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Feature Story January 22, 2003
Bleak House
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 5 of 7
Many kids treat members of the staff at the priyut like surrogate parents, calling them mama and papa. Kravchenko, Tishenko and others know all the kids and their problems individually, and really do love them. The staff even takes a perverse pride in the fact that many kids, when they run away from their detdoms, head straight for the Solnyshko.

The scope of developmental problems at the Solnyshko is remarkable. The first thing I noticed is that most of the kids are very small for their age, a telltale sign of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. After spending a little time with them, it was clear that they are all textbook examples of what happens when a mother drinks heavily during pregnancy.

The younger kids were extremely uncoordinated and hyperactive. It's hard to quantify, since all little kids are clumsy and like to make noise, but these kids were more chaotic than most. They were all sweet and really cute, but I don't envy the nannies, who work in pairs, charged with watching over fifteen hyperactive kids aged 3 to 9.

FAS symptoms were particularly acute in two sisters, Dasha and Ira, aged 6 and 7. Both have bright, irresistible eyes that always seem to be looking up hopefully, maybe because they are so small that they look like 3-year-olds. They are mentally stunted as well. Ira is the only kid in the priyut with a physical deformity - she has an opening in the roof of her mouth called volchya past, or wolf's mouth, that severely impedes her speech. She's scheduled for corrective surgery in Blagaveshensk in February. She could have had the work done before, but her mother would drink away the monthly pension Ira received for her disability. Once the girls were already living in the priyut, Kravchenko established contact with their father, who came to pick them up. But after taking a look at them, he declined.

From what I noticed with the younger kids, they didn't seem traumatized by being abandoned; it's only with adolescence that the kids start manifesting psychological problems. The young ones are just kids, albeit ones who are behind the growth curve, both physically and mentally.

Ludmilla Aleksandrovna, the head nurse, said that pretty much every kid there shows some symptoms of FAS. They are constantly falling ill because of their weak immune systems, and many of the older kids have severe learning disabilities and difficulties in school. It is hard to isolate the cause of these problems, since many of these kids didn't attend school regularly before moving to the priyut, and they have ample reason to have emotional issues that would also surface as learning disabilities. The growth defects could also be due to malnutrition. Still, no one doubts that FAS contributes to their troubles.

Some of the kids had never been to school before moving to the Solnyshko. One family of four kids from the Sershevo village, aged 13, 11, 9 and 8, studies in third, second, first and first grade, respectively. Most Russian 13-year-olds are in eighth grade, yet the oldest one from that family, Fedya, can barely read. He is one of the most outwardly troubled kids, constantly acting up in school and bullying other kids. The one boy with a black eye at the Solnyshko got it from Fedya.

During my visit, Fedya's illiterate 9-year old brother, Vasya, asked me to read a letter from their mother. Before I got through the opening greetings, Fedya had grabbed the letter and threatened to smack him upside the head for showing it to me. Later, when Tishenko read it to Fedya, the boy wept. Tishenko said that it was clear from the tone that his parents were still drinking and not about to make any effort to retrieve their children.

In the past, kids found by chance in the taiga have arrived not knowing how to use a fork or what toilet paper is. Nobody knows how many families there are out in the taiga living in conditions of poverty that stuns even the hardened workers of the Solnyshko.

Compared to all of these problems, the fact that some 30 percent of the kids smoke seems trivial.

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