For years, Marina Guseva longed for a child, but last year when the dollmaker turned 44, she and her husband realized it wasn't going to happen the usual way. So the couple began to consider bringing home a child from one of the many orphanages in this city, located about 110 miles south of Moscow.
"At first, I didn't know where to go or who to ask," Guseva said. But then a friend pointed out one of the posters that had begun to pop up around this city of 360,000 people. They featured pictures of children, from infants to teenagers, with the words "I want a mother." Guseva called the number listed on the poster last January, and in June, 8-year-old Masha Yakovleva came home with her as a foster child.
"I feel as if we have known each other all our lives," said Guseva, who is raising the girl with the help of a generous foster allowance. "And she saw me as her mother from the very beginning."
This family's story is all too rare in most of Russia. But here in Kaluga, the local government has launched a media and financial campaign that has helped bring hundreds of children into foster and adoptive homes. The city and the surrounding administrative region are offering an example that could address one of the country's most pressing and seemingly intractable social problems: the fate of 250,000 children warehoused in often-bleak institutions.
Domestic adoption rates have fallen over the past 10 years, and there is increasing hostility to foreign adoption following the reported killings of a number of Russian children at the hands of American parents. Of the 170,000 children who are available for adoption each year, only about 8 percent are adopted domestically and abroad. Another 80,000 children in institutions cannot be placed with families because their legal status has not been finalized or is disputed, officials said.
A recent opinion poll found that 72 percent of Russians surveyed would not adopt children under any circumstances and 56 percent opposed foreign adoption. Taken together, those results suggested that a large segment of the population was willing to condemn orphans to permanent state care.
"There are a lot of myths out there: that nearly all of the children are very sick or have mental problems," said Tatyana Lepekha, director of a public relations firm and volunteer editor of "Hey, Parents!", a newsletter on adoption
Lepekha and her husband, Sergei, recently adopted 2-year-old Lada and expect to adopt another 2-year-old this fall. "What we need is to educate the public," she said. "There are a lot of people out there, like me, who can't have children and want children. They need to be shown the way."
A small number of Russian regions, including Kaluga, are trying to do that. In 2003, Kaluga Gov. Anatoly Artamonov, a member of the Kremlin-backed United Russia party, formed a committee of seven state employees and charged it with getting children out of orphanages and into families' homes. The group quickly concluded that economic insecurity among prospective parents was the principal barrier.
For Russians, getting a child into a good kindergarten can be a financial burden, requiring bribes or special donations, although school is ostensibly free. Parental responsibility in Russia also often extends to providing housing for children when they reach adulthood.
Kaluga's government pledged to enforce a national policy that is often ignored but that guarantees orphans places in the education institution of their choice, from kindergarten to college. The government also promised to abide by policies that state adopted orphans get a free apartment when they turn 18.
At the committee's urging, Artamonov in 2003 increased the monthly payment to foster parents to about $285 per child, the highest of any region in Russia. In Moscow, the monthly payment to foster parents is about $125.
Kaluga also created a monthly child allowance of about $105 for adoptive parents, another first in Russia, and increased the allowance for guardianship, a legal mechanism used mostly by relatives of orphaned children. Nearly 400,000 orphaned or abandoned Russian children are being cared for by relatives, officials said.
The committee launched a major public relations campaign depicting adoption as rewarding and civic-minded. It flooded the city with posters and postcards with pictures of children. It placed articles in all the local newspapers about families that had successfully taken orphans into their homes.
"People stopped being scared of the words 'adoption' and 'foster child' and 'foster parent,' " said Gennady Radchenko, a member of the committee. He said he believed a screening process weeds out people who are seeking to profit from parenting. "We want to say yes, but we often say no," he said. "We won't take just anyone."
The campaign is slowly emptying the region's orphanages. Five of 18 institutions have closed in the last two years; Artamonov has said his goal is to have only one orphanage in Kaluga five years from now. The number of institutionalized children has dropped from 1,000 to 600 in the last two years, and the average age of those remaining in state care is steadily rising as more and more infants and younger children, the easiest to place, move quickly into families' homes.
"This is a difficult problem but it's not an impossible problem," said Antonina Belkina, chairman of the local committee. "If you educate people, if you show them these wonderful children and if you have the money to help them, you can see the change."
Kaluga's program has begun to draw national attention from the federal government. In the last two months, the Education and Science Ministry launched a Web site picturing orphans and offering information on adoption and other forms of custody for Russians in the country's 89 regions.
Prospective parents can type in the preferred sex, age and physical characteristics of a child to retrieve pictures of orphans in their neighborhood, with a short description of the children, including their temperament.
The ministry recently produced television advertisements encouraging adoption and other forms of custody and is negotiating with the country's TV networks to place public service spots in prime time. The ministry has also put in place a system that allows Russians to find phone numbers for more information by simply text-messaging the word deti (children) to a number on their cell phones.
"We looked at the experience of a number of regions that have made very good progress," said Sergei Apatenko, director for youth policy at the ministry, pointing to Kaluga as well as the cities of Samara on the Volga River and Perm in the Ural Mountains region. "We understand that raising a child in a family is always the best option, and that's our priority because every child has the right to a family. It's a huge problem, but we are taking the first steps, and new forms need time to take root."
Skeptics fear that the country's system of orphanages, which cost $1 billion a year, will be difficult to dismantle because of entrenched bureaucratic and economic interests. Moreover, critics say, most regions don't have the staff with the training or will to welcome prospective parents, and many people are turned off after their first encounter with the system.
"There are many people with great interest in not allowing these children to get out into the world," said Boris Altshuler, head of the advocacy group Right of the Child. "Adoption and foster care threaten their budget and their jobs."
To address that concern, Gov. Artamonov has declared that vacant orphanages in Kaluga will be converted into family support centers and employees will continue to have jobs.
The number of children adopted, both by domestic and foreign parents, has grown slightly to about 120 a year, but the number of children in foster care has gone from close to zero in 2002 to 500 today. In all of Russia, only 3,517 children entered foster care in 2004, according to the Education and Science Ministry.
For Galina Ivicheva, a divorcee who became the foster mother of a brother and sister, ages 6 and 7, the financial support in Kaluga allowed her to have the children she always wanted.
"These children are mine and I will always be their mother," said Ivicheva, 44, who works in a local store. "But the support I get makes a big difference. Recently, I was out of work for nine months, and I didn't have to worry about how I would care for them. That gives you great peace of mind. It helped me make my decision."