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It takes a special family to care for special children

By Jody McPhillips, UNICEF Georgia, May, 2013

Many mothers of Down Syndrome children feel they have their hands full with one child. Irma Sanikidze has five such children, all under the age of five.

And she loves it.

Foster mother Irma Sanikidze with her foster child Mariam (name changed), 1 month, diagnosed with down-syndrome. Irma has five foster children, she takes care of them until they get adopted. - © UNICEF/Geo-2013/Daro Sulakuari

Irma is one of 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 Georgia, is now the dominant form of alternative care in the country, with almost 1,000 children being cared for by foster families. While most are not disabled, some present special challenges.

Irma is unusual in that she specializes in caring for mentally disabled children. “I love kids, especially kids with Down Syndrome,” she explains. “They are very kind, very loving, very different from other children.”

Giorgi, a four-year-old bundle of energy rushes to greet visitors and then buzzes around Irma’s home like a hummingbird. He plays with Irma’s five-year-old son, Ilya; checks on the younger children, two three-year-olds and one who is 18 months; and gazes curiously at the newest arrival, a tiny newborn who sleeps in Irma’s arms.

All five of the Down Syndrome children 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 shut down 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. 

Foster children with Down syndrome fostered by Irma Sanikidze. Irma has five foster children, she takes care of them until they get adopted. - © UNICEF/Geo-2013/Daro Sulakuari

Childcare reform in Georgia, being implemented by the government in partnership with UNICEF, has been supported intensively by USAID and the European Union since 2005. USAID has contributed $10 million 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 others in many ways, from performance in school to emotional and mental health.

Children in Georgia used to wind up in state care for a number of reasons. An estimated 80 percent of them have relatives, but many can’t afford to care for the children or the families have fallen apart due to poverty or other family problems.

The state first tries to reintegrate children with their biological families, if that is possible. The second option is to place children in foster care. If neither of those options works out, the 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 or physical problems.

Irma did not set out to be a specialist in Down Syndrome children, although as a medical practitioner herself she was familiar with the disability. She has one biological son, now 15, whose father took off when she was pregnant. Her son was 10 years old when she became a foster parent to Ilya, then a newborn (and today a lively, intelligent boy who does not have Down Syndrome).

“I have met his biological mother, and in fact I tried to persuade her to take him back when he was a baby,” Irma 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 three, he and Irma had bonded so deeply that she adopted him. Today Ilya helps with the younger children, as does her older son.   

Megi Godoladze, 31, a mother of two school-age boys, has become a foster mother to 13-year-old Magda (name changed) with severe mental and physical disabilities. Magda has been living in this loving and caring atmosphere for seven years. - © UNICEF/Geo-2013/Daro Sulakuari

During that time, two of the children (both with Down Syndrome) were adopted by Americans. “We stay in contact through Facebook,” she says. “They are really caring, very fond of the children.” Another Down Syndrome child was reunited with the birth family in Georgia, and yet another died, a loss Irma is still grieving.

Social workers say that in Georgia, like 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 Irma “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 two years, the number of trained social workers has grown 25 percent 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. Studies show that children raised in a family-like environment are healthier, more intelligent and better adjusted than those raised in institutions.
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.”

A bond that transcends severe disability

In one of the suburbs of Tbilisi Megi Godoladze, 31, faces the special challenge of fostering a severely disabled child. Magda is 13, although she looks more like 7 or 8. She is mentally disabled 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.

But to focus on those disabilities is to miss the essence of Magda, who 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 Megi as she cooks in the next room, yelling “Are you done yet?” She loves to watch TV, from cartoons to public affairs talk shows.

Megi met Magda when she worked as a nurse at the Children’s Hospital Third Clinic. Over two years, 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 such that her body could give out at any time.

The girl’s birth mother, Megi says, calls once or twice a year to ask how she is doing. But she never agrees to talk directly to her.

It seems almost miraculous that Magda, abandoned by her birth mother and spending her early years in a state institution, found her way into a loving family.

Megi 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.”



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