The U.N. Children's Fund reports a dramatic increase in the number of children with disabilities since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  UNICEF is launching its first report on the situation of children with disabilities in 27 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and Baltic states.

UNICEF reports 1.5 million children are registered as disabled across the region's 27 countries.  But, it says at least one million other disabled children are not registered. 

UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center Director Marta Santos Pais says the report reveals many families keep their disabled children hidden from the official glare of society because they are afraid of being stigmatized.

"Unfortunately, the pattern of isolation, of stigma, of segregation, the lack of support to families who have children with disabilities is very much confirmed," she said.  "And, the sense of shame - in some cases beyond shame - the fact that the child with disabilities is perceived of bringing bad luck to the family and the society, sometimes leads to more dramatic solutions." 

The report notes vast numbers of children with disabilities were institutionalized during the time of the Soviet Union.  It says this practice continues to this day.  It says most of these children face their lives in segregated institutions, suffering from stigma and discrimination.

Ms. Santos Pais says disabled children continue to be institutionalized because their families cannot deal with the social prejudice of keeping them home.  She says many families put their children into state facilities because they believe they have no alternative.

"They lack the skills," she added.  "They lack the time very often in view of lack of opportunities in employment to have some flexibility to deal with their children.  And, above all, they do not have the resources to take care of their children at home.  And, in fact, they see the institution as the only way of ensuring clothing, food and some expectation of some education." 

The report finds poverty and disability go hand in hand, each fueling the other.  It says families with children with disabilities tend to be poorer than other families. 

UNICEF Regional Director, Maria Calivis, says children interviewed for the report agreed they wanted to grow up in a family, not in an institution.  They resented others perceiving them as being ill or sick.  They said they wanted to be integrated in society.

"This highlights the plight of these children that society has written off, has written off because they have disabilities and end up spending their lives, most of their lives in institutions," she noted.

UNICEF says it costs governments a lot of money to maintain disabled children in institutions.  It says that money would be better spent in helping families care for their children at home.