A facility for disabled children is trying to change the way Belarus thinks about the most vulnerable members of society.

In the yard in front of the two-story buildings there are a small vegetable garden and a playground, where children are playing, accompanied by nurses. Other young residents, just back from school, run to their rooms to change clothes and get ready for a meal.

A scene like this would be routine at many children’s care facilities across Europe. But this residential home in Gomel, the second largest city in Belarus, is the only one in the country that allows children to attend regular schools and socialize with other kids.

With dozens of facilities housing almost 15,000 children and adults, institutional care facilities in Belarus can be dehumanizing places, say those who know them well.

“Only about 10 percent of children in residential facilities have contact with their relatives,” says Sergey Drozdovsky, who heads a civil society organization called the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

A typical residential facility for the disabled stands in marked contrast to the home in Gomel, with much stricter regimes. In these gender-segregated homes, residents can’t have their children with them and can’t leave regularly, go shopping, or to the movies. In total, some 14,000 people live in what are called “psycho-neurological residential homes”: 50 for adults, nine for children, and 22 for the elderly and people with physical disabilities.

These people are orphans, disabled children without parental support, adults, mentally ill elderly people, and some who have been victimized by their relatives.

My guides through the world of Belarus’s residential homes, Tatsiana Gerasimova and Olga Dominikevich, are teachers who also volunteer in several homes. The system behind such impersonal institutions cannot be allowed to go on, they insist.

“It’s too easy to give up a child legally. [Families] shouldn’t be able to do this. The government should try to leave the child in the family,” Gerasimova says.

There are often no alternatives to large residential facilities, and this leads to a situation where parents turn over responsibility for their disabled children to a bureaucracy, Dominikevich says.

“Children should be adopted by other families. When parents place a child into a residential home, they can legally give up the kid. After signing the papers, you are no longer responsible for the education and personal development of the child. The only responsibility you have is financial.”

Going Against the Grain

To date, the Gomel home is the only children’s institution in Belarus that has chosen a different path, one that respects the children as individuals and tries to tear down the walls separating them from the wider society.

A typical residential home for the disabled in Belarus is a closed establishment with limited public access, often located outside the city center.

These facilities operate largely out of the sight of the public, and even of the families of residents.

“The residential home is not a public establishment, so the living standards of the residents depend on the director’s personality,” Drozdovsky says.

In homes for children, even though these institutions fall under the remit of the Labor and Social Protection Ministry, the medical model prevails over the educational one.

“Medical services related to vital indices are of a high standard, but the level of service related to quality of life is really low,” Gerasimova remarks.

Many institutionalized children have diagnoses of impaired vision or hearing, but one won’t see a child wearing glasses, and hearing aids are typically locked away in a drawer so the child can’t break them, she says.

“Dental hygiene is a common problem,” she adds. “Children are careless about it, no one teaches them how to do it right. As a result, they don’t visit the dentist regularly, and their teeth are either taken out or capped with metal.”

Low morale among staff members also impacts the lives of residents.

“Junior staff realize the job isn’t highly respected, but they lack motivation to upgrade their qualifications and responsibilities,” says Daria Yaskevich, a psychologist in the adult department at a home in Minsk. She also tutors in various volunteer programs.

The Gomel home for disabled children with special developmental needs was founded in 2011 with donations from local and international sponsors, home director Galina Dolgopolova tells us.

Aside from getting its funding partly from non-state sources, it’s also unusual in being located in the city rather than the distant suburbs.

Smaller than the typical Belarusian care home, this one houses 35 children and 25 young adults.

Dolgopolova sets the bar high.

“The main goal of the establishment is the realization of children’s rights to high-level living standards,” she says. I know that to reach this goal, I have to hire highly skilled and motivated staff. We try to create comfortable working conditions for the personnel and don’t control them. If, for example, a child starts talking or learns new words or moves, we promote the employee.”

“We put a lot of emphasis on cooperating with parents. We see them as partners in the child’s education, so we need to support such families but not substitute for them,” she says.

A Family Atmosphere

To keep children’s ties with their families strong, children are allowed to take “social breaks” outside the home – living with their family for up to 28 days a year.

Many children in the facility suffer somatic, sensory, verbal, and mental disorders, Dolgopolova says, noting that families are more likely to abandon severely disabled children.

The goal is to “recreate a family atmosphere” between staff and residents, she explains. “Older children help younger ones, the stronger help the weaker. We try to set up the rooms individually for more psychological comfort.

“The main direction of our work is to return the child to his or her family,” she adds. Since 2016, the home has been able to reunite around five children with their families every year.

One such child, Denis, spent 18 years in the Gomel home. Now 20, he has Down syndrome. His grandmother, Olga Kadetova, says Denis’s mother was shocked by his diagnosis. It was her first child. She took the difficult decision to place her son in a care facility, but his family visited him every weekend and kept the connection alive.

When Denis turned 18, the family could have had him placed in an adult residential home, possibly for the rest of his life. Instead, his grandmother agreed to care for him. Denis and his grandmother now live in a new one-room flat in Gomel, provided by the government. Sometimes he visits his friends at the home.

“Denis, show us your photo album,” Olga says, although the young man is not listening.

“He misbehaves,” she says. “This is his apartment, after all. … Sometimes we get annoyed at each other, but he always comes to me first, makes a heart sign, and tells me he loves me,” she goes on, laughing.

“To tell the truth, my daughter is still upset that he doesn’t call her ‘mother.’ But he doesn’t know who she is; he lived in the residential home and saw her a few times a month.”

Life with Denis is better than she expected, his grandmother says. “I know that if he had been placed in an adult home, he could die. There is no education there. … Life with Denis is easy and fun. He is what he is. I love him so much. We are fine.”

As we walk with Dolgopolova around the grounds of the home in Gomel, she explains that although education is compulsory in Belarus, schooling for children in institutions depends on the situation in each facility.

“We drive the children to their schools, and our tutors assist them. They [the tutors and children] go to school together, help the children with their homework; they are the contact people if the child has problems,” the director says.

Children with more severe disorders are taught in the home.

Inspiring Example

Gomel is a shining example for Belarus, Drozdovsky says. With fewer residents than most homes, it provides more comfortable and homelike conditions in an atmosphere of trust between staff and residents. Crucially, it allows children to attend regular city schools.

The argument of some critics, that reform of other homes along these lines would be too expensive, is refuted by the experience of other countries, including fellow post-Soviet nation Moldova.

Moldova managed to cut the costs of residential facilities drastically while improving the quality of services through decentralizing the system and making local authorities responsible for facilities in their areas. The number of residential facilities fell from 67 to just 20 over the past 12 years, the Russian newspaper Kommersant wrote last year.

Moldova also offers an alternative to Belarus’s segregated educational system. In Moldova, mentally disabled children attend regular schools rather than separate ones.

The Lumos Foundation, a British charity founded by author J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, works to reintegrate orphans and abandoned children in Moldova and other countries. According to Lumos, the number of children living in institutions in Moldova fell from 11,544 in 2007 to 1,429 a decade later.

“Now we adapt the schools for the children, not children to schools,” the foundation’s acting director in Moldova, Domnica Ginu, told Kommersant.

The home in Gomel – smaller, more capable of delivering individualized care – remains an outlier in Belarus. Proponents say facilities like this can be formed on the basis of existing facilities, without extra expenditure. But even the most welcoming facility can never be a true home. Breaking up large, monolithic facilities into small units can only succeed if similar approaches are applied across the board, they say; the educational success of one facility can’t be replicated unless an inclusive environment exists elsewhere in the system. There are other issues around adult residents.

“If we said there was an ideal residential facility that could solve all our problems, we’d stay with the idea of residential homes,” Dominikevich, the tutor, remarks.

Gerasimova, my other guide, chimes in: “That’s why the home in Gomel should be the first step in reforming the system, but we must not get stuck there.”

“Gomel is a step in the right direction,” Drozdovsky, the disabilities expert, says. “The main disadvantages don’t concern the facility itself. It is the external system that isn’t evolving together with it. And if we leave it that way, things could get worse.

“No matter how good it is, a residential facility is still a residential facility.”

Eugenia Dolgaya is a freelance journalist in Belarus. Translated by Alena Pilchanka. Photos by Kseniya Halubovich.