In light of the recent publication by HRW (Human Rights Watch), renewed attention has been given to the impact of institutionalism in Armenia and the promised reformation responsibility of the Armenian government. The report is an investigation into the “abuses and discrimination against children in institutions and lack of access to quality inclusive education”, which particularly concerns the discrimination of children with disabilities and the use of institutions as long-term alternatives to care.
It has been observed that countries of the former Soviet Union generate the largest amount of children in state care, who are also at the highest risk of abuse and neglect. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union countries in the region have undergone a transitions away from a socialist economies, which has presented adversities on societal and economic levels. In Armenia there are three types of residential institutions, orphanages, residential special needs, and night boarding institutions. Unicef reports that nearly 3,500 children are in residential institutions; often this is for socio-economic reasons despite children having living parents or a family network. Furthermore, of the 670 children in orphanages, 70 percent have disabilities, which demonstrates the lack of a community support system to help families provide specialized care.
The HRW report details multiple studies have found that long-term institutional care impedes children’s “physical, cognitive, and emotional development”. One investigation developed these observations further and demonstrated “children exposed to institutional care often suffer from “structural neglect” which may include minimum physical resources, unfavorable and unstable staffing patterns, and social-emotionally inadequate caregiver-child interactions”. When Unicef looked directly into this issue in 2010 their report concluded that the institutional methodology in Armenia was more concerned with “correcting defects” than focusing on the development of skills. Human rights abuses were noted through suppressed individualism, whereby there was a lack of sufficiently trained specialized personnel who could provide the correct care or enhance development of children with difficulties. Principally, the institutions worked to maintain the institutionalization of children rather than directly working with their families as an alternative system to care.
Since the original 2010 Unicef report, the Armenian government has taken initiatives to reduce the number of children in long-term care through a process of deinstitutionalization. In 2011 the “Every Child Needs a Family” campaign was launched, which saw 400 children return to their biological families. They also stated a commitment to provide support to families through community-based services and promised to reform the education system, which now allows children with disabilities to study in their communities in inclusive schooling. However, the latest research has placed the Armenian government under intense scrutiny with human rights organizations demonstrating that they must do more to protect the rights of those marginalized in society. Government policies on deinstitutionalization have been deemed discriminatory, by HRW, as they continue to segregate children with difficulties in the community schools because of a lack of accessibility and specialized support.
While progress has been made, the Armenian government must continue with their commitment to prioritize family-based care and allow all children the right to a quality education. It is reminded of its obligations under international law, where the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that the core element of individualized education allows “each student to live, study and act autonomously, with adequate support, taking into account individual capacities.” The dismantling of long-term institutionalism must be replaced by rehabilitation services in the community. Notably, financial support offered to poverty-stricken families is below the minimum cost of living. This fails to address the core of the problem of institutionalism and the Armenian government should predominantly focus on implementing sustainable support systems for families to break away from the long-term reliance on state-care.
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