Children Removed from Families of Utilities Debtors in Tatarstan
January 12, 2017
Alexander Tygin, head of the Zelenodolsk District, has instructed his subordinates to remove children from families who have gone into debt for nonpayment of gas and electricity bills. Vechernyaya Kazan has obtained a copy of the relevant document, whose harsh wording could make even the most hard-boiled reader shudder. No one in Tatarstan has yet taken such a radical approach to solving the problem of poor families whose homes and flats are threatened with having their electricity shut off in wintertime due to unpaid utilities bills.
“The children’s protective services of the Zelenodolsk Municipal District executive committee should be ready to remove minor children living in dwellings in debt for energy bills,” read the official instructions, signed by Alexander Tygin after a staff meeting on December 12, 2016. Short and to the point, as they say. Readers are free to interpret the instructions as they fancy. Will the children be removed forever from the families of debtors or only for the winter, keeping the minors from freezing in houses in which the heating has been turned off or burning to death in a fire? According to our information, in December, two children from families of debtors in the Zelenodolsk District were taken into care.
The problem of families in persistent default on their payments for utilities and housing services became a serious matter in January 2016, after the tragedy in the village of Staryi Kuvak in the Leninogorsk District, in which 27-year-old Olga Zhuravlyova and her five children, aged six months to ten years, burned to death in their own home. It was discovered the gas supply to the house had been turned off since August 2013 without a court order, and the family had been heating the house with electric heaters and a wood stove, the cause of the tragedy. In addition, it transpired the Zhuravlovs had earlier been registered as a vulnerable family, but shortly before the tragedy they have been removed from the registry.
At the time, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov harshly criticized district officials for “short-sighted actions” and ordered the republic’s government to improve how it worked with vulnerable families in debt. After the tragedy in the Leninogorsk District, around 300 families whose gas and lights had been turned off due to debts were identified.
According to Guzel Udachina, ombudsman for children’s rights in the Republic of Tatarstan, a year on, the president’s orders have not been forgotten at the local level.
“Since last winter, the republic’s towns and districts have worked systematically to identify problem families and restructure their debts,” said Udachina, noting, however, that she did not have statistics for the oversight work.
As Vechernyaya Kazan discovered, the Leninogorsk District checks on a quarterly basis whether families with children have payment arrears.
“We regularly ask the billing center who has large debts. If someone’s debt has reached the critical mark, our social services go into action. They work on getting non-paying parents into employment, restructuring their debts, and searching for sponsors,” said Vladimir Druk, the Leninogorsk District’s deputy head for social issues.
According to the executive committee, there are currently around thirty large families in the Leninogorsk District who have defaulted on their housing and utilities payments. By law, energy companies can cut off hardcore debtors whether they have children or not. But our sources in the executive committee say they have an agreement with gas and electricity suppliers that if they decide to cut off a family with small children, they will inform the authorities in advance, giving them the chance to intervene quickly. Hence, matters had never come to taking children into care, the same sources assured us, telling us the story of a mother with four children who, due to debts and a broken gas furnace, found themselves in an unheated house during December’s cold snap. The woman was warned she would have to take action or she could lose her children. She quickly took the children to their grandmother’s. Meanwhile, the gas furnace was repaired for free, and philanthropists helped to partly pay off the family’s debts.
Our sources at the Zelenodolsk District executive committee told us they had registered around a hundred families with minors who had defaulted on their housing and utilities payments.
“During 2016, eleven children from such families were removed for up to three months,” said Alexander Korshunov, head of the press office for the Zelenodolsk District executive committee. “All these children lived temporarily in a shelter. Would it have been better to leave the kids in houses with no light or heat, where they were not getting the proper care? It is unacceptable for children to live in such conditions. The head of our district is quite strict when it comes to protecting minors. Therefore, our children’s protective services vigilantly check all familiies.”
“Just yesterday, I visited in a family in the village of Nizhnye Vyazovye who had defaulted on their gas payments. I suggested assigning the children to a shelter for the winter so the kids would be well feed and warm,” Ludmila Minnigarayeva, head of children’s protective services in the Zelenodolsk District executive committee, shared with Vechernyaya Kazan.
In turn, Tatarstan children’s ombudsman Guzel Udachina explained that arranging for children to live temporarily in a shelter or social rehabilitation center is permitted only with the written consent of the parents, not on the basis of an arbitrary decision by children’s protective services or by order of a district head.
“The orders issued by the head of the Zelenodolsk District are inappropriate, to put it mildly,” Udachina argues. “If it turns out the district’s children’s protective services have been removing children from families due to debts, their actions are illegal. The state has the right to take the children into care only in instances where there is a threat to their lives and health. It is a moot point whether having the gas or lights turned off can be considered a direct threat. If a dwelling is unheated during a cold snap, there is such a threat, of course. The child could freeze, become ill or worse. But local authorities can solve the problem without resorting to extreme measures.”