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COMMENTARY ON VALUES : Eastern Europeans Fuss Over Children Despite Deprivations : People to People International finds much to emulate in Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

<i> William G. Steiner is executive director of the Orangewood Children's Foundation</i>

In many ways children are a higher priority in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe than they are in the Western World, and even here in Orange County.

I learned that recently when I had the opportunity to join a delegation of child welfare experts from throughout the United States and visit Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It was an unprecedented experience. I saw a great curiosity about the status of children and families in these countries, especially in the context of their recent democratization and move toward a free-market economy.

As citizen ambassadors under the auspices of People to People International, we represented the fields of child welfare, psychology, medicine, education, law and law enforcement. Our 17-day trip took us to Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, where we met with high-level government officials and child-welfare professionals and visited orphanages, child-care centers, schools, hospitals, institutes, universities and the homes of average citizens.

It was clear that we were visiting at a historic time, a time of transition and turmoil. The contrasts and contradictions were stunning. People were open and warm, yet occasionally defensive and ambivalent about their new-found freedoms. We visited Warsaw, Moscow and Prague. In these cities of rich traditions--and limitations--children and families seemed to have fared rather well under decades of Communist rule.

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In all countries we found a society that seemed to value children. Children were well cared for. Child-rearing was shared in crowded housing, in which children, parents and grandparents lived together. For the most part people fussed over the young. In Poland, which is 95% Roman Catholic, there are strong family ties and religious values. In Czechoslovakia, with a homogeneous population of 15 million people, 100% of children are vaccinated, and children have first priority for organ transplants.

In a society where almost all women work, generous family allowances permit new mothers to stay at home with their children. In contrast with the desperate plight of children in Romania, children in orphanages, hospitals and youth centers in Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Russian Republic are well cared for. Our visits to these facilities found clean, well-managed and nurturing--if sometimes sparse--environments for children. Staff members were well trained, competent and loving.

Yet despite these positive impressions, all is not well for the children of these countries. Poland and the Soviet Union have an infant mortality rate two to three times higher than that of Western nations.

In Poland, 8% of all births are premature, 90% of the water is polluted and unfit for human consumption, 30% of school-age children manifest health problems and 83% of child abuse in families is connected with alcohol abuse.

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Abortion throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is rampant. One million Soviet children have not been vaccinated. Poverty and illegitimacy is increasing. While there are good standards of health care in Czechoslovakia, there is a high mortality rate among Gypsy children, who also make up the majority of children in orphanages.

Families live with great economic hardship. Wages are low and inflation is out of control in Russia, where the ruble is collapsing. Housing is crowded, and medical supplies and equipment are either lacking or seriously outdated. Food is rationed in Moscow. The country cannot supply itself with sufficient disposable syringes and needles.

Child abuse and neglect is only now being recognized and addressed. In Russia, there are no reliable statistics on child abuse. Child sexual abuse, infants who are addicted to substances and HIV-positive babies are a new phenomenon.

For the most part, programs to deal with these social ills are not in place. Social services and health care have been centralized under government control and are highly bureaucratic. There are no legal requirements to report child abuse. For children in jeopardy, substitute care is usually with relatives or placement in an orphanage. These children remain in institutions for many years. Adoption is very difficult; there is not really a foster care system as we know it in the United States.

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Day care is quite unpopular. Parents do everything to avoid what they perceive as the former socialist effort to indoctrinate their children. In Czechoslovakia before the revolution of 1989, 22% of preschool children were in child care. This has been reduced to 5% to 7%, and no infants are in child care.

There is almost no charitable support for social programs in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. And there is no real tradition of volunteerism.

Given this history, there will be very difficult obstacles to overcome before the lives of vulnerable children and families can improve.

In Poland, officials talked about the passiveness of people who have in essence had most decisions made for them by the government. In Moscow it was emphasized that under communism the status of children was influenced by “social inertia,” a feeling that the state will take care of things.

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For the most part, when perestroika arrived the family was not prepared to deal with their problems and with a lack of direction and questionable funding sources. Conditions are likely to worsen.

Yet people in these countries are not about to give up their freedoms. They are moving toward privatization, and Western businessmen fill hotels, eager to tap into the needs of a huge number of consumers.

So, when all is said and done, there is both optimism and pessimism with respect to the future. In Moscow the excitement and euphoria after the failed August coup has seemed to turn to disillusionment. It is not clear who is in charge, and there is a real fear of another coup.

In Poland, there is a sense of determination. Yet, as one person said, while democracy and free elections have arrived, strong executive control by President Lech Walesa will be needed to implement reforms.

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Czechoslovakians are on their way to a vital economy and effective services for the care of children and families.

It is not surprising that people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would approach these issues differently, while sharing an ambivalence about what they are experiencing.

Under communism and socialism there was strong central control. While this control was inefficient and ultimately collapsed, it did represent a predictable structure. These new freedoms are unfamiliar, and the future is unpredictable. People are not quite sure what to do next.

But at the same time their future represents opportunities and challenges. From the character and strength of the people we met, we feel that they will prevail. As structures and support systems are put in place for children and families, we hope that they will avoid some of the mistakes that have been made in the West.

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They will need to guard against losing the cohesiveness they have between children and families. And despite our sophisticated approach to child abuse and neglect, we can learn something from these countries about the value they place on children and families.


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