Epidemic of Hopelessness Among Children at Risk in Eastern Europe

Author: Dr. Susan Hillis
 
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Russian children fill my life. They are my family, my ministry, and my professional work. I work for the Centers for Disease Control and I want to share about an emerging epidemic of hopelessness in Eastern Europe. I want to share with you first how the Lord gave me a concern in this area; second, evidence of an emerging epidemic; and third, what we as believers can do to put an end to it.  

Coming to Terms with the Loss of a Son

It is hard to say whether it is more difficult for a parent to lose a child or for a child to lose a parent. From my perspective, both are equally difficult. I am a parent who lost one of my children in a car wreck. About four years ago my family was on a bike ride when our son rode out in front of a car and was killed before our eyes. What a loss like this does to a parent or a child is beyond words. After Johnny died a very big part of me died with him. I really struggled with the Lord about this because I am outgoing and optimistic by nature, but I became very reclusive. It would have been very difficult for me several years ago to have had a conversation with anyone I did not know because the simple question "How many children do you have?" would have forced me to reveal some of my deepest pain. In my grief I actually became a different person. Because of loved ones lost, I think many children at risk, who need the Lord's love, change dramatically from what the Lord created them to be.

As Jenya Haps notes in her presentation on family transition centers, children who have had very negative experiences, when placed in an environment where they experience the Lord's love, can blossom and become what God meant them to be. In New York City, while on a business trip, I too had a similar experience of the Lord's power to heal. I was in my hotel room one night about 15 months after Johnny had died, struggling with the Lord and yearning for healing. The Holy Spirit said to me, not audibly but certainly very clearly, "I am the one who raised Jesus from the dead, and that power of resurrection is the same power that I am going to use to heal the part of your heart that died with Johnny." For His glory and His praise, I can say that He did that in my life, and His work has been complete and permanent. I resolved then to be an instrument of that same healing in the lives of children.

 Russian Adoptions

As a result in 1997 the Lord allowed my husband and me to adopt our first two Russian treasures, Anya and Alex. I love the verse, "Children are a treasure from the Lord." All my children know I love this verse. They hear me say it all the time. I get up each morning and call them my treasures. Anya, for a year after her adoption, cried almost every other night for her best friend, Katya. "Oh Mommy," she pleaded, "can't we please adopt her too?" So we began to pray for Katya and I began work assignments in Russia for the Centers for Disease Control. I began to visit Katya and learned that she had two wonderful brothers, Sasha and Vasya. Over a period of time, it became clear that the Lord was going to allow us to be their parents as well. So the Lord took what was a very hard situation for our family and ended up bringing me immense blessing. I praise Him for that.

Just as the Lord is our refuge, He calls us to be His lifeboats in the lives of children who need His love. The two greatest needs of children who are living either in orphanages or on the streets are to be part of the Lord's family and to be part of a temporal family. We need two families, an eternal one and a temporal one. What happens when these two greatest needs are not met, when children are not part of the Lord's family and they are not part of an earthly family? One consequence can be multiple epidemics. That is what my work at the Centers for Disease Control involves. Right now, as never before, the former Soviet Union is undergoing multiple epidemics of drug use, prostitution, HIV/AIDS, syphilis, hepatitis B, and tuberculosis. These last four are infectious diseases that are direct consequences of the epidemics of the first two--drugs and prostitution.

 Epidemics in Multiples

Ignorance is widespread among many of the children about the dangers that result from drug use. In Moscow alone an estimated 50,000 young girls are involved in prostitution. Their average age is 20 and all of them are educated. The problem is there are just no jobs. I know of one case of a physician who was making so little that she left medicine to enter prostitution. Perhaps 87 percent of the young girls who are entering prostitution are doing so because they are their families' sole source of income. According to a report published by the Carter Center in Atlanta, many Russian pimps actually go to orphanages where they know young girls are about to be released. They buy them train tickets to the city and force them into prostitution straight from the orphanage. Right now I am researching the epidemic of syphilis among young girls and pregnant women in Russia. It is of unprecedented proportions. One out of every hundred 17- and 18-year-old girls in Russia has syphilis. The treatment is very simple, just one injection of penicillin; but if it is not treated, 25 percent of the babies of mothers with syphilis will be born dead, and another 40 to 60 percent will develop mental retardation and major organ dysfunction. Right now 70 percent of the pregnant women who have syphilis are not getting any treatment during pregnancy for this disease. Seventy percent of their babies are being born with congenital syphilis, which could be totally preventable. Of these babies, 15 percent are being abandoned.

 HIV/AIDS Looming

What about HIV? According to the World Health Organization, even though the total number of HIV/AIDS cases in Russia is still rather small, especially compared to many African nations, the rate of increase of HIV/AIDS in Russia is higher than any recorded increase in any other part of the world. Right now in South Africa, one out of every three children is an AIDS orphan. If something is not done to reverse this trend in Russia, in ten years I believe we will see the same development in Russia. I think the only thing that can change that probability is if believers stand together determined to be instruments of the Lord's hope in the middle of this tragic situation.

 Orphanage Graduates: Responding to Their Dire Straits

About 15,000 children leave Russian orphanages each year, once they are 16 to 18 years old. Of these, 5,000 are unemployed, some 6,000 are homeless, around 3,000 resort to crime, approximately 1,500 commit suicide, and roughly half the girls are forced into prostitution. What can be done to curb these discouraging and burdensome figures and trends? Organizations and ministries need to work together more effectively. By working together in partnerships I think our corporate expression of love for these children can be greatly amplified. If we can cooperate even more than we are doing now, many more children in Russia will benefit. So I pray the Lord will allow us to work together more closely for the sake of children at risk whom He treasures.

Dr. Susan Hillis is an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, GA.

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