Knarik: Adoptive Parent, Guardian, Foster Parent
Knarik is a mother of five – four boys and one girl. She and her husband, however, are not the children’s biological parents. They adopted their first son Armen and took on Anna and Vardan as foster children afterward. They later became legal guardians of Narek and Ashot [the names of all the children have been changed to maintain their privacy].
Knarik was a social worker at Mission Armenia NGO when a child was brought in who was abandoned by his mother. The mother’s whereabouts were unknown. They were going to take him to an orphanage.
“I naturally couldn’t let them take the child to an orphanage under any circumstances,” says Knarik. “For a whole year, I cared for him with hopes that his mother would show up. However, this did not happen. Thus, I was legally able to adopt him. My husband and I did not think too long about it because both of us loved him. We couldn’t imagine him in an orphanage. His mother’s whereabouts are still unknown.”
In 2006, the Armenian government launched an initiative to develop a foster care system. Its aim was to find families for children, instead of taking them to orphanages. At the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), Knarik met two siblings, a brother and a sister, who were 11 and 13 years old. Their mother had health issues and their father did not live in Armenia. The two children were left under the care of their grandparents who weren’t able to keep them. That is why they were taken to FAR.
“I had acquaintances who wanted to adopt a child,” explains Knarik. “I told them that the adoption process was difficult, but there was an option to become foster parents. However, when they found out the children’s age, they declined. They justified their decision by pointing out that the children were going through puberty and that was a difficult stage to go through. Hence, they couldn’t care for them. My husband said, ‘How can they not take them? We will care for them.’ This is how we became foster parents.”
The law was deficient during those years. The transition stage, during which the parents and the children meet at home, talk and spend some time together, didn’t exist. Parenting classes that are now organized for foster parents before a child is given to them wasn’t in place either. The siblings were simply sent to Knarik’s house.
“They came and soon stated that they didn’t want to go anywhere else. They had to stay with us,” recalls Knarik. “We, in turn, told them they can stay and that we would care for them with love.”
However, it was her eldest son who was the most excited. “I remember his anticipation. He was so excited that he was going to have a brother and sister,” she says. “He would look out the balcony. He was impatient and kept asking, ‘Mum, are you sure they’re coming? Why haven’t they come yet? Why are they late?’”
In 2008, Knarik’s husband’s sister passed away and her children were left without parental care. Their father had died many years prior. Hence, these two children also joined Knarik’s big family.
“None of our relatives wanted to take care of them,” Knarik explains. “My husband and I decided that the children can’t go to an orphanage and we became their guardians.”
Knarik has worked with children without parental care for many years. Since 2001, she has been working with children in difficult life situations. She has done extensive research on the three main models: adoption, foster care and guardianship/trusteeship. Moreover, she’s been involved in these processes professionally as well. Many times, she’s seen grandparents become guardians/trustees, even when they themselves require care.
“We conducted major research from 2017 to 2018 throughout all of Armenia on the three institutions: foster care, guardianship and adoption,” explains Knarik. “Statistics show that the majority of guardian families are welfare recipients. How can we blame people in the welfare system—meaning they are dependent on the state—when they refuse to become guardians or request they at least become foster parents? Foster parents receive compensation; hence, it can help ease their financial burden. However, as a foster parent myself, I know that the amount given to foster families is not enough. Taking your children to classes, buying them clothes, birthdays, get-togethers, etc.—these require a lot of money.”
The state has to be consistent and vigorously oversee families who foster or become guardians to children because most of them don’t have parenting skills or a stable financial income. Knarik says that when a child is left without parental care, relatives often, without realizing the scope of the responsibilities they will have to take on, decide to become guardians driven by their emotions. However, they later understand how difficult it is to take on a parental role.
“A child that is in a difficult life situation will require intensive emotional support,” explains Knarik. “Whenever I had to explain something to my children, I would think of how I should do it a hundred times over because I didn’t want to offend them or for them to think for one second that I upset them because I am not their parent. A child simply needs care.”
Knarik recalls how they were organizing an event once right before New Year. “We asked the children residing in a care institution what they wanted from Santa Claus,” she explained. “One of the children had written that he wants 20 grandmothers: one to prepare food for him, one to wash his clothes, one to play with him. This has a simple explanation: the child wanted to be taken care of.”
Knarik says that there were moments of despair when they had to go to the police because of something their children did, when the school called them a couple of times, or when they once even had to go to court. Now their children are grown. Two are married and have children of their own. However, there was a period during adolescence which was quite critical. A period their family was able to overcome with dignity.
“It came to a point that my husband and I realized that we were dealing with the lack of simple behavioral norms,” explains Knarik. “We have four sons, and raising a boy with dignity is not an easy task. You have to be careful. Besides this, my husband and I both worked and we were often forced to leave our five children at home. A thousand things can go wrong.”
This is why Knarik’s husband decided to stay home for a while and spend some time with their boys. “That was challenging for us. I have to state that we passed that stage with dignity,” she says. “Now, we have mature children whom we are proud of. The connection between them is so warm, emotional and full of love that I consider myself a happy mother.”
Sometimes, Knarik wonders how she took on such a large responsibility – was she right to do so? Would she be able to take care of them? But giving up was not an option. Never did they utter derogatory words or insult their children because she and her husband knew how hurtful words uttered by parents can be for children.
“I believe a foster parent is more than a parent. You don’t end up with a child because of how great their life was beforehand, but because they need more than a parent,” explains Knarik. “That is why you have to approach foster parenting with great responsibility. I love my five children just like any parent would love their child: with unconditional love. We are friends. When they fell in love, my husband and I were the first to know. Whenever the boys had a problem, they would tell their father and spare me. Our adopted son and two foster children call us mom and dad, and the children we are guardians to call us aunt and uncle because that was what they always called us.”
However, Knarik believes that what their children call them doesn’t matter as much as the message behind those names. “The bedrock of our family has been love and respect,” she explains.
Vahe: I Will Not Give Up on My Dream
“I can’t rely on my memories like other children and say I was born in a specific place,” says Vahe [not his real name]. “Based on the documents from the orphanage, I was born in Yerevan. However, I don’t know who my parents are. I lived in an orphanage until I was ten years old.”
With a dream of becoming a professional soccer player, Vahe is now 24 years old. For the past five years, he has been working in Yerevan at an NGO that works with children who are left without parental care. Their aim is to give these children answers to questions that worry them through therapy and education, to teach them how to have goals and that difficulties in life are only challenges, not a reason for you to give up on your dreams.
“Orphanages affect different children in different ways depending on how a child got there in the first place. If a child has no memory, as in their conscious memory starts from the orphanage itself, then it becomes a place that keeps you away from reality,” explains Vahe. “That child does not know if having a parent is a good or bad thing. If you have no memories of your parents or relatives, then you would think everybody’s lives started in orphanages. This belief holds true for them until they meet people who have parents and live at home. When a child has certain memories of a parent or of a family, then the orphanage becomes a heavy burden their whole lives. They start to look for somebody to blame and they find that somebody. Later on, that person who is ‘at fault’ becomes the pretext to justify why they are lazy, unemployed or living a bad life. They become someone to blame for their failures and their weaknesses.”
It has been ten years since Vahe left the orphanage. His friends from the orphanage are few, their get-togethers infrequent. At one point, he realized that he thinks differently from his orphanage friends, that they have different understandings of life, that they have very different dreams. He doesn’t think he’s running away from his past; he can’t understand people that constantly look back.
“I’m not ashamed of the fact that I grew up in an orphanage,” says Vahe. “It’s not my fault I ended up there. I didn’t take myself there for me to be ashamed of that. I live my life with healthy judgment and I know this could have happened to anyone. I left the orphanage and was able to rise up from nothing. Rising from nothing is different, however, if you grew up within a family setting. Mine is completely different. That is why if I have to choose between feeling ashamed or feeling proud, then I’ll choose the latter. So many boys have given up on their dreams because they grew up in an orphanage. So many of them have fallen into the mud and have convinced themselves that the reason was that they grew up in an orphanage. They believe it’s because they’ve had a rough life and that they will always live a rough life.”
After living in an orphanage for ten years, Vahe was moved to a foster family. He wasn’t particularly excited, nor was he indifferent. At the orphanage, they told him that the foster family taking him in lived in a village and they were going to make him work. He had a different image of village life: grandparents that would make him cakes and light the fireplace. When he moved in with the foster family, he realized they didn’t have grandparents. At this new home, he understood what it meant to take out a loan to have a lavish New Years and then pay it off for the rest of the year. He understood that there is 10,000 AMD to buy a present when going somewhere as a guest, but there wasn’t 500 AMD to buy him a soccer ball.
“My time in the foster care process ended because of all the dishonesty. I left them myself. I decided that I couldn’t live with them anymore, even though I survived there for seven years. I applied to FAR’s Children Support Center and told them that I don’t want to stay with that foster family anymore,” Vahe explains. “Now, when I look back at everything, I realize that this was the best decision I ever made in my life to date: to not live with people who were dishonest with me and were stingy to the point that, until the very last moment, I wasn’t aware that as foster parents they were being monetarily compensated by the state. They could have bought that soccer ball that was 500 AMD.”
Vahe stole from the foster family only once in his life. He stole 1000 AMD. He bought that 500 AMD soccer ball and bought two ice cream cones with the remaining 500 AMD, one for him and one for his friend.
Vahe reads a lot. At his workplace, there is a large pile of books. He is now educating himself and is also studying at the Panos Terlemezyan State College of Arts. He still plays soccer, but he never before had the courage to say out loud that he wanted to be a professional soccer player. He now wants to become a politician. However, he humbly states he still needs ten years of hard work before he can pursue that.
“I ran away from myself only once in my life, if you can consider that running away. I went to the army,” explains Vahe. “I knew I didn’t have any advantages as a child from an orphanage. I decided that I was going to the army not to run away from myself but to find myself. I had to understand who I was and to serve my homeland with dedication and not just waste my time. I wanted to pull myself together. I had questions and I wanted to find answers.”
When Vahe returned from the army, he decided to get an education. “I didn’t want a piece of paper that stated that I had knowledge in a certain sphere,” explains Vahe. “What I wanted was to educate myself. This is more important for me than a piece of paper. I always considered the difficulties I faced as opportunities. I continue to do that till this day.”
Narek: The Boy With Blue Eyes
“Narek [not his real name] is my brother’s grandson. His mother used to live with us,” says Varduhi [also not her real name]. “I later found out she lived an immoral life and I kicked her out. I told her to get out because I knew what she did.”
Six months after kicking her out of her house, a man called and told Varduhi to come to take her niece. She was pregnant. “He threatened to throw her in a garbage site if I didn’t take her back. My heart gave in. I went and brought her home,” Varduhi says.
Varduhi is the foster parent to four-year-old Narek. Her daughter and son-in-law, their four children and the family dog also live with her. Their apartment is in dire need of renovation. Varduhi tells us Narek’s story.
“My father was still alive at that time. He didn’t talk to me for a month when he found out that I decided to bring Narek’s mother back home,” recalls Varduhi. “Even my daughter and son-in-law were mad at me. They asked why I was taking care of her.”
Varduhi cared for her pregnant niece for 9 months until the child was born. They soon learned that her niece had an illness and she had to stop breastfeeding him. “I did everything that needed to be done since they left the hospital. I took him to church at 40-days-old to receive the appropriate blessings,” says Varduhi. “My family members started loving her as well and accepted her thinking it was a phase in her life that had passed. One day, she told my daughter she was taking Narek for a walk. She took diapers and his milk bottle with her.”
She never came back. Varduhi started going to neighbors’ houses asking if they had seen her. However, she couldn’t find her. “I didn’t sleep all night,” says Varduhi. “In the morning, a man called. He said that 50 meters away from an old-age home in the Fourth District, there was a garbage site on the left and a pigsty on the right. We would find the child there. ‘The mother has gone in with the pigs. Either come and take them or I’m going to throw the child to the pigs,’ he said.”
Varduhi vows that she used all possible connections she had and asked the man to bring the child home. She said Narek was turning two months old that day and she had to take him to the clinic to get his vaccines. She remembers they brought the child in an awful state. She took him to the clinic in that condition. Later on, the mother took the child again. However, this time, she herself brought him back again.
“It was March 24, a day I can’t forget,” she recalls. “She came to our house and took several of her things. She told me to take care of the child because she couldn’t. He ate and cried too much for her. I told her that my father and her brother were at the hospital and my daughter was expecting twins. I couldn’t care for him. I asked her to take him to an orphanage. She said that she couldn’t. Several hours later, at 11:00 p.m., she came back and said she had decided to take him to an orphanage. My daughter decided to bathe Narek first and found bruises on the child. She had beaten him.”
“I took the child and went to see Ida at the municipality [Ida Khachatryan is the head of the Division of Family, Women and Children’s Rights Protection at the Yerevan Municipality]. I showed her what had happened to Narek and asked them to take him to an orphanage until we figured out what we were going to do. I took him to the Nork-Marash Orphanage. However, my heart caved in and I would visit him twice a week,” says Varduhi.
Varduhi’s daughter also states that they would visit him often.
“He never used a pacifier or wore diapers or clothing from the orphanage,” Varduhi’s daughter explains. “We would buy everything new from the store and take them to him. We began putting together the paperwork so my mother could become his foster parent. Narek stayed in the orphanage for only eight months.”
Varduhi claims that after Narek turned one, different serious illnesses surfaced: nocturnal seizures, asthma and rickets (a metabolic bone disease). In the databases at both the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and Yerevan Municipality, Narek is registered as a child with a disability that has been given to foster care. Varduhi also confirms that he is disabled but was not able to come up with any official document confirming this. However, what Varduhi does have is the document signed by Narek’s mother confirming she relinquishes all rights to him.
“She doesn’t know who the child’s father is,” explains Varduhi. “When my daughter asked how far along she was during the pregnancy, she never knew for sure. When Narek was born, his skin would get flaky. I took him to the hospital. They said that his mother had had sexual relations with different people while pregnant. She had so many infections that unfortunately were passed down to her son. He was completely treated, however, when we took him to the orphanage.”
When Narek is asked who his parents are, he points at Varduhi’s daughter and son-in-law. Neighbors and friends often ask if Narek knows that they are his foster parents. Varduhi says he’s aware because she doesn’t want him to grow up and stress about that fact later on in life. Varduhi says that the majority of the money they receive from the state as a foster family is spent on Narek’s medication. She claims the money is not enough.
Varduhi treats Narek as her own child. And she punishes him the same way she did her own child.
“He had taken a toy car from kindergarten and brought it home. I took it back and told him I will cut his fingers off if he ever takes something from there again, even a toothpick,” she says. “If I’m not strict with him, God only knows… I’ve told the kindergarten staff as well that they have to be strict with him. If they’re not strict with him and smile at him, he will take advantage of him.”
When asked how she punishes him, Varduhi says she makes him stand in the corner with one leg up or she gives everyone dinner except for him. “As soon as he says he’s sorry and that he understands what he did was wrong, then I give him dinner,” Varduhi explains. “As soon as my son-in-law comes home, Narek gets his act together. He’s scared of him like a dog.”
The state is obligated to oversee foster families. However, Varduhi says there is no need for that because everyone at the Municipality and at the district administration knows her.
“Ida calls to check up but no one ever visits,” says Varduhi. “We’re invited to certain events once in a while, for example during New Year’s or on International Children’s Day, etc.”
Varduhi says that their neighbors and relatives look positively upon the fact that she’s a foster parent and they consider Narek their own. They believe they are doing a good job. She says Narek’s mother called once saying she wanted to see him. However, Varduhi did not let her because allegedly she still continues to work as a prostitute. And Varduhi won’t let her see the child while she still does that.
Armenia continues to look for families to take care of children left without parental care. Families that are ready to accept another’s child and love them as their own. However, before becoming a foster parent, people have to understand the large responsibility they will be taking on. A child is not an experiment that you can keep and love for a month, try to take care of and then realize that you actually can’t. Children from challenging backgrounds are already in such a state that you can’t hurt them or abandon them one more time.
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This project is funded by the UK Government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the UK Government.