Armenia has adopted a policy of moving children out of institutions into families, also known as deinstitutionalization. For a long time the Armenian Government has been taking steps to organize care for a child within his/her biological family, and if not possible, by administering alternative family-based care.
The Family: An Irreplaceable Environment
A child’s right to family life is enshrined in Armenian and international legal documents and is considered a priority in Armenia’s 2017-2021 Strategic Plan on the Protection of the Rights of the Child.
International experience, as well as research on child development, has shown that 24-hour care institutions do not provide favorable conditions for the complete development of a child. Hence, a family environment is the most favorable environment for a child’s care and protection. Financial analysis carried out by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also shows that this approach is cost-effective, supportive of a child’s natural development and, if services are accessible, keeps the child within his/her family and community.
The most preferred type of care for a child after deinstitutionalization is within the biological family, and if not possible, within alternative types of care which include adoption, guardianship and trusteeship, foster care, social daycare centers for children, child support centers, boarding schools, general and specialized institutions providing social protection to the population by giving priority to family type institutions and for children with special needs to specialized family type institutions
The first three types of alternative care mentioned above are considered family-based care and are prioritized based on the order stated: adoption, guardianship/trusteeship and in case the two are impossible, foster care.
Foster Care in Armenia
According to Article 137 of the RA Family Code, foster care is the temporary care and education of a child in a difficult life situation within another family environment that has been chosen by qualified authorities and has been registered, trained and certified until the situation due to which the child has ended up in foster care has been eradicated.
The foster care system was first initiated in Armenia in 1999 when an agreement was signed between France and Armenia. This agreement launched the program titled Organizing the Care of Children Aged 3-12 from Orphanages in Foster Families. Through this program, nine children were moved to foster families. However, not until 2008 did foster care receive official status through the RA Government Decision N 459.
In terms of strategy, 2014 was an important year. In that year the Armenian Government made changes to the country’s 2013-2016 Strategic Plan on the Protection of the Rights of the Child. Through this strategic plan, the process of dismantling large institutions that provided care and protection for children was given priority, hence, bringing the foster family as a method of alternative care for children left without parental care to the forefront.
In 2016, the Armenian Government approved a concept paper and action plan in regards to providing alternative care services to children in difficult living situations.  On July 13, 2017, the Government approved the 2017-2021 National Strategy and Action Plan on the Protection of the Rights of the Child. The latter includes several programs aimed at the protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the child by recognizing the child’s best interest and the right of the child to be cared for in a family setting.
The most recent changes to foster care which were aimed at completing and defining the general clauses established by the RA Family Code took place on June 13, 2019 when the Armenian Government decided to revoke Decision N 459 made in 2008.
The Situation in Numbers
According to data from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of Armenia, as of June 2019, 835 children continue to be cared for in state and private orphanages. This number has decreased over the years (from 975 children in 2008 to 835 children in 2018). However, the decrease in the number of children in orphanages is due to children without disabilities being removed from orphanages. Meanwhile, the number of children with disabilities continues to remain the same.
According to the same source, 468 of the 835 children have disabilities. Based on an ad hoc public report by the Human Rights Defender of Armenia, from 2015 to 2018, 97 of the 181 children moved from maternity wards to orphanages had health issues.
Despite the fact that foster care was legally established in 2008, by 2018 only 75 children were moved into foster care. Five of these children had disabilities.
When it comes to adoption, 15-20 percent of adopted children have disabilities. Despite the fact that the number of adoptions has decreased over the years, the number of children with disabilities has not significantly changed. The majority of children who have disabilities are adopted by non-Armenian citizens (9-11 children). According to data from 2016-2018, no child with disabilities was adopted by an Armenian citizen. As for non-Armenian citizens who have adopted children with disabilities, the majority has adopted children aged one to six.
Children with Disabilities Left in the Shadows
Children with disabilities are housed in three specialized orphanages - the Mary Izmirlyan Orphanage, the Kharberd Specialized Children’s Home and the Children’s Home of Gyumri. In the decision made by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs on restructuring institutions, not once were these three orphanages ever mentioned.
Despite the fact that Armenia has the international obligation to ensure equal protection of rights, legal analysis shows that current regulations have not taken into consideration the peculiarities of the protection of the rights of a child in difficult life situations.
It’s noteworthy that legislative acts on foster care don’t even mention children with disabilities. There are no clear mechanisms set to oversee the foster care of children with disabilities.
Even though the new regulations passed in 2019 established additional financial compensation for the care and education of a child, there is a need to revise the amount foreseen for the care provided depending on a child’s needs and characteristics. Care for children with disabilities, compared to children without disabilities, requires additional financial means. It is necessary to also foresee programs and events aimed at promoting care for children with disabilities and foster care.
Unfortunately, the foster care institution in Armenia is still not well-established. NGOs, foster families and other concerned parties, as well as international organizations, have often raised concern over the shortcomings of Foster Care and Trusteeship and Guardianship Bodies in carrying out their responsibilities.
Specifically, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in its concluding observations on the initial report of Armenia, raised concern on what kind of care large numbers of children with disabilities receive in institutions by mentioning suggestions made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, including prioritizing the deinstitutionalization of all children with disabilities and resettling them in family settings, providing support and promoting a positive image of children with disabilities, etc.
This issue was also touched upon by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic’s report on Armenia in which she suggests that Armenia focus efforts on overcoming child poverty and establishing proper living conditions to ensure children’s rights.
One of the main factors hindering the process of foster care is public perception. For years, people with disabilities were alienated from societal relations. They were practically “invisible” in public places. Their social, political and economic participation is very low. As a result of mythicisation of people with disabilities an environment of ignorance and inequality emerged. Within this environment, the lack of public consciousness on disabilities has led people who had children with disabilities abandon them or hide them within the walls of their homes in order to avoid any type of pity, alienation or persecution.
Attitudes toward disabilities differ when it comes to physical and mental disabilities. Citizens are more accepting of people with physical disabilities in public than those with mental disabilities. Based on a survey conducted by the Civilitas Foundation, 95 percent of respondents agreed that children with physical disabilities should be included in society. However, for children with mental disabilities, only 63 percent of those surveyed agreed that they should be included in society. Moreover, 23 percent found it acceptable to give a child up to an orphanage if they had mental disabilities, and 11 percent found it acceptable for children with physical disabilities.
Another survey conducted three years after the Civilitas survey found that only 12.9 percent agreed to the idea of giving up children with mental disabilities to orphanages or specialized educational institutions. There is a sharp contrast in attitudes when it comes to general education. According to the same survey, 40 percent agreed that children with mental disabilities can attend a general elementary school, while 71 percent agreed for children with physical disabilities. Twenty-five percent of the respondents agreed that children with mental disabilities can study in the same classroom with their children, while 40 percent agreed for children with physical disabilities.
Human Rights Organizations consider the main reason for this situation to be serious flaws in the awareness of disabilities. The report by the Human Rights Watch includes many individual cases regarding this issue. One of the many reasons children are abandoned in orphanages is due to low awareness of different types of disabilities.
High levels of social awareness will guarantee an increase in the number of people willing to become foster parents as well.
This project is funded by the UK Government's Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors' and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the UK Government.