Dr. Laurie Miller

Dr. Laurie Miller
© Mark Morelli

A little of that human touch helps Russian babies thrive

Dr. Laurie Miller wanted it to be a Granny Programóbringing together elderly pensioners and attention-starved children in a nation that has more than a half-million orphans and abandoned children.

"I had visited Russia eight or nine times in the past decade and noticed the large numbers of older women pensioners," says Miller, associate professor of pediatrics and director of the International Adoption Clinic at Tufts-New England Medical Center.

She also had visited numerous Russian orphanages and witnessed problems with under-staffing. "I thought that here were two needy populationsóthe older women and the babies. Why not get them together?"

Miller secured money from the Maine Adoption Program Services (MAPS) to pay the "grannies" and, with the backing of Arkady Rubin, minister of health of the Murmansk region, approached acquaintances at the Murmansk Baby Home. Miller and her colleague, physical therapist Kathleen Comfort, met with potential participants at the home in June 2001.

But as they described the need to get down on the floor to play with the babies every day, take them to the playground and generally be fairly physical, the older women began to excuse themselves and leave the room. "I believe they thought it might be a bit too physically demanding," says Miller. At the end of the meeting, only a few young women, most of them in high school, were left. So, instead of a "granny" program, the Murmansk Baby Home got a "big sisters" program.

Amazing success
The nine girls, age 17 to 25, agreed to spend four hours a day at the home, five days a week. Each was assigned one or two babies, determined to be most in need of extra attention and chosen from among the home's 200 children, ranging from infants to 3-year-olds.

Miller returned seven months later to evaluate the program. "It was amazingly successful in ways we didn't expect," she says.

For instance, of the 16 babies originally in the program, seven had been adopted by the time she returned, and another four were adopted or reunited with their birth families within the year.

"This was especially amazing since the children chosen for the program were considered difficult to place, some with severe physical handicaps," says Miller.

The absence of some of the target group from the home hampered evaluation, Miller admits, but videotapes and developmental assessments of each child were made by the orphanage's professional staff, which also closely supervised the work of the big sisters.

"We could see the babies were very social, engaged, happy and healthy-looking, compared with what they had been before the program," says Miller. The non-targeted babies also benefited because the program allowed the home's teachers and nannies to focus on them for more a few hours each day.

Giving and receiving
Another outcome was the number of big sisters who said the experience was life-changing. All the big sisters said they initially joined the program for the money. However, they fell in love with the children and the work. "One even said she was no longer interested in a tourism career, but wanted to be a teacher," says Miller.

"In this baby home, I saw another life not as I see every day," notes Natasha Tashblum, one big sister who intended to work in the program only for the summer. "Now I am working here more than a year and am very glad to help such lonely babies."

The problem of orphansóand especially the existence of orphanagesóare not widely recognized in Russia. The big sister program sparked the first local media coverage the Murmansk Baby Home ever received, and the girls in the program reported that many of their friends or family did not know the home existed.

Miller is now investigating establishing similar programs in baby homes in two other cities in the Murmansk region, in the far north central part of Russia on the Bearing Sea. Seeking donations to support the program, Miller notes, "A $100 donation will support a big sister for six months."

Donations may be made to the International Adoption Fund and mailed to the Fund, c/o Laurie Miller, M.D., Tufts-New England Medical Center, PO Box 286, Washington Street, Boston, MA 02111.