Disabled Children of Georgia
The welfare of children is also a priority for the United Nations, which has just launched a year long investigation into the way they come to harm around the world. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia the research is focussing on those kept in institutions like children's homes and orphanages. Our Moscow Correspondent Damian Grammaticas travelled to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia where one third of children with registered disabilities end up in state institutions. The care they get there is often completely inadequate.
Driving west from Georgia's capital Tbilisi the road drops into a beautiful, green valley. Turn left and a bumpy lane takes you past attractive cottages, surrounded by orchards, heavy with fruit.
Crunching along the gravel you pass a ruined factory. It's a hulking shell, concrete walls crumbling, steel girders, like an exposed skeleton, rusting slowly. There are factories like it all over Georgia, evidence of an economy that collapsed following the Soviet Union's demise.
Cross a stream and you reach a set of gates. Beyond them is a long, double-storey building hidden behind some trees. In the grounds nurses in white coats watch over children. This is the Kaspi Children's Hospital, one of two institutions in this former Soviet Republic where children with severe mental and physical disabilities are sent.
As you walk down a long, dingy corridor you can hear crying and moaning. Occasionally there's a piercing scream. Push open any door and, in each grimy room, you'll find a small group of children, a single electric bulb, a few battered, old pieces of furniture, and a wooden stove for heating.
Some of the children are in wheelchairs, listless, their heads lolling to one side. On a bench sit three young boys, none is more than four years old. They are hunched, rocking back and forth, one sobbing gently. Another boy, perhaps seven years old, bangs his head rhythmically against the window frame. The wood is splintered and broken from the blows.
Kaspi is home to a hundred children. Most have been rejected by their families and dumped here. In Georgia disability carries a serious social stigma.
Georgia's situation is exacerbated by the economic collapse. The country used to enjoy the highest standard of living in the Soviet Union. Now half of all families live below the poverty line. State institutions simply can't afford to give the children proper care.
Each nurse at Kaspi earns twenty five dollars a month. That's less than half official poverty wages. The children get little love and no special therapy. Deprived of stimulation and treatment their disabilites grow more severe.
In the music room we found twelve year old Rosa. A slim girl with cropped dark hair and deep, dark eyes. Rosa has schizophrenia. She's Kaspi's newest arrival. She is intelligent and well aware of where she is. Crying she told us her parents had both died. Her aunt it seems didn't want to care for a child with a mental illness. So the aunt told Rosa she was taking her to school, and brought her to Kaspi.
"I don't like it here" said Rosa through her tears. "I'm angry with my aunt, she lied to me. I want to go home."
Officially the children are meant to leave at eighteen. But most have nowhere else to go so they stay put.
A few committed organisations like the UN Children's Fund UNICEF and the charity World Vision are trying to change this. Georgia's government, to its credit, has acknowledged that institutions meant to care for children can harm them. But few families want the disabled children back. Just two children have moved out of Kaspi in two years. So the emphasis now is on trying to prevent the children from being abandoned.
In Tbilisi I was shown a pilot project, a UNICEF sponsored kindergarten, where children with disabilities are taught in a regular school. The effect is astonishing. They are stimulated and engaged, completely different to the sad, introverted children in Kaspi.
At the kindergarten parents get classes in how to care for disabled children at home. I met Maya, a mother in her late twenties. Her son Dimitri has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. When her husband realised the boy was disabled he left Maya and Dimitri. She was, she says, too ashamed to take her son out in public. But she's now changed her thinking. She brings Dimtri to the kindergarten's every day and wants him to go to a normal school.
Dimitri is a chubby, happy boy. A perfect advert for the benefits of keeping children in a loving family environment and out of cold, hidden institutions like Kaspi. The difficulty is that it will take money and time to reform the system and change attitudes to disability. Meanwhile Rosa and others will stay stuck where they are, isolated, unhappy and alone.