In accordance with the Decree No.18 of the President of Belarus “children are subject to state protection and placement in state care in the event it is established that their parents do not properly fulfill their obligations for the children’s upbringing and support, and therefore such children are deemed to be in a socially dangerous situation (SOP)”.
However such prominent (and seemingly legitimate) phrasing is sometimes propped by a fundamentally different practice. Children are taken away because the fathers and the mothers are… participating in substitution therapy (ST) programs, which are not welcomed by, are unacceptable to or are simply disliked by the surrounding society. This is because stigma, discrimination and banal lack of knowledge (including among employees of educational and medical institutions) lead up to the cases like ours. It is true that sometimes, if people are lucky, such stories get their happy endings. However how long must the parents undergoing ST therapy rely on sheer luck when facing the constant fear of losing their beloved children?
Interview with Natalia Golub and Sergey Kryzhevich (RSOO Tvoiy Shans [Republican Social Public Association Your Chance], Republic of Belarus)
– Natalia, please tell us, when and how did everything happen in your family?
– I came to Minsk from the town of Borisov, I wanted Artur (son – EHRA) to join a school here. My good acquaintance was ready to shelter us. I thought: if there is a chance to live in the capital city, to transfer the child to a local school, to enroll into a methadone programme here and to leave behind the world I had once lived in, why don’t I use this chance? My past was turbulent: prison, sex work. My convictions are a like a tail I always drag behind me. I brought my child here and went to school to enroll him. It goes without saying that I disclosed nothing about my past. However during the very first meeting the principal said this to my face: “I suspect that you are a drunkard”. I agree that one may understand something is wrong with me. The thing is I have a very serious disease: infective endocarditis of the valves, I have a disability group because of that. This affects the way I speak. However she suspected me to be “that sort” of a mother – and she soured on me. My friend who accompanied me, she has got no teeth. For the principal that fact became yet another reason to draw a conclusion that everything about us was wrong. I asked her: “Please do not treat people on the basis of your suspicions”. In response they [the school] started literally digging into me. Including checking my profiles on social networks. Somewhere out there they found a photo of me sitting next to an empty vodka bottle (in truth I actually am a non-drinker). The photo even had a caption that it was a joke. However I was immediately told off: “But you have claimed not to be drinking [alcohol]!” They came to my home without warnings. My friend’s parental rights are terminated, so they said to me: “How can you be friends with her, while she is not raising her children?”
And then this story happened, not with me, but with my friend. At that moment I already had an official job, had no police records. My friend was also employed, but she also had an additional source of income as a sex-worker. She found herself in a bad situation, called me and told that she was being detained by the police, however not while “working”, but not far from the place. Anyway the rules are: if you have ever been booked by the police even once, then the police detain you and draw a protocol, even if you are not caught red-handed. I, of course, promised to come with Artur to get her out. There I went and approached the head of the ROVD (District department of internal affairs – EHRA) with the request to have my friend released. She got released all right, but the head [of ROVD] told me: “We are going to initiate a check on your family”. And they checked all the info: where Artur lived, where he studied. Then they drew up the papers and forwarded them to his school. The papers claimed that I had visited the [police] department accompanied by a minor to have Katya (friend’s name has been changed – EHRA), who had been caught at the crime scene, released. Of course I was immediately summoned by the school.
– Did you manage to explain yourself?
– I tried to, but they were constantly interrupting me. I felt that the principal did not care. I tried to say something to defend myself, well, then she invited her assistants and social workers into her office, and they all started attacking me, trying to make me lose my cool. Probably they understood that I could lose it, so that is why they chose this method. The thing is that even when I know that I am not in the wrong, I still start fighting back. They reminded me about my “booze parties”. That is when I decided to get a reference letter from my drug counselor, where I am undergoing methadone treatment, and to bring it to them.
– Did you think this was going to change their attitude?
– Exactly. Here I was, with these papers and the principal… threw them back into my face with the words: “Why do I need this? Well… You are also a junkie?!”.
– Literally [said that]?
– Yes. I say: “What does it mean “a junkie”? Look, I brought you a reference about my treatment, which I voluntarily applied for to get helped”. Her response: “This is not important. That’s why you are so emotional. And your friend is just like you. You both are prostitutes, lesbians”. I realized that she was simply not hearing me. Each of my arguments was met with a counterargument. After that the principal contacted Borisov, the school Artur used to attend before. I have to say that I had very good relations with the teachers there and they warned me that someone had called them from Minsk and for some reason was enquiring about us and that I was to tread more carefully.
It got to a point where every time I went to school I turned on the voice recorder. I was simply terrified when I heard the phrases like: “Where are the guarantees that you are able to take care of your child being a deranged person?” They did not care that I had been participating in the programme for two years and that I had good references. After this they drew up the papers labeling me as an active drug user and registered me as a SOP, although they could not even decide on which basis: because of methadone or because of my friend Katya (that is exactly how they referred to her: “girlfriend Kat’ka”!) They did not take into consideration that she was providing me the roof over my head. It is very expensive to rent a flat in Minsk. Finally my past, the things I had been convicted of, were labeled by them as “actual”, as current. We –people who use drugs – have seen everything in this life. Yes, there are situations when we resort to lies to obtain the stuff. However for the first time in my life I saw teachers who were lying…
– Were the employers aware of the nightmare at home?
– After I had moved to Minsk I almost immediately started working despite the fact that I am a cardiac [patient]. I must provide food and clothes for my child. Money is very important. I work at a carwash owned by a young couple. By the way, these people are also OST patients. When this entire story started unfolding, I told everything to Oksana (the employer’s name has been changed – EHRA). When it began, the school deputy principal called the employer’s office line and had a 50-minute conversation. I have to mention that all calls to the office are recorded. First they were asking about me as a person and then the deputy principal started bluntly demanding to have me fired from my work: “Why do you need someone like her?” “Are you aware that she is a prostitute, a junkie?” “Do you know about her past?” “What if she steals? You have got clients to protect” etc. And when the deputy principal realized that none of that worked, she made a huge mistake of disclosing my HIV status… (article 178, p. 2 of the Criminal ode of the Republic of Belarus “Disclosure of medical secrets”: “The disclosure of medical secret expressed in the communication of information about a person’s HIV or AIDS status, is punishable by deprivation of the right to occupy certain positions or to engage in certain activities with a fine, or by arrest, or by restriction of liberty for up to three years with a fine” – EHRA).
– I am speechless… How did your employer react?
– It is a blessing that Oksana is one of those people who understand everything. However, there are people who are far from all of this and I was at risk of losing my job, although the school and the state should be interested in me staying employed.
Sergey: They wanted to take no chances: anything could happen to the family [and they did not want to be made responsible], so they worked out the scheme: registering [Natalia] as SOP [high risk] and then routinely working towards the removal of the child and termination of the mother’s parental rights.
Natalia: During that time I and Katya had a small quarrel, they learned about it and wrote another letter to gorispolkom (municipal authority in Belarus – EHRA) to speed up the proceedings and set the date of the sitting of the committee. The child was declared in need of state protection and at the end of September 2019 they removed my son from my family. For almost six months. They did not even let me say good-bye to him, as he was at school at the moment.
– How old was Artur then?
– Twelve. That was an indescribable blow. My son is everything for me. Those months ruined my health. I even wanted to sue them for moral damages, but I simply was exhausted.
– Could you go and see Artur?
– As a general rule, the mother is allowed to visit the child daily, except on Sundays, and the children are allowed to make scheduled telephone calls home. I visited my boy every day. At the same time, I turned to Sergey (Sergey Kryzhevich – EHRA), and he started to actively help me. That is also when Sergey contacted Olga Belyaeva (Eurasian Network of People Who Use Drugs – ENPUD program coordinator, at that time Olga was Advocacy Manager of EHRA – EHRA). It took us less than half a year to collect all the papers and file a petition to speed up the process even for a month. We had cooperation from the social shelter where my son was kept, we had an attorney, God bless her, she helped us and was present at every session. Sergey was with me everywhere, accompanied me all the time. There was a moment when I decided that all was lost and there was nothing left to live for: the child was taken, I was cornered… But I thank people like these for being around and for their support.
– Sergey tell us how you learned about this case and what happened after Natalia’s plea.
– We met Natasha a year ago. It was the 10th anniversary of Belarus substitution therapy program. UNAIDS approached one of our TV channels with a request to organize a programme telling people about ST. We were invited as the representatives of the civil society. The patients were invited to talk too. However these people here are so stigmatized and discriminated against, that only two of them answered the call: Natasha and her friend Katya. Natasha spoke on TV, told about her situation, mentioned the school problem and this was broadcasted all over the country. After the programme we started to communicate more intensively.
Natasha had immediately told me about SOP and, as the representative of Tvoiy Shans organization, where Natasha was already a member, I attended the first court session.
– Did they admit you?
– Yes, there was no problem there. I said that I was from the public patient organization and Natasha introduced me as a member of her defense team. That is when I became aware of all these horrible moments Natasha has just told us about. They were all documented; let me read from the ruling: “In relation to the mother, the facts of drug use were established, as the result of which the preventive measures were applied to her”. I immediately started asking questions: “What does this statement mean?” “Was Natasha detained anywhere while taking drugs?” “Were there any protocols drawn?” “Are you talking about her past?” “What does it all mean?” The answer was: “She is the member of substitution therapy programme; she takes methadone, which is a drug”. Those were the words of a narcologist!! We had to request the documents from Natasha’s treating doctor to explain what the treatment method means, what it involves.
The ST situation in the country is very complex. The worst thing is that neither social services nor doctors themselves know about ST. The public perceives ST as drug use.
– It turns out that you need to educate the doctors themselves?
– Exactly. After that we started defending Natasha. An action plan was drawn which she had to follow: visit the psychologist; work with Artur; [submit to] the regular checks and visits by the police, school officials, committee members. Natasha was constantly monitored.
– Is the person warned about the visits?
– No. Looks like the services were waiting for an excuse, something to cling to. When the defense process started they realized that it was going to be hard for them and they needed some motives. Natasha’s and Katya’s quarrel became such a motive. It all led to the point when Natasha decided to return to Borisov and drop out of ST. Natasha even turned with her problem to the school principal in hopes that she would understand her [as a] woman [herself]. She was advised “Why do you need all this? Go home”. They even provided her with [the necessary] documents (although they had no right to do that) and she was ready to leave, but three days later the school principal came straight to the ST cabinet, caught Natasha there and said to her: “Natasha, come back to school!” It means that the principal realized that she had done something wrong; it is possible that she was somehow advised [on the situation]. Natasha did as she was told. The documents and Artur were returned to school. However four days later the committee held a session and ruled to remove the child.
While we were attending this session Natasha was approached by the social worker with a request to provide a copy of her passport, I immediately realized that they decided to remove the child. However Natasha believed till the very end that everything was going to be resolved. Her tears and crying when the ruling was read, when Artur was taken… For me, myself a father, it was horrible. The head of the committee, having witnessed [this reaction] tried to calm [Natasha] down, but Natasha left and wanted to see and listen to no one. Then she [the head of the committee] approached me: “Maybe everything will normalize, will be fine…” What kind of “fine” is that?
– What conditions were set for Arthur to be returned home?
– Everyone well understands that the mother’s situation was catastrophic, she received a minimum salary. It is good that Natasha got a job at the Republican Public Organization “Belarusian Association of UNESCO Clubs”, where there is no face control, where they help people like us. But still this was not enough. After all, the state knows that she will not be able to cope on her own, will not be able to meet the conditions imposed on her: find a new home and pay for the child support at the SPC (social-pedagogical centre – EHRA). That is more than 130 dollars monthly! We had to start looking for help. In our country if you are a person who used or who is using drugs, even if you are officially registered, you cannot expect any help from the state. It is spelled out in the law. That is why we turned to Olga Belyaeva and she advised us to prepare a mini-project and apply to Emergency Support Fund for key populations. They responded, provided us with the funding for the lawyer, for the child support to the SPC and for the rental of the flat. Thus we did receive the help – but from a third party, not the state.
Natalia: I want to add that the child has suffered a 100% psychological trauma. Unfortunately Artur had already lived through a similar experience when I was serving my sentence and he was living in a shelter. And yes, I was preparing him as I understood that the result could be bad but still… I will always remember how during one of my visits to the SPC Artur told me: “The day when the [session of the] committee was held I really felt this (removal – EHRA). I heard my surname and understood everything. And when they started looking for me I wanted to jump out from the second floor and run to you”. They were chasing him, closing the windows. When I imagined this picture, I could not stop crying.
Sergey: Funding was of course great, but we would not have been able to do anything without the support. Natasha needed a lawyer to accompany her. We found a competent specialist with the experience in this area. Natasha visited all ROVD prescribed events, started taking more care of her health: went to MREC (medical rehabilitation expert commission –EHRA) to confirm her disability. It is possible she will receive some help from the state.
– Sergey, is Natalia’s case one of its own?
– No, we know about four more such cases. But those other situations are more complicated, and I will be frank: mothers are different. We offered them help, but so far received no response. Perhaps they consider any and all actions meaningless, they do not believe in the success of their cases. But based on Natasha’s example we developed a guideline (in Russian) for the lawyers where we described in plain language everything that needs to be done in similar situations. This applies not only to school children, but also to toddlers. If the child is 3-4 years old, even tougher demands can be placed on the mothers.
We presented this guideline at the most recent meeting of Tvoiy Shans. We also managed to put the issue of registering mothers undergoing substitution therapy as SOP [social risk status] people into the agenda on HIV prevention in Minsk for 2020-2022 (in Russian).
– This year?
– Yes. A round table is planned to be held in a month to which social workers, representatives of the Ministry of Education, and narcologists are invited. It is possible that there will also be the representatives of UNAIDS or other international organizations present. Because in the future the support should not be provided as it is done now: come, get a consultation, and then do whatever you want.
– Sergey, Natalia, what are your thoughts about the activities the state must engage in to prevent such situations in the future?
Sergey: I talked with the chief narcologist of Minsk and asked him how is it possible that the doctors themselves are trying to dissuade people from substitute therapy, to discourage those patients who volunteered for the programme? Why in Natasha’s case, until she got registered, nobody had been interested in her life? But as soon as she got voluntarily registered, all she received was troubles and problems instead of help? And all of that is happening in accordance with the President’s decree “On additional measures for the state protection of children in dysfunctional families” (in Russian)! Those measures were drawn up without consulting with the narcologists. All schools, all kindergartens, having obtained the information that a parent is an ST patient, are not engaging in providing assistance to them, but instead are trying to “cover all bases”. Once they hear the word “methadone” in connection with a person, they classify them as “human wrecks”; they think that such people have no place in the society and that their children have to be taken away. All of that is due to the fact that if anything happens in such a family, they [schools, kindergartens] will be held liable.
I think that it is crucially important to form an attitude in the society towards this method of treatment. People will gradually learn what ST is. It does not happen fast, but it is an on-going process. We have been seeking to amend the documents that govern the work of ST cabinets for three years already. In our country ST is a method of socialization. In other words: you come to get registered – you are expected to find a job, get a family or go study, stop using drugs. Here is an example. We have visited a lot of meetings of our fellows. One of them was SOPed and received the plan of activities, which included, in black and white: “Find a job upon completion of the program of methadone substitution”. I wondered: “Is there even a term like that?” Narcologists, once they saw this phrase, laughed out loud: “Of course not”. Because those recommendations were provided by the… general practitioner! I am “surprised” a dentist’s opinion was not included…
If our program is aimed at development, it is necessary to create conditions for this. We are talking about handing methadone out, social support, clarification of treatment methods everywhere, across all structures. We recently met the Deputy Health Minister, who issued a written order: by 24 April the draft of the new documentation of the clinical protocol and the instructions for ST are to be prepared for ratification, and these documents are to incorporate all the concerns of the community. A working group was created under the Ministry of Health, we were included, and there will be a meeting where the community is expected to introduce its amendments. We have obtained a draft of this project; however, there are various yet unclarified points. We need everything to be explained, justified so that together we could approve the final version.
Natalia: First of all, state institutions, including kindergartens and schools and their representatives, should be made aware of what ST is and why it is needed. Because now there is a misunderstanding, that leads to confusion, which results in huge problems. It is indeed thanks to the substitution therapy that the children are in the families, and people are working. ST is not a street drug, but a way of living.
 In Russian – https://kodeksy-by.com/ugolovnyj_kodeks_rb/178.htm
 In accordance with the Decree No.18 of the President of Belarus «About additional measures for the state protection of children in dysfunctional families» imposes on parents the need to reimburse the state the costs of the maintenance of children in case of:
taking away their children by decision of the commission for the protection of minors;
taking their children from them on the basis of a court decision without depriving them of parental rights;
deprivation of their parental rights;
finding them on the wanted list, medical and labor dispensaries or in places of detention;
serving sentences in institutions, execution of a sentence of imprisonment, restriction of freedom, arrest