“When I look back at my personal ‘graduating class’ from the orphanage, there were 16 of us,” recalls Alex Krutov, a graduate of the Russian orphanage system. “When I look at those 16 almost 15 years later, there are only four or five not involved in drugs, prostitution, in prison and four were dead before they reached 23. These are people I have known for 20-plus years, and it’s almost as if they don’t exist.”
In Russia, there are 10 million children at risk and more than 700,000 orphans, double that of 20 years ago and more than there were in the years following the devastation of WWII. Of those 700,000, 95 percent of them still have a living parent, but were abandoned as children.
Drastically under-funded and understaffed, the Human Rights Watch charged a decade ago that “children in state custodial institutions are deprived of basic human rights at every step of their lives.” And this is an improvement from the former conditions under the Soviet Union.
Perhaps due to these facts, it is not startling that the success rate after leaving the system is so low: Of the 10,000 graduates every year, 8,500 fall into drug-dealing, prostitution and other crimes, and homelessness. Five hundred commit suicide.
“There is no motivation or desire to succeed, no incentive,” Krutov says. “The system was created to keep the kids off the street, not to raise the next generation.”
This is not simply a Russian problem. Out of the 25,000 Americans who age out of foster care every year, 25 percent will experience homelessness within 18 months. Fifty percent will engage in substance abuse, 32 percent will get in trouble with the law and 61 percent will experience joblessness.
There are close to 500,000 kids in the foster care system and 130,000 waiting to be adopted. Though 40 percent of Americans say they support adoption, only 51,000 kids were adopted this past year. As a result, even in this “land of opportunity,” barely half of them will graduate high school and only 2 percent will obtain college degrees.
What is being done about this? One of many groups trying to make an impact in Russia is The Harbor. Co-founded by Krutov, The Harbor is a ministry to young adult orphans who have been branded “hopeless” by the Russian system, too old for adoption.
Through a three-year residential program, they provide practical life-skill and vocational training and meet emotional, educational and spiritual needs. With this whole-life approach, they hope to help orphans integrate into mainstream life.
“For orphans, they develop a sense of entitlement and are stuck as a result of all the hurt and problems they have gone through,” Krutov says. “If you place them in a program that is in a non-communal form, you are just replicating another orphanage-type system.”
In addition to the residential program, The Harbor operates a Vocational Training Center where orphans who are still living at the orphanages take different job training classes. But the three-year residential program is the heart and soul of The Harbor, where mentors pour into every facet of the participants’ lives and expect the participants to actively engage.
“Because of the ages we accept [16-23], the young adult orphans have to have a desire or willingness to be self-sufficient and productive,” Krutov explains. “They have to be willing to work towards their goals. The problem is a lack of motivation; no one has told them they have value, so many take on that identity.”
With the focus on quality over quantity, those at The Harbor say the key to life-change is relationship, discipleship and commitment. Though they hope for The Harbor to become a model replicated across Russia and the CIS (former Russian States), they never want to become more than a small, residential model.
“It has to be focused in the small family form, where they can be loved and can learn to care for each other,” he says. “Imagine a mother having 15 children and they are all the same age. Could she give them all the love and attention they need to develop?”
In American foster care, the importance of family is built into the system, but is not always realized. When kids remain in homes for short periods of time, there is little chance for transforming relationships. And make no mistake—it is relationship that these kids need, says Martha Webb, a foster mom for 20 years to more than 40 kids.
“We have some kids who feel like they are just part-time kids,” she says. “It takes time for them to realize that we wanted them to be a part of our family. For some of these kids, we are the only Jesus they see.”
It is difficult to diagnose problems in the American system because the regulations and funding differ from state to state. This past October, the Fostering Connection to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act increased federal funding for programs for kids 16-21 to a possible $140 million, but many states can’t meet the necessary requirements to receive that funding.
“When kids come to us, they are usually socially and emotionally immature,” Webb says. “Even after emancipation, they are in need of an emotional support. There needs to be some agency that will help them out, and that isn’t always the case.”
Attempting to make an impact in this situation is a group called Casey Family Programs. With their mission to “provide and improve—and ultimately prevent the need for—foster care,” they acknowledge the serious challenges for foster care alumni.
“Many of them would have had at least three or four school changes, so they would be deficient in some really key areas,” explains Casey Family Programs liaison Gregory Davis. “They don’t have the benefit of an advanced degree or even a high school diploma. And generally there will be some medical or mental health issues.”
Like Webb, Davis agrees that long-lasting relationships are vital for the ultimate success of alumni, but he says that the systemic problems are often too large.
“When they step out and try to get the aid they need, people say, ‘You are an adult and should fend for yourself.’ In order to get help, I have to be down and out. If I try to be productive, I don’t get the help I need.”
According to Davis, one of the keys is getting the alumni involved in changing the system. Because of their experience, they have a unique expertise and perspective. The change won’t be simple; because of the numerous agencies that work with foster kids, the layers of complexity at times seem insurmountable.
“But there’s always hope,” Davis says. “No matter what the young people’s experiences are as a result of going through foster care, we still have to try to make things better for them.”
Both systems have their problems, but the issue of orphans and foster kids leaving the system isn’t just a “problem to deal with.” It is an issue that involves lives of humans created in the image of God, and Christians have a responsibility to help. James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (TNIV).
“The Bible challenges every single follower of Christ to care for orphans and widows,” Krutov says. “Even from a human standpoint, not even a religious one, I cannot exist and ignore the problem.”