By Maria Zueva and Ingrid Burke

Russia's State Duma, lower house of parliament, is currently considering a set of amendments that would allow the state to take it upon itself to ensure the welfare of children from families found to be in “socially precarious” positions. While the bill has survived a major hurdle in the path toward becoming law with its passage in the Duma’s first reading, its ultimate enactment is far from guaranteed.

Just last week, a number of parliamentarians urged an end to the legislature’s consideration of the bill based on its profound lack of popularity with the Russian public. Last year the government instructed several ministries to “submit a complex of measures to improve the provision of assistance to children and teenagers in abusive households,” which would include “the introduction of social patronage in problem families.”

That the policy goal of child abuse prevention is a noble one is so obvious a truism it’s hardly worth repeating. In the case of these amendments, no one is questioning the ends, but a great many are suspicious of the means. Although the amendments come across as fairly admirable, with a closer look this seems to give way to a number of issues that critics fear could render the law unimplementable at best, and somewhat Orwellian at worst.

The bill

According to the text of the amendments, social patronage would empower the state to implement prophylactic measures aimed at preventing the breaking up of families found to be in “socially precarious” positions. Such measures could include the provision of social, educational, medical, and/or psychological assistance aimed at improving the quality of a given child’s upbringing and development.

The state would be required to implement social patronage if after conducting an investigation it were to find that the parents or guardians of a given child had created through their actions or omissions conditions thought to have posed an impediment to the child’s normal upbringing and development, or to have adversely impacted the child’s behavior, if such conditions were not found to have provided reasonable grounds for the restriction or deprivation of parental rights.

Regional guardianship authorities would be charged with investigating potential cases and implementing social patronage plans on an individualized basis. Parental consent would be required before implementation, and the opinions of children aged ten and above would be taken into account.
Individual social patronage plans would consist of measures aimed at ensuring a given child’s right to enjoy acceptable living conditions and an environment conducive to an appropriate upbringing and sound development. Beyond focusing on the security and care of the child, the authorities would provide various forms of assistance to the parents and to the family as a whole, including rehabilitation where necessary.

Courts considering cases involving the restriction or deprivation of parental rights can establish social patronage as an alternative to limiting parental custody. In such a case, an investigation would be carried out and the relevant guardianship body would then take over in implementing the individualized social patronage plan. Conversely, the guardianship authorities can turn to the courts if in the course of administering a specific social patronage plan, sufficient grounds arise for the restriction or deprivation of parental rights.

To gain insight into some of the more pressing issues presented by the law, RAPSI spoke with two attorneys, each highly concerned with the amendments for different reasons: family law specialist Anton Zharov and Larisa Pavlova of the NGO Parent Committee (Родительский комитет).

Parkinson’s Law and misguided intentions

Writing for The Economist in 1955, C. Northcote Parkinson coined the term “Parkinson’s Law” in an article by the same name poking fun at the civil service. The article begins, “It is commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Zharov pointed to Parkinson’s Law in urging that the amendments in their current form will serve only to perpetuate bureaucracy, being too vaguely directed to clearly target the family issues they declaredly seek to cure. His take on Parkinson’s Law at play in the given context is, “the creation of institutions for the resolution of problems guarantees that the problems will never be solved (as long as there’s funding.)”

In his view, the amendments will create jobs and consume funds, but will fail to advance the goal of protecting children. “The state doesn’t want the problems of the family solved, it wants them conserved; from the text it doesn’t follow what social patronage actually is, only that it will pose yet another barrier to the deprivation of parental rights,” he explained.

Reiterating the point that the amendments are fatally flawed by a lack of clarity, he went on to explain that: "The essential problem is not that any one particular family will be destroyed. The essential problem is the lack of understanding of why this is all being done in principle, of which problems we're trying to solve, and of [how success will be measured] in solving these problems."

Big Brother and a lack of funding

Crucial in Pavlova’s view is the draft law’s lack of any requirement for additional budgetary allocations. She explained that without additional funds, the state will be unable to effectively implement individual social patronage plans. Thus the law is “hollow, serving only to establish itself as a mechanism of control over the family; a simple mechanism that will vest government officials with the right to intervene in internal family affairs, while failing to provide any option for the realistic rehabilitation of the family.”

Pavlova took little comfort in the amendments’ parental consent requirement, pointing to the fact that a parent’s refusal to voluntarily accept social patronage could be interpreted by officials as an unwillingness to foster the rehabilitation of the family. In her view, this fact could turn social patronage into a hotbed for official abuse.

She argued that the collection of personal information necessitated by the law would infringe upon the civil rights and fundamental freedoms of Russian families.

In conclusion, she lamented the toll that the passage of these amendments might take on society as a whole: “the manner in which this law has been presented to us - it is beneficial to those who want to control society, who want to have a free opportunity to interfere in people’s lives. This is very dangerous - very serious control can be asserted over society by way of children.”

Albeit for different reasons, Pavlova and Zharov have taken issue with the ambiguities present in some of the current text’s key sections, and have questioned the underlying motive of the authorities in seeking the law’s passage. Both are successful advocates for children’s rights, with valid concerns backing their respective cost-benefit analyses of the bill. Thus the present picture looks fairly bleak. Still, all is not lost. The Duma announced last week that it will establish a working group to prepare the law for its second reading, one which will hopefully take into consideration the concerns expressed by our experts and the many others who have questioned the means of the current text, in light of their strong passion for the end goal of protecting Russia’s children from abuse.