The Right To Be

Article 7 of The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (whose adoption is marked on November 20, World Children’s Day) states that a child has the right from birth to a name and a right to know their parents. It would seem like the right from birth to a name is so obvious that it’s strange to spell it out in a special article of an international convention. When I first learned about this clause, it seemed so far from reality that I thought it probably concerned some extreme cases where children were born into slavery and assigned some kind of nickname or number instead of a name…

However, it turns out that this basic right is often violated in our middle latitudes in cases involving abandoned children or so-called foundlings. These children are not given their parents’ last names, and their first names and dates of birth are often changed (particularly in cases where children are declared “foundlings,” even though their names were known when they were taken from their families, and then given different names in the adoption database, which apparently simplifies the process of transferring a child to a new family, since there is no need to search for the parents and go through the process of depriving them of their rights). “Child services” workers could care less that the child will suffer all their life, not understanding who they are and where they are from. Until recently, it has been very hard to draw the attention of journalists and society to the fates of these children, whose names, ages, and information about their supposedly unknown parents have been changed by the child services system.

But recently, Lida Moniava sparked a heated discussion about another aspect of the rights of the child: the right to information about their origin and even existence and the right to know their parents. Here the question is not about children forcibly taken from their parents, but about children whose parents voluntarily gave them up at birth and sent them into the state foster care system. Moniava’s account of an event in the life of one such “abandoned child,” whose foster parents wanted to find the orphan’s relatives, garnered thousands of comments (the extent to which the details of this story coincide with real life isn’t important – what’s important is that this could and does happen) and demonstrated what society thinks about a child’s right to have a name, to be themself, and to exist in the consciousness of their relatives.

It turns out that many people (a majority, apparently) support the existing practice that allows parents to abandon a child at birth and conceal their existence by telling relatives and other close people that the child died. Such a child is similar to the hero of Lev Tolstoy’s play “The Living Corpse,” except that Protasov staged his own death (even though the dramatic events of an unhappy marriage and the inability to simply divorce pushed him into this), but here other people make this decision for the child. However, experts say that the rights and interests of the child clash with the rights of their parents (even deceased parents) to privacy, since parents have no obligation to tell anyone that they gave up their child.

They have no obligation to share, which means they have the right to conceal. They have the right to conceal this abandoned child from their relatives (siblings, grandparents), but they apparently don’t have the right to tell these interested parties that they have a sibling, grandchild, or cousin in an orphanage or in foster care (which is what Lida Moniava did). In any case, experts “cannot give a clear-cut answer” on whether this can be done or not.

But the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Council of Europe do have a clear-cut answer: Priority should be given to the rights of the child, including their right to have ties with their relatives (and with those who did not abandon the child but didn’t even know that the child existed) and their right to information about their origin. This is exactly why in 2013 the UN recommended that Russia stop using so-called baby boxes, which allow people to give up their child anonymously. Clearly, the idea of anonymously handing over one’s child has its plusses – since the Middle Ages, there have been safe houses where an unfortunate mother could leave her “love child,” thus saving herself from disgrace and the infant from a likely death. If a live child could not be concealed, then they would have to be concealed by means of a humane killing (which happened quite often in those times). But the Committee on the Rights of the Child noted that there is no longer any need for these extremes: It is possible to accept a child and establish the parents’ names (or at least one parent’s name) so that the child can later learn whose child they are.

This question should not be about the material aspect, i.e., the parents’ obligation to pay child support for a child abandoned to the state. It would be good to separate these issues – it’s very important to give a child a name and the knowledge of their origin. But the state could assist the children of the poorest parents unable to pay child support without help from these parents. After all, a nuclear power won’t go bankrupt keeping a child in an orphanage or paying foster parents. I don’t think we need a law on who should pay child support. What we need is a clarification, so that the most vulnerable people do not decide to remain anonymous because they fear they will not be able to pay for the life of a child handed over to the state. As UN experts said, “Russia is a wealthy enough country to support children without violating their right to know who they are and where they are from.”

Stephania Kulaeva, expert, Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial
First published on Radio Liberty’s blog