The struggle for a home

  • 2006-02-08
  • By Elizabeth Celms
RIGA - Last August, to the horror of a nation, a baby was found wailing in a Riga dumpster. Her mother, who had been struggling to feed two mouths, had simply placed the infant there and walked away. Hours later, an unsuspecting passerby heard the baby's screams, pulled her out of the filth and rushed her to a hospital.

Laima ("lucky" in Latvian), as the girl was later named by medics at Gailezers University Hospital, soon made headlines. The news elicited a wave of charity across the nation. Within days, the hospital was receiving box after box of donations: money, diapers, baby food.

Horrible, said Latvian mothers. Appalling. Heart-wrenching. How could a woman do such a thing? Who could abandon a helpless baby? The public outrage was merciless toward the mother.

But the truth, is Laima's story is nothing new. Dozens of children are abandoned each year in Latvia. It is an awkward fact 's one swept under the rug 's but it has roots that wrap deep around the nation's economy, history, and demography, as well as its definition of social responsibility and welfare. The dilemma has existed for decades and, despite Latvia's EU membership and optimistic progress, is still being mulled over in a dark room by politicians and social workers.

But there's a window in this room. And each year the curtains are drawn back a little farther, letting in some light. The window is adoption.

Within borders

As many as 199 children were adopted in Latvia last year, the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs reported. In 2004, 180 orphans found homes. The increase is small, but significant.

Ainars Bastiks, minister for children and family affairs, says that two positive trends could be observed in 2005. First, local families have become more willing to adopt, and second, the disproportionate number between local and foreign adopters has decreased.

"Of course, we are happy for each parentless child who has found a new home," Bastiks told the Baltic News Service. "But having the option to grow up in one's native country is the best solution."

This, he said, is the ministry's main priority. In 2005, the government increased the amount of single-adoption allowance for Latvian families by almost one-third. Sixty families received financial support in 2004, compared with 88 last year.

As for foreign adoption, the number of ministry-issued permits has waned: In 2005, foreigners adopted a total of 111 Latvian orphans, while local couples adopted 88. The year before, 120 children were taken abroad and 60 stayed in Latvia. Most children go to France, followed by Italy and the United States.

"We're starting an information campaign to stimulate local adoption," Laura Kornete, senior desk officer of the ministry's adoption division, told The Baltic Times.

But why the sudden push? As Kornete explains, it has to do with Latvia's history.

"In Soviet times, adoption was kept secret," she says with a slight blush. "People were hiding this because it meant they couldn't have children naturally. They were scared what others would say."

This stigma alone kept many issues, from adoption to mental disability, in the shadows. Perhaps it even sheds some light on why a mother would choose to leave her baby in a dumpster rather than an adoption agency. But this question is a delicate one and cannot be approached simply.

"Now this is all changing," Kornete adds. "Today more families with their own children want to adopt in Latvia. Even with those couples who can't have kids, the attitude is changing."

But "attitude" is directly correlated with economics. With a steadily growing economy 's Latvia's 2005 GDP growth was the highest among EU members - more families can afford to adopt. And there is more financial support from the government's side.

Last year the ministry developed two new allowances for local adopters. When parents choose a child to bring home, they receive 35 lats (50 euros) a month for a two-month "trial period." When the adoption is finally approved, the couple receives 1,000 lats in allowance.

There are still about 3,000 children registered without parental care in Latvia. The bureaucratic paperwork and court legalities behind each child creates an absolute headache. But this is where the past 10 years prove how desperate the situation was, and how hopeful it is today.

A place called home

The Plavnieki Child Social Care Center in Riga exudes painted-on happiness. The playground is a rainbow of pink circles, blue ladders, green boxes and purple steps. The hallway walls are covered with drawings: bright red ladybugs, grinning daisies, June-blue skies and a sun that never sets. The beds are warm. The floors are carpeted. There's an aquarium in the corner. Indeed it's a happy place, but not a home.

The center houses 82 children between the age of six months and seven years. Most are waiting, although they don't yet know it, to be adopted. Every week "guests" come and go. They eagerly look the children over, crouch down to play with them and then hug them goodbye.

These "guests" are parents who have been approved by the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs to adopt.

Most of the children at Plavnieki CSCC are there because of a disability or health problem, center director Vesma Priedite explains. Not all are up for adoption. Some are too sick, others don't have a chance.

"It's very sad, but most children given up by their mothers have physical or mental disabilities. The mother either can't afford to raise a child with special needs, or she doesn't want to." Priedite says. "Many children we take care of were born with HIV. Their stories are the saddest. Realistically, they won't be adopted."

Plavnieki CSCC serves as both a rehabilitation center for infants and as a temporary home. Once they reach the age of seven, the children move to other social care centers, as Plavnieki CSCC's therapists, psychologists and nannies are only trained to take care of young children.

"Half of our children do have parents, we just take care of them for a week or so to give the parents a break and to provide professional therapy," the director says. "We have a team of physical therapists, speech therapists and psychologists who work with each child."

Then there are children who are in the middle of a complicated and lengthy legal process. And there are those who passed. These children are free to be adopted.

"The most difficult part of the adoption procedure is taking the children away from their biological parents," Priedite says. "But fortunately, this is also where there's been the most governmental progress.

Kornete agrees: "The biggest change is that the court has put more priority on the child's needs than the parents. This is crucial for the process to move forward."

When social workers take a child from a high-risk home, she explains, the parents are provided with a window of legal opportunity. They have six months to stop drinking or improve the situation at home under the surveillance of the district court. If they prove themselves, they can begin a legal process to regain custody. If not, the parish court deprives the parents of legal authority and the child becomes adoptable - that is if there are no relatives or legal guardians to be found.

Once the adoption is approved, parents have no right to regain custody. They can, however, appeal the parish court's decision, Korete says, but this rarely happens.

"Many orphans were taken from families with domestic problems - alcoholism, or they have too many children already, or they can't afford the child," she explains. "Usually the problem is a combination of alcohol and economics."

Proper focus

Looking back, Priedite takes no small step for granted. She remembers what a nightmare it used to be, trying to take a child vulnerable to domestic neglect or abuse from his parents.

"It was like a tug of war," she reflects. "So many children were returned to their parents, because the laws were in their favor."

In the past 10 years, the government has made a huge turn-around. The biggest progress was seen within district courts, which legally reweighed adoption laws to consider the child's needs. This has made the process much easier, and helped social institutions such as Plavnieki CSCC immensely.

"Finally the focus is on the children," Priedite says. "What they need and want."

Both Kornete and Priedite are sanguine about Latvia's situation. They know there is much to be done, but they are patient. Gradually, their patience is being rewarded.

"Our social care centers are filled with love and warmth," Kornete says. "But the child deserves a family. No center can provide the love and warmth of a family."