In Georgia, new emphasis on foster care and small group homes over large institutions
Megi Godoladze, who has two school-age boys, has become a foster mother to 13-year-old Magda, who has severe mental and physical disabilities. Magda has been living in this loving and caring atmosphere for seven years.
By Jody McPhillips
Foster care is one of the ways in which the Government of Georgia is reforming the country’s childcare system. Foster parents like Irma Sanikidze and Megi Godoladze, both of whom foster children with disabilities, say the family environment makes a difference in the children overnight.
TBILISI, Georgia, 17 June 2013 – Giorgi, a 4-year-old bundle of energy, rushes to greet visitors and then buzzes around Irma Sanikidze’s home like a hummingbird. He plays with Ms. Sanikidze’s 5-year-old son Ilya, checks on the younger children – two 3-year-olds and an 18-month-old – and gazes curiously at the newest arrival, a tiny newborn who sleeps in Ms. Sanikidze’s arms.
Irma Sanikidze is among Georgia’s growing army of foster parents – people who provide a nurturing home for children who are orphaned or otherwise deprived of parents. Foster care, relatively new to the country, is now the dominant form of alternative care in the country, with almost 1,000 children being cared for by foster families.
Ms. Sanikidze specializes in caring for children with mental disabilities. The five children she fosters have Down Syndrome. They were abandoned by their parents to the care of state institutions. In some cases, the parents occasionally call or visit; in other cases, there is no contact at all.
Foster care as an alternative to institutions
Foster care is one of the ways the Government of Georgia is reforming the country’s childcare system. Since 2005, Georgia has shuttered 36 of the nation’s 41 large childcare institutions; the number of children in state care has dropped from more than 4,000 to 150.
Childcare reform in Georgia, which is being implemented by the Government in partnership with UNICEF, has been supported intensively by USAID and the European Union since 2005. USAID has contributed some US$10 million to the reform over the past three years. The reform involves a consortium of NGOs, professional associations and networks including Save the Children, EveryChild, First Step Georgia, Children of Georgia, the Georgian Association of Social Workers, the Anti-Violence Network of Georgia, SOS Kinderdorf Children’s Village and the Public Health and Medicine Development Fund of Georgia.
Experts agree that it is far better for a child to grow up in a family or a family-like atmosphere than in a large institution. Children raised in institutions lag behind in many ways, from performance in school to emotional and mental health.
Children in Georgia have traditionally fallen to state care for different reasons. According to a 2007 report, an estimated 80 per cent had relatives, but many couldn’t afford to care for the children, or the families had fallen apart because of poverty or other problems.
The state tries to reintegrate children with their biological families, if possible. The second option is to place children in foster care. If neither works out, small group homes are the third option. Studies have shown that children fare better in a small group environment, performing better in school and developing fewer mental and physical problems.
Irma Sanikidze’s path
Ms. Sanikidze did not set out to be a specialist in children with Down Syndrome, although, as a medical practitioner, she was familiar with the disability. She has one biological son, now 15, whose father left when she was pregnant. Her son was 10 years old when she became a foster parent to Ilya, then a newborn.
Irma Sanikidze with her foster child Mariam (name changed), a newborn who has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Ms. Sanikidze has five foster children. She takes care of them until they are adopted.
“I have met his biological mother, and, in fact, I tried to persuade her to take him back when he was a baby,” Ms. Sanikidze explains. “But his mother told me her brothers did not know she had had a child, and that they would kill him and her if they knew. So she would not take him back.”
By the time Ilya was 3, he and Irma had bonded so deeply that she adopted him. Today, Ilya helps with the younger children, as does her older son.
Two of the children Irma has fostered have been adopted by Americans. “We stay in contact through Facebook,” she says. “They are really caring, very fond of the children.” Another child was reunited with the birth family in Georgia. Another died, a loss Ms. Sanikidze is still grieving.
Role of social workers
Social workers say that, in Georgia, as in other post-Soviet countries, attitudes towards disabled children are slowly evolving. Ten or 20 years ago, families were ashamed of such children and either consigned them to state institutions or hid them away inside their homes.
Even today, “it is difficult to find homes for Down Syndrome kids,” says social worker Irma Sarava. She says foster mother Ms. Sanikidze “has the knowledge and practical skills to handle them. It takes a lot of work.”
State social workers have a key role in supporting foster families. Thanks to the ongoing reform, in the past couple years, the number of trained social workers has grown 25 per cent to a total of 250. In collaboration with the Georgian Association of Social Workers, new social work standards have been developed, and social workers have been trained to meet them.
The social workers say the advantages to the children cannot be overstated.
Irma says she already sees the difference in Giorgi, who has been with her for four months. “It didn’t take him a day to get used to the family,” she says. “He is very helpful. And now he had two words – granny and mama.”
Magda*, 13, lives in the suburbs of Tbilisi with her foster family – Megi Godoladze and her husband and sons. Magda is engaging, lively, funny and loving. She chatters constantly, waving her arms for emphasis and dissolving into giggles.
She recites poetry and sings songs. She pesters Ms. Godoladze as she cooks in the next room, yelling “Are you done yet?” She loves to watch TV, from cartoons to public affairs talk shows.
Magda has a mental disability and suffers from a variety of other physical ailments, from a severely cleft palate to a blind eye and crippled feet. She spends her days in a padded crib, where she can pull herself up to the side bars.
Ms. Godoladze met Magda when she worked as a nurse at the Children’s Hospital Third Clinic. She grew to love the little girl, and decided to foster her. “I couldn’t let her go to anyone else,” she says.
They have been together now for seven years, and nobody knows what the future holds. While Magda is thriving mentally and emotionally, her physical problems are grave.
Ms. Godoladze says her husband and sons help her care for Magda, and that she wishes Magda had joined them sooner. “If she had been in our family from the beginning, she would have done much better,” she says.
“When she came to us, she could not sit or hold a toy. But even then, she could express her joy.”
*Name has been changed.