to go to school. I went to parties and stayed with my friends. There were three brothers [in my family], who had to go to school. It was not about money. She [mother] could not handle us all," he said. Alo's two sisters (younger) are now in an orphanage on Hiiumaa Island, and his two older brothers live in Tallinn (neither with their mother). He sees his brothers in Tallinn sometimes and communicates with them by e-mail. His mother used to visit him periodically at the beginning of his "independence stint," but she eventually understood that it was better not to meet and let things run their course.
He says he likes the center; a much better place than an orphanage, he claims. The regimen is tough, which is exactly what he needs.
Although he has spent his last year at the center with about 10 younger children running around, the 16-year-old is doing well at school and planning to continue his studies at the university. When he turns 18, the city will give him a flat to live in and 400 kroons (27 euros) in monthly support. Even though the government is providing housing and a small income, Alo says he plans to work hard in order to depend on no one.
Alo says he would like to be a history teacher or a lawyer some day.
The center's primary aim is to get the children back home. (A full-time psychologist works with the children, their parents and the school.) About two-thirds do return, and about one-fifth end up in orphanages. The Tallinn Center for Children at Risk has provided shelter to about 2,000 children since it began operating in 1993. The year 1998 was the busiest, when 24 kids would sometimes be accommodated in a single day. Some children were brought in from the streets, examined by a medical nurse and then dispatched to appropriate places the next day.
Usually children stay in a center for a day, but some as many as two months. Sixty percent of the children leave within a week. Some of the children are brought by the police, some by child protection or social workers. Yet some come by themselves. Ten-year-old Oksana has been here twice, and both times she was led by a social worker. Her parents are divorced, and her mother, who took drugs, now lives in London. Oksana has not seen her for three years.
As Korp explains, "There are no street children in Estonia." About 20 out of the 50 children seen on the street are runaways from children's homes, he says. The main reason why children end up in his center is because their parents are dead, or they have become alcoholics, drug addicts or unable to take care of their children.
"There was a case when a family abandoned their daughter because she had received a grade in school that was unsatisfactory. The police found the girl on the street and brought her here," said Korp.
The Tallinn Center for Children at Risk is not just a place where children are given the basic needs of living 's it is also a place where children are given emotional support in various forms of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Aside from having a warm place to sleep at night, clean clothes to wear and a caring community to rely upon, children also have tutors and other employees with educational experience in their presence most hours of the week.
Korp says, "Many of the children have started to receive better grades after they were brought to the center." One former resident even graduated from school with a silver medal.
Korp also manages a center for drug addicted children. Tallinn Center for Children at Risk/Drug Rehabilitation has been operating for over five years now. It is a closed building for 30 children, where they stay some 10 's 12 months.
The budget for the two centers, which has 57 employees and 46 spaces, is 8.5 million kroons (540,000 euros), 7 million of which goes to salaries. Foster families receive 900 kroons each month for each individual child. In Korp's opinion, the latter amount is not enough to cope.
"The problem is that we are taking only children from the Tallinn area, and others are not getting help. This is state responsibility, according to the children rights perspective," he said.
In Korp's opinion, the drug unit should be accommodating 300 children rather than the current 30. Many in need are sent home as soon as they promise to improve; however, Korp says action should be taken during the very first stage of the problem.
The center for children without parental care is located at Paldiski mnt 51, and the special regimen center at Nomme tee 99. www.lasteturva.ee