Legal protections for mothers and renewed efforts from civil society are persuading more and more parents not to sent their disabled babies to orphanages. From

“Let’s take her to an orphanage, then wait and see: if she becomes human in a year, we will bring her back [home].” This is how the grandmother of little Alina, recently born in a maternity hospital in Yerevan, reacted when she learned that the child had Down syndrome.

Alina is the third child for the Torosyans, a family from a village in Syunik, the southernmost province in Armenia. Their first child also has health problems, and so the grandmother persuaded the parents to take Alina to an orphanage and abandon the baby.

The child’s 38-year-old mother was in despair. She knew nothing about Down syndrome and  was afraid of what was in store if she kept the child.

“I wasn’t expecting this. It was very difficult for us; we did not know how the villagers would react,” the mother says abruptly.

Alina’s story ended happily. After talks with specialists from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the Bari Mama charity, the parents changed their minds about sending her to an orphanage. The experts explained to them that Down syndrome is not a death sentence and that the child needs plenty of parental attention.

Mothers usually drop the idea of placing their children in an orphanage when they receive clear information from specialists about the child’s condition, according to Anahit Kalantaryan, head of the children’s department at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

“When parents realize that their child is a little bit special, they are reluctant to abandon him or her. In fact, we all have something special within ourselves,” says Kalantaryan.

The Power of Persuasion

Bari Mama tries to persuade parents to take their children home from institutions, says Marine Adulyan, the charity’s director.

“Because the child needs parental love very much. It was an indescribable feeling when, more than our team, the ministry was fighting with all its might for these children to live in their families,” she says, referring to the new state policy that aims to keep children in their biological families.

Illustrations by Vahe Nersesyan, used with permission

The number of children abandoned by their parents has been falling. Labor Ministry data show that in 2018, parents in Armenia abandoned 33 children, and 34 in 2019, but only one up until early March 2020.

Bari Mama, which has been assisting families and children since 2014, keeps its own statistics. According to Adulyan, the number of abandoned children has fallen from 70-80 a year in the first years after the group began, to 35-40 per year now.

Key to this positive change – which has so far seen about 150 children returned to their biological parents – are the successful cooperation between the state and NGOs, and the state policy of keeping the child in the biological family, Adulyan says.

“When a child returns to his or her family, it is not as though we forget and sever ties with them. We keep track, we call, we inquire about the problems they have. I hope the social services will develop in our country, and those families will no longer need us,” she says about the work of her organization.

The organization also runs Bari Tnak, a center in Yerevan for people with disabilities and those in need of social and psychological support.

Under Stress

Who or what incites mothers to abandon their disabled children?

Every family’s situation, and every child’s story, is different. According to the Labor Ministry, no studies have been done on why parents abandon children, but the experience of Bari Mama suggests that parents tend to take action if they receive no psychological support and feel unable to care for the child unaided.

As several high-profile cases in Armenia in recent years suggest, it is not uncommon for relatives or health-care providers to urge mothers to give up their children. Ingrained public opinion also can play a big role in the mother’s refusal to keep a newborn with problems.

“Imagine a parent having a child who, let us say, does not look the way they dreamed of. A painful phase begins: the parent wonders why he or she should go through so many problems? And it is at that moment that one must choose one’s words very carefully. More caution is required from medical personnel, as it often happens that doctors start advising the parent to abandon the child, saying, ‘leave it, and you will lead a better life,’” Adulyan notes.

Born without hands and a foot, Gagik (the name has been changed) was abandoned by his parents in 2014, at the urging of medical personnel. His parents were depressed and suffering from severe psychological distress.

Doctors had failed to detect the child’s physical problems during pregnancy. After the birth, the mother gave in to the urge to abandon him. The parents left for Russia to recover from the stressful situation. Gagik stayed in the orphanage.

That was when Bari Mama was created through the efforts of Marina Adulyan and a group of like-minded women. And a year after leaving the child, in 2015, with the help of Marina and the others, the parents – by then returned to Armenia – were able to take Gagik home from the orphanage.

“Finally, everything fell into place, and the baby returned to the family,” says Adulyan. “When the baby was born – and when it was so important for the parents to feel that they were not alone and would be able to overcome this ordeal – instead of helping, the doctors urged them to abandon the child, as the parents would not have been able to take care of the baby. The mother was in deep shock, the father was lost in despair, and the people who had taken the Hippocratic Oath urged them to take the worst step. Unfortunately, this is what Armenian reality looks like. And the health-care workers are also to blame for the bitter fate of the children in orphanages.”

Today, Gagik, now 5 years old, is growing up with his parents, who share their child’s success, giving him love and tenderness. Marina mentions that Gagik’s father often sends videos capturing the boy jumping, playing, and delighting his parents with a loud laugh.

Should Child Abandonment be a Crime?

Early this year, the Labor Ministry proposed tighter penalties for inciting or forcing an individual to give up their parental rights, including the possibility of prison time. The government approved the bill in February and sent it to parliament for debate.

During a cabinet meeting where she outlined the proposed changes, Labor Minister Zaruhi Batoyan said violations of parental rights pose a serious challenge for Armenia. She also noted many statements from the public about parents, especially mothers of newborns with Down syndrome and other health problems, being taken advantage of or deceived into giving up parental rights.

“Such actions threaten the child’s right to live in the biological family; they contradict the state policy of strengthening the family and the principles of mutual assistance, responsibility of all the members of the family, and the inadmissibility of any arbitrary interference with family affairs,” Batoyan said.

As part of the state’s strategy to reduce the numbers left in orphanages, in April 2019 the Labor Ministry, Health Ministry, and Bari Mama signed a trilateral memorandum on preventing child abandonment. Their goal is to stop the practice of institutionalizing children with health problems and ensure the child’s right to live in a family. The memorandum also foresees training medical personnel – who, as noted above, often encourage women to give up their disabled children – and recommends placing psychologists in maternity hospitals to counsel mothers and other relatives to prevent child abandonment.

The government’s campaign against child abandonment has also seenthe Labor Ministry open day-care centers in 26 localities, with four more centers planned to open soon.

“Children with certain problems can receive professional help in these centers,” the ministry’s Kalantaryan says. If need be, staff will travel to visit children in need of assistance, she adds, which can also take the form of financial help or food and clothing.

Families who take their children back from institutions are eligible for some state aid in the form of food baskets suitable for the child’s age and a refund of electricity bills for one year.

However, Adulyan of Bari Mama points out that these children may still face a lack of understanding, particularly in remote areas. Society is guided by the stereotype that a child with a disability is sick, and people are often ashamed to keep such a child, she says.

“No matter how much we raise awareness about disability issues and the need for inclusion, still they say that they do not want a sick child at home because it makes them ashamed in front of relatives and friends,” she says.

Karine, 45, and her newborn son have been living at Bari Tnak for a long time. Her third son has Down syndrome. The father is in prison, and the other members of the family do not want to accept Karine with her beloved baby.

“My relatives will not let me in the house; they say, ‘either the child or us.’ My husband is unable to help us from a distance,” Karine says. “I am in a difficult situation. We are rejected, but I will not give up my child, no matter what they say. I will raise my little miracle.”

Update: On 19 June, the Armenian Parliament adopted a bill making it a criminal offense to incite or force a woman to renounce her parental rights. Violators are liable to fines of up to 500,000 drams ($1,000) and prison terms of from several months to four years if the accused is a member of the woman’s family, or up to five years and deprivation of some working rights in the case of a health worker. 

This article originally appeared on the Armenian news outlet Medialab, as part of the Strengthening Independent Media in Europe and Eurasia project, funded by Internews. Transitions has done some editing for length and style. Medialab was founded in 2015 with the initial goal of promoting political cartooning in Armenia as a means of flagging important social issues, such as domestic violence, gender equality, and equal opportunities, among others.

Translated by Amalya Soghomonyan.