The first thing that greets you is the smell: it is a specific stench that, unless you have experienced it, is hard to define. It is a combination of stale urine, boiled cabbage and fear. It is a smell that remains with you long after you leave the building. And, no matter how much they wash, it is a smell that remains on many children for weeks after they leave an institution and move into a family home.
This residential special school is a three hour drive from the capital. It is remote, isolated and inaccessible. It is typical of everything that is wrong with the institutional system of caring for children.
The main building is familiar to me even before we arrive – an immense, grey, concrete block, like so many others in the former Soviet bloc. I know the layout immediately, because they were all designed in the same way. I imagine that a factory in some former Soviet republic produced all the institutions for children, in the same way that all trams were produced in Czechoslovakia and all the parachutes in what is now Transnistria. An identikit building, designed to homogenise an entire population, and to raise a generation of children loyal to the Party and the State.
Such thoughts are reaffirmed as I enter the lobby of the building: 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we are greeted by a bust of Lenin. I have been visiting this country for ten years and I have never seen such open homage to the old regime, whatever people may think privately.
The Director is also there to meet us, eager to show us around her empire. We walk to her office through corridors that are dark and dank. The floors are wet and, as we walk around the institution, 20 metres ahead of us there is always the same elderly woman mopping the floor furiously. Those children we pass do not raise their eyes to look at us. Even when we try to engage them in conversation, their gazes are fixed, firmly, to the floor.
We are taken to the Director’s office for the obligatory discussion about the institution’s history and its incredible success as a school.
“We have 120 children here,” she tells us. “They all have special educational needs and we do our very best to provide a good education for them. But more than that, many of these children come from terrible families. Here we provide them with the care they need – we are their parental home.”
I think about the stench, the damp, the deadened eyes of the children and wonder what sort of home this is.
“We opened in 1956,” she continues, proudly, “and since then more than 5,000 children have come through this institution. We have many successes to be proud of: some of our ‘graduates’ have established their own families and now their children are living here with us.”
There is no irony in her statement. She appears to believe what she is telling us.
“Our children have many problems, illnesses and terribly difficult behaviours,” she explains. “So many of them have enuresis, but the doctor gives them pills to treat it.”
Enuresis – or bedwetting – is a common problem for children in institutions. Here, it is exacerbated by the toilet situation. I am sure the Director had hoped we wouldn’t visit the toilets when she showed us around the building, but we do. The floors are sparkling and covered in brand new rugs. The stench, however, cannot be hidden. And when I enter each of the five cubicles I find that each is covered in old excrement: none of them is functioning.
It is clear that there are no toilets here that work. For the 120 children who live here, going to the toilet means visiting the latrine outside. In winter, the temperature falls to minus 25°C. No wonder that so many of the children wet the bed. I am sure if I had to walk half a mile of lonely corridors, out into the trees in the deep snow to find the stinking latrine that I, too, would wet the bed.
Our next stop on our guided tour is the kitchen. Here, two cooks are preparing a chicken dinner for the children. This, I am later reliably informed, is a rare occasion. The children do not often receive meat. As we are there, a piece of meat falls on the floor. One of the cooks picks it up, hesitates, looks at me, and even though she sees that I am watching, she throws it back into the pot.
The dining room is next door - dark, dank and huge. Row upon row of Dickensian, bare tables and wooden benches.
We move on to the classrooms. Here we meet some of the children and see them at their lessons. The six and seven year olds are so small. My colleague bends down to speak to one the girls.
“What are you working on?” she asks.
“I want my mummy,” she responds, her eyes filling with tears.
Several of the other children also look on the verge of tears. I sit next to one little boy and try to make contact. He turns away, refusing to make contact. He is terrified.
We walk to another classroom, filled with 10 and 11 year olds. They cope better with our visit. They answer our questions, jump up and say a few words in English, and offer to help me improve my Maths. They are all bright kids. I have yet to see one child who I think would need special education. Again, though, there is a girl looking sad. She sits in the corner, on her own. We ask the Director what is wrong with her.
“Oh, she was at home with her mum for a month,” the Director responds loudly, “but she came back to us yesterday and she isn’t used to it yet.”
The girl begins to cry.
After visiting several more classrooms we are taken to a room that is hard to imagine unless you have been there. It is clearly a type of bathroom, dank and dirty, with rusting pipework and chipped and broken tiles on the wall. In the middle of the room is an odd contraption: half shower, half primitive bidet.
“What’s this room for?” I ask.
“This is the female hygiene room,” a member of staff responds. “The girls come here to clean themselves when it is their time of the month.”
A county councillor who is on the visit with me is intrigued.
“How does it work?” she asks.
She moves closer and falls down into a drain that has been strategically covered by another brand new rug. The flustered member of staff tries to demonstrate the contraption, but the water is turned off and the boiler is broken. So we move on.
Next are the bedrooms. They are not too large, with eight to ten beds per room. There are brand new blankets on the beds. Their colours are so vivid that, in contrast with the dark, barren surroundings, they almost assault the eyes. There is, however, nothing personal in the rooms. There are no personal spaces. There are no personal possessions.
There are just a couple of broken-down cupboards and a shelf. One toothbrush, one tube of toothpaste and one bar of soap sit on the shelf. All of them are still in their packaging, unopened.
There are three corridors of bedrooms, with 40 children on each corridor. For some bizarre reason, there are boys’ and girls’ bedrooms on each floor.
“How many members of staff are on duty at night?” I ask.
The answer is three. They are untrained and unqualified. The Director refers to them as babysitters.
How can one member of staff ensure the protection and safety of 40 children? How easy is it for one child to distract the staff member, while others sneak into bedrooms so they can bully those more vulnerable?
I have seen it before in institutions where I have made unannounced visits. The staff members are drunk or asleep. The children do what they want. The law of the jungle prevails. Older children bully and abuse younger ones and copy the behaviour of the adults around them. If they have been physically punished, they will inflict the same physical punishment on smaller, more vulnerable children. I don’t need a vivid imagination. I know what is possible.
Finally, we are taken to the piece de resistance: the hall where the children ‘play’. A feast has been prepared for us. So much food. So much variety. I am sure the children never see anything like this. I feel sick. We try to refuse, but in the end we must take a small bite to eat. We do, though, successfully refuse the Director’s invitation for us to have a drink of vodka. It is only 10.30am, but she is clearly disappointed.
“What do you think of the reform process and the future of these institutions?” we ask her. “The reform is a very good thing,” she responds. “We support the reform, but you can’t just leave these children with such terrible families. And if they closed our school, where would our children receive such a good education? We agree with the reform, but only when the community is ready to look after children.”
I know there is no point explaining to the Director that the educational outcomes of her institution are appalling and that studies show repeatedly that children raised in institutions in this part of the world do not do well as adults. I hold my tongue, because I know that I will never convince this Director of the truth.
Thankfully, the local county council agrees with us that this institution has to go. They asked us to visit because they want to close it and they want to know if we can help them do this.
As she leads us to the door, we pass a huge sign on one of the walls. It summarises the children’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Their right to a family. Their right to a good education and healthcare. Their right to speak up and be heard.
We thank the Director for her hospitality and say goodbye to Lenin and his young charges.
This place must close. These children deserve better. After our visit, the County Councillor agrees a date for us to meet very soon in order to finalise the plans for closing this institution, so that she can convince all of her colleagues.
By the summer, we hope to able to start finding families for these children. So they have a place they can truly call home.