31 May 2019

Dismantling Ukraine’s orphanage-based care system: a challenging national reform

Ukraine has one of the largest orphanage systems in Europe, with more than 100,000 children living in 663 institutions. Hope and Homes for Children has worked in Ukraine since 1998. Our work began with the development of a number of family based alternatives to institutional care, followed by the creation of services for mothers and babies. In 2007 we began a pilot closure of an orphanage near Kiev, allowing us to demonstrate how, through the development of quality family support services and family based alternative care, institutions are unnecessary.

In November 2016, we celebrated the Ukrainian Government’s decision to officially recognise Hope and Homes for Children’s Centre for Social Support. A key milestone in recognising the centre’s effectiveness in strengthening families and preventing children from entering the care system, the endorsement of the Ukrainian Government means these services will now be replicated across Ukraine.

In 2017, the government launched the National Deinstitutionalisation (DI) Reform, which involves reforming the institutional care system and building accessible support for children and their families to prevent family breakdown.

Halyna Postoliuk, Hope and Homes for Children Ukraine’s Regional Operations Director

In this Q&A blog, Halyna Postoliuk, Hope and Homes for Children Ukraine’s Regional Operations Director, talks about the progress and the challenges of the national reform.

HOW MANY CHILDREN LIVE IN ORPHANAGE-BASED CARE IN UKRAINE RIGHT NOW?

There are 106,700 children living in residential care now. 92.3% of them have at least one living parent and only 7.7% of children in residential care are orphans. 17.3% of all children in institutions are children with disabilities.

ACCORDING TO STATISTICS, WHAT ARE THE REASONS WHY CHILDREN ARE PLACED IN INSTITUTIONS IN UKRAINE?

Developmental disabilities and health issues are most often among the official reasons. However, this is not quite the case. Based on our experience, the main causes why children are placed in institutions are difficult living conditions, poverty, parental alcohol abuse, and parents who grew up in institutions and have no experience of family life and not adequate parenting skills. Placing children in institutions is free for authorities, while other types of child care (even temporary) require expenses from the local budget. This is also one of the key reasons why children are placed in orphanages.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE TO ELIMINATE THESE CAUSES?

Investing resources in family support and working with parents to prevent children separation. In most cases, families in difficult life circumstances have poorly developed parenting skills and do not know how to take care of children. Therefore, along with financial support and assistance in finding jobs, arranging for home repairs or locating suitable housing, it is important to teach parents how to care for their children. Everyone’s goal should be to preserve families and to prevent family-breakdown.

IT WAS ONCE BELIEVED THAT All ORPHANS NEEDED WAS A ROOF OVER THEIR HEAD AND FOOD. WHEN DID WE REALIZE THAT THEY NEED MORE THAN THAT?

Let’s keep in mind that 92% of children have at least one parent. They are not orphans. The term orphan is completely incorrect, irrelevant. In other words, the state has taken on a parental role, which is unnatural and ineffective. The society can see the effects of institutional care now – a generation of people who struggle to adapt in life, find a job and build a family. According to international studies and our professional experience, less than 10% of care leavers do well in adult life. This raises a red flag.

AT WHAT STAGE IS THE NATIONAL UKRAINIAN REFORM RIGHT NOW?

2019 marked the beginning of the second stage of the reform, which involves the establishment of community-based services (healthcare, education and social services) with step-by-step transformation of child care institutions according to the regional plans.

Unfortunately, there is a sort of “illusion of change”, as some institutions have been renamed. For example, secondary boarding schools or sanatorium schools are transformed into vocational boarding schools and specialized care institutions. However, nothing has changed but names – children still live twenty-four hours outside of family care.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

Managers of child institutions want to keep children, otherwise these institutions will be closed down, and employees will lose their jobs. During the summer months, managers and employees of child institutions go into villages and persuade parents to place children in their institutions. They say that children will be taken care of and provided meals while parents can work and bring their children home on weekends. In fact, in this very way the state contributes to the degradation of family as a social institution.

Pretty soon parents stop taking their children home. At the beginning, they take a child home every weekend, then once a month, then once a year. Residential facilities even openly promote themselves by setting up stands at education fairs. Lack of clear top-down binding procedures and change mechanisms also play a role.

At the same time, there is a positive step towards limiting placement of “children in need of social assistance” in institutions. Today, such decisions are made by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, as children used to be placed in institutional care just upon parents’ request.

WAS THIS LARGE NUMBER OF INSTITUTIONS INHERITED FROM THE SOVIET ERA?

Yes, most institutions were established in 1950-1970. There were some institutions founded in 1938 and 1945. Some of them still have a large number of children, around 200 – 400. The state reserves its paternalistic position and does not ask for a child’s opinion, nor acts in the best interest of the child. We are still struggling with many legacies of our Soviet past. This reform begins with the values we select to pursue, with the decision to change established views and give up the comfort of ignoring things and doing nothing. Are we capable of putting the best interests of the child above offices and personal benefits?

HOW DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF DEINSTITUTIONALISATION IN UKRAINE?

Removal of a child from a family should be a temporary measure and reviewed regularly, but it is not the case in our country. A child who falls into the clutches of institutions is tossed as a ball from one institution to another. Nothing is done to get a child back home, to make sure there is a home for a child. Investing in the family and the development of children should be top priorities of the national policy and political agenda.

To know more: “The illusion of protection”

The Illusion of Protection is an analytical report based on the findings of a comprehensive study about the child protection system in Ukraine. It helps to understand how and why children are sent to institutions in Ukraine, the conditions they experience and the effect that institutionalisation has on their development and their life-chances. You can access, download and read the complete report at this link.