From: kippaherring on

Thousands of Babies Left in Hospital Limbo
By Svetlana Osadchuk
Staff Writer

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

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

About 460 rejected babies live in hospitals in the Moscow region and
250 live in hospitals in the Sverdlovsk region, according to a
presidential administration report on child welfare issues. The
internal report dated April 2007, a copy of which was obtained by The
Moscow Times, gave no figures for other regions.

"The development of orphanages is neglected in many regions, so
rejected babies are kept in hospitals too long," the report said. "As
a result, they are deprived of walks outside and lie in bed for
months. They are delayed in their mental and physical growth."

In Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Sverdlovsk region, only about 20
of the 90 children living in hospitals are sick, said the city's
health department.

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

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

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

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 per month from the state to care for the boy, who has
neurological and heart problems. Doctors still advise her to give him

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.