Tallinn's Support Center offers temporary home

  • 2000-09-21
  • Jaclyn M. Sindrich
TALLINN - "Nobody cares about the street kids," writes Kadri, a fourth-grader in Tallinn, in an essay published in a UNICEF booklet appropriately titled Notice Me. "They are noticed only when they steal something or do something bad."

What the average person sees - the handful of school-aged beggars wandering the city - is just the beginning, said Toomas Palu, director of UNICEF's Estonian branch, as he retrieved a stash of photos from a shelf.

He displayed the portraits made by several of Tallinn's street children, who were given disposable cameras and asked to document their lives for a report last year in the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress. One of the photos was of a child's home: a crumbling shack with a door hanging by a hinge, surrounded by a landscape of filth and garbage.

Though no exact tallies exist, it is estimated that several hundred children live this way in Estonia - on the streets with no family support, turning to gangs instead - and up to 5,000 more live in borderline circumstances of neglect, according to U.N. data. Proportionate to the country's population, the numbers are high, Palu said.

Many of the children are found committing petty crimes and are brought by the police to the Tallinn Child Support Center, one of two shelters in the capital, for free food, shelter and counseling.

The Tallinn central city government grants the center a building rent-free and also turns over "problem" children to the shelter. The Open Estonia Foundation, the King Bedouin Foundation in Belgium, the Swedish Save the Children Fund, the U.N. Development Program in Estonia and the World Bank support the shelter.

In the recently renovated building tucked on the edges of the city center, several small fair-haired boys weaved in and out of the bright, freshly painted rooms, cracking sly smiles at each other, saying "hi" to show off their English skills, and giving the center's director, Erki Korp, a high-five.

They are among more than 1,000 children who have been sheltered by the center since it opened in March 1999, most of whom are between the ages of seven and 14. Some stay only a single night, having run away on a rebellious streak, and are picked up by their parents the next day. Many more stay as long as six months, but there is no time limit.

The Tallinn Children Support Center houses up to 25 people and functions on a 2.5 million kroon ($138,900) per year budget. Throughout the day, children are treated by psychologists, counselors and pediatricians. But they also have plenty of time to just have fun, spending afternoons playing with LEGOs or watching TV. Social workers also take them out on field trips to the cinema or ice cream shops.

But the doors of the center remain locked from the inside to prevent escapes. The children here, though on the surface as happy and playful as children anywhere, suffer from higher levels of behavioral, emotional and physical afflictions than children in stable homes, said Korp.

A single trip to the center does not mean instant rehabilitation. And as the young boys and girls empty out their pockets when they come to the center, tokens of their troubles spill out - an array of small knives, lighters, matches, tubes of glue. "(Glue sniffing) is a very big problem," Korp said. He also showed a picture of a hypodermic needle for heroin found recently on a 12-year-old boy.

Estonia has 12 shelters for children, and the numbers they are receiving show no signs of decreasing, said Palu. Too many local authorities and politicians are not taking the problem seriously, he said, and NGOs continue to rely heavily on private foreign donors.

"Our politicians are too fast in getting ready for EU so they don't like to see reality," he said.

While conditions have significantly improved since the early 1990s after Estonia regained independence, nearly 20 percent of Estonian households with two children still live in poverty, and the numbers climb in households with more, according to the United Nations. The percentages are even higher of households that are at risk of poverty.

Not surprisingly, 60 percent to 70 percent of the children admitted to the shelters are victims of family problems, including poverty, violence, sexual and emotional abuse, often a result of the parents' alcoholism, said Korp.

Mothers who are victims of abuse can also come with their children for shelter and counseling. They are assisted in writing their resume, finding a job, and are given Internet time to find an apartment. But if a woman refuses counseling and resists becoming self-sufficient, she is asked to pay 38 kroons ($2.10) per day to cover living costs.

To discuss what can be done about the conditions of neglected children in the Baltics, as well as the Nordic countries, political leaders from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Scandinavia gathered at Tallinn's National Library on Sept. 18 for Child Forum II, a follow-up to a similar conference held last year in Stockholm.

The forum, organized by UNICEF, the Nordic Council and the Baltic Assembly, addressed how schools, as a center of education and society, can help prevent crime and alienation, as well as issues such as children and narcotics, perspectives of the young on the employment market and youth and politics.

About 2,000 children in Estonia do not attend school due to poverty, vagrancy and other family-related trauma, according to UN data. Social workers from the Tallinn Child Support Center accompany sheltered children to school, but it is often difficult to motivate them to attend, Korp said. To prevent them from being "marked" by teachers and other students, the center's workers may give their home addresses for the children to use.

While debates continue and the money supply for the children is never enough, UNICEF continues to try to elevate public consciousness by distributing leaflets on children's rights established by the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, now ratified by nearly every country in the world, as well as on how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse, fundrais-ing through its greeting card sales, and urging government to set aside money for free school lunches.

Local governments have finally been listening, he said, allotting five to seven million kroons for the lunch programs, and promising large increases next year.

"Approximately one-third of schoolchildren don't have one good meal a day," Palu said. "We are talking about kids who just want to eat at school."