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Human Rights Watch: disabled and poor children needlessly separated from families in Armenia

22 February 2017

Thousands of children in Armenia are needlessly separated from their parents and placed in institutions due to disability or poverty, American rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on 22 February.

The report, ‘When Will I Get to Go Home?’ Abuses and Discrimination against Children in Institutions and Lack of Access to Quality Inclusive Education in Armenia’, documents how thousands of children in Armenia live in orphanages, residential special schools for children with disabilities, and other institutions. According to HRW, they often live there for years, separated from their families, while more than 90% of children in residential institutions in Armenia have at least one living parent.

HRW also found that the Armenian government is not doing enough to ensure quality, inclusive education for all children. Inclusive education involves children with disabilities studying in their community schools with reasonable support for academic and other achievement.

‘The government of Armenia has made some bold commitments to reduce the number of children in institutions, but needs to make sure those promises are backed by serious, sustained action,’ HRW quoted Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director of the organisation and author of the report. ‘All children have the right to grow up in a family, and government and donor resources should support families and children, not large institution,’ she added.

Residential institutions in Armenia often serve as the main distributor of social services to families facing difficult living circumstances such as poverty, unemployment, poor housing, health issues, or disability. Services and staff are often concentrated in institutions, rather than available and accessible in communities, including for the rehabilitation and education of children with disabilities. This, according to the report, compels many families to send their children to residential institutions, even when they would prefer to raise them at home.

Children have the right not to be unnecessarily separated from their parents, HRW stressed, and neither poverty nor disability can be a justification or a basis for placement of a child in an institution.

As a response to the problems, the Armenian government aims to move children out of at least 22 residential institutions by 2020 and transform these buildings into centers for community-based services. Some have already been converted. However, the three orphanages that exclusively house children with disabilities will continue to operate. HRW claims that failing to provide family-based care for children with disabilities on an equal basis with other children is discriminatory and should be ended immediately.

The government has also stalled key amendments to the Family Code, which would facilitate foster care and adoption — options essential when children cannot safely return to their birth families. The current government budget provides support for only 25 foster families in the country.

According to UNICEF, financial support for children in institutions in Armenia is between $3,000 and $5,000 per year per child. These funds could be used for community-based services and direct support to families, which are less expensive in the long term, HRW suggests.

Another problem mentioned in the report is that even well-resourced orphanages are often overcrowded, with children organised into large groups with few caregivers. Because of this, even the most dedicated staff may not be able to provide the individual attention and nurturing that children need to thrive.

HRW’s report focuses on the right to access education as well: the Armenian government has committed to making the entire school system inclusive by 2022. But at present, the lack of an individual approach to academic achievement, as well as physical barriers in schools and communities, means that some children with disabilities in Armenia receive no education at all.

International standards provide that schools should be fully accessible, and provide reasonable accommodations to support students, regardless of their disability. Support measures provided to children with disabilities should be individualised, based on each child’s particular learning needs, and strengthen opportunities for students with disabilities to participate fully in the classroom, HRW recommends.

‘Children and young adults with disabilities have the same rights to education and opportunities as their peers’, Jane Buchanan, Europe and Central Asia associate director said. ‘Making sure children with disabilities can go to school in their communities is a good first step, but it is an empty gesture unless children get a quality education that enables them to achieve academically, fulfil their potential, and contribute to a diverse society.’