Triumph forged from a human tragedy

Thousands of babies spend their lives in appalling conditions in filthy Russian baby houses with little food and no toys. But for one child at least, this appalling beginning has a happy ending. Bridget Galton reports AS the trailing spouse of a

Thousands of babies spend their lives in appalling conditions in filthy Russian 'baby houses' with little food and no toys. But for one child at least, this appalling beginning has a happy ending. Bridget Galton reports

AS the "trailing spouse" of a foreign newspaper correspondent, Sarah Philps feared she might be bored in Moscow.

But a visit to an "orphanage" and the intelligent smile of a four-year-old boy who had been written off as an imbecile, ended up consuming her life for five years.

The boy was called Vanya and the moving story of Sarah and husband Alan's determination to find him a better life is told in The Boy From Baby House 10 (Orion �18.99)

That first visit was in 1994, but in chaotic post Communist Russia, the children's home was reminiscent of Dickensian England. Filthy children lived on a meagre diet in bare rooms with no toys. Worst of all was Vanya's Group Two - the children deemed to have physical or mental disabilities spent hours lying in their cots or sitting unstimulated in tethered babywalkers.

If they survived to the age of five, they were judged by a commission and those found to be "a cretin" were sent to a dreaded "internat" where they spent the rest of their short lives in bed under sedation.

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Sarah, who grew up in Savernake Road, Gospel Oak, but spent two years as a child in Belarus, says: "Alan and I met in Moscow in 1979 when I was working as a nanny and he as a journalist. When he was posted back there by The Telegraph in 1994 I was reluctant - I thought 'what am I going to do? But it ended up the most productive five years of my life."

She recalls being "absolutely horrified" at her first sight of Baby House 10.

"The first thing that hit you was the appalling smell of urine and boiled cabbage. You would go into these rooms with children, covered in bruises in dirty clothes and although I couldn't believe what I was seeing I had to smile and be pleasant because if I showed disapproval they wouldn't let us back in."

Sarah was staggered by the attitude of the poorly paid, hard worked, but aloof staff.

"I saw these sweet little dirty children desperate to be hugged but they saw defective, dehumanised, abnormal children whose mothers were prostitutes or drug addicts. There was a total lack of knowledge about children's emotional needs and development."

The attitude was worst with the "disabled" children who were literally written off. Many, including a child with a cleft palate, needed minor operations to improve their lives but the staff simply didn't think it was worth it.

Alan adds: "Russia at that time was in chaos, Yeltsin was President, mostly drunk and not in charge, it was a free for all politically and economically and for Russians life was harsh. There was a general feeling of powerlessness, of 'do what you are told or you'll lose your job' and the old Communist idea that the State knew best. One of the women who worked in Group Two fatalistically said of a child who had been sent to the internat 'the state has decided it's time for him to die'."

Children like Vanya, whose only disability was to be born prematurely, were misdiagnosed as having cerebral palsy but often developed problems because of subsequent neglect.

"The children arrived at the baby house with a minor complaint but rather than try to encourage their development there was total lack of emotional and physical stimulus," says Sarah.

"They would deteriorate, their muscles would wither, they wouldn't grow and they would be made disabled by the institution."

Her first impression of Vanya was a curly headed child with a wide smile who asked her name and begged: "please come again". Over the years, his ability to connect with people, and his exceptional resilience would help him survive despite appalling neglect.

Sarah and a group of mostly Western women formed a network to supply toys, clothes, equipment, therapy, and seek operations for the children in Moscow's 25 baby houses. They also visited regularly giving the children the attention they craved.

As a fluent Russian speaker, she acted as translator including arranging visits from journalists like Alan who would write about the plight of these forgotten children.

"My children were five and seven at the time and it was very difficult to deal with seeing what I saw during the day then come home to my kids and their wonderful privileged existence," says Sarah.

The book, co-written by Alan and Vanya who is now a 19-year-old American called John Lahutsky, recounts his terrible nine months in an internat, one traumatic failed attempt to adopt him, a spell with a Russian foster family and his eventual adoption.

But although a few lucky children managed to escape the baby houses, Sarah and Alan, who live in West Hampstead, don't believe foreign adoption is the answer.

"Wherever there has been large scale adoption there has been scandal and exploitation as either gangs start stealing children to sell or corrupt lawyers and officials take bribes," says Alan.

"Once there's a value on these children they become a commodity which might even increase the flow into the baby houses."

Sarah, who received an MBE for her charity work in 1999, set up Action for Russia's Children to give grants to independent Russian charities providing an alternative to children's homes - including help for single parents and support for children with Down's Syndrome.

"I made a harsh decision to stop running around the baby houses and think of the future by helping small grass roots organisations who were trying to stop the flow of children into institutions," says Sarah.

"These children aren't orphans. They have parents and if they were better supported they wouldn't have to give their children up. It's not about funds - the system is very well funded by the Russian state - but if all the budgets that go to staffing and running these institutions went into funding a student mother who has nowhere to live, or educating people that a child born with only two fingers isn't retarded, then things would get better."

Although there are energetic well-informed charities changing public perceptions in Russia about children needing love and stimulation in family environments to thrive, the country's famed bureaucracy has been reluctant to change its ways.

There are still 19,000 children in baby houses and 350,000 children growing up in institutions - the same number as when Vanya was born. The brutal regime of condemning disabled children to 24-hour bed regime also endures.

"It's not the Russian way to give money to families rather than institutions," says Alan. "Their solution to any family crisis or disability is still to put children into institutions. The attitude is, the state will care for them but the state doesn't care."

For more details about Action for Russia's Children go to www.