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Most of these children ended up in an orphanage even though they have living parents
In Ukraine, the number of children in permanent care of the state is ten times that of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to say, how many children that is exactly because the institutions caring for them belong to different departments and may have different names. However, even conservative estimates put that number in tens of thousands.
In many cases, this means “social” orphans, who end up in care of the state even while they have parents.
On Monday, BBC 4 showed “Ukraine’s Forgotten Children”, a movie which reveals the problems of abandoned children filmed by Kate Blewett and her crew.
Many British viewers were shocked by the idea that parents can legally abandon their children. Ukrainian law, of course, stipulates that the parents must take the newborn from the hospital, but at the same time, the family law allows to leave the child there if there are “serious reasons”.
One of these reasons, the leading one is “significant deviations in psychological or physical development”. Specific attitudes to disabilities is rooted in the Soviet past and is hard to change.
Parents’ signatures are enough to send the child from one institution to another. In most cases the children go to one of the large state operated orphanages, which in many Western countries have been replaced by smaller, family-type homes, but in Ukraine are still a mainstay of the state system.
We followed the life of one of such institutions in Ukraine for 6 months.
Strangers Do Not Come Here
The opportunity to spend unlimited time in one of the orphanages was unique in itself as it is typically extremely difficult to gain a free access to such institutions. Most visitors only see what the school’s administration is willing to show. We were told by experts that getting a free access to an orphanage is harder than obtaining one for a prison.
After reaching 18, these kids can end up in a closed psychiatric or geriatric facility for adults
By a long standing tradition started in the Soviet times, majority of these institutions are located far from large cities. But this is just part of the problem.
An independent monitoring system, i.e. a system with free and unlimited access to these institutions that Ukraine promises to create by ratifying in 2006 the UN Convention against torture and other harsh, inhuman or degrading means of punishment – remains still a promise.
The Ministry of Social Policy, however, points out that as of last year the orphanages are required to have public oversight committees which should monitor the children’s living and care conditions and advocate for their rights.
Andrey Chernousov, a sociologist from Kharkov believes that this is a step in the right direction, and that the time is right for the community to act on behalf of the children. However, the devil is in the details as they say.
I got a list of members of one such oversight committee, and I was told that they were the active members, not just names on paper. Five out of ten members of the committee turned out to be current staff members of the orphanage, including its director. It is hard to imagine that their oversight will be truly independent.
Last summer, when we came to Ukraine for the first time we were charged by several charitable organizations to not only find orphanages that need help, but also to find the ones where the aid will actually reach the children.
Judging from this request, the benefactors already had unpleasant experience dealing with some Ukrainian children’s institutions.
We identified one such orphanage – a home for 126 disabled children with 3rd or 4th category, i.e. the hardest ones, with a variety of problems with physical and psychological development.
We were surprised to find out that this institution was not even considered a medical facility. Several years ago, before the appointment of the current director, the home had not even had a doctor on staff.
We were discouraged from going there several times by well-meaning people: “Wouldn’t your aid be better spent on those who can be helped? These kids have no future. This is a hospice, albeit an unofficial one”.
Had we listened to this advice we would have deprived ourselves from meeting amazing examples of human resilience and ability to enjoy life.
In this home we met 10-year-old Lyosha. He has no arms or legs, but he has fighting spirit and ingenuity to spare: he can move and even go up and down the stairs by using his powerful neck muscles.
Lyosha taught himself how to make a bed, and how to eat independently. He is an orphan with living parents, like the majority of the kids in this home – only four of them a real orphans – he can consider himself lucky at least in some things.
“Little House” of Hope
First, Lyosha is lucky because Nikolaj Viktorovich, the director of Lyosha’s orphanage is a really kind and caring professional who made it his goal to create a better future at least for some of the kids.
The kids under his care have widely varying abilities, ages, health issues: some are bedridden babies, some are almost adults, who require constant observation of a psychiatrist. Some have cerebral palsy, some need to be tube fed, and some are mute.
There is only one doctor for all these kids: a retired physician Olga Nikolaevna, whom the director found and asked to join. One nurse has to care for a minimum of 9 kids. This is actually an improvement over previous 1 to 19 ratio thanks to the director’s efforts.
Under the circumstances it is hard not to live by the principle of the “average temperature in the ward”, but Nikolaj Viktorovich with help from sponsors decided to dedicate more effort with kids like Lyosha, to realize themselves a little better.
We witnessed one of the first experiments in Ukraine of this kind: construction of the “little house” on the grounds of the orphanage with a classroom and almost a home-like kitchen to house just nine children.
We saw how the kids made big strides in writing, reading and math, and how some of them became familiar with a computer, and almost all enjoy making beadwork of wonderful flowers and trees.
Nikolaj Viktorovich hopes to keep the boys in the “little house” as long as possible, but they cannot stay forever.
Reaching 18 is a critical moment in the life of an orphan: rules (albeit they are often broken) state that he or she can no longer stay in an orphanage, but they have no other place to go.
While travelling around different regions of Ukraine we observed the construction of various Euro 2012 infrastructure projects: Ukraine spent more than $10 billion on the preparation to the football championship. We saw golden cupolas of brand new churches. However we did not see many signs of the so-called “social construction” around.
In other words, after the orphanage the children have only one place to go – to
Film crew from BBC followed the life of orphans in a Ukrainian home for 6 months
“Living Under the Lid of a Coffin”
If you read anything by a Swedish author Stieg Larsson, you will find some of the scenes in our movie familiar: how the state can declare someone legally incompetent even though there is objective evidence to the contrary.
For example, one of the people profiled in the movie – Boris – found out that he is declared legally incompetent several years after this decision was officially made. In the documents it was stated that he is not able to find orientation in space. Having spent all his life institutionalized, at age 30 he was sent to a geriatric facility.
In his words the atmosphere in the facility was like “living under the lid of a coffin”.
But he is one of the lucky ones – recently he was one of the first to be able to reinstate his legal rights. The court proceedings took about 10 months.
According to Tat’yana Makarova, an attorney, the procedure for annulling these types of decisions through court is so incredibly complex that an institutionalized person is very unlikely to be able to do this without external help.
We filmed Boris in the house of two women that he calls his “mom” and “grandma” – his legal guardian Zinaida (now his former guardian) and her mother.
At the time he was still considered “incompetent” but had no trouble managing a big country household, planting tomatoes and cucumbers, proudly showing his awards in dog training competitions, studying “Encyclopedia of Manners” and planning the renovation of a local church.
We are still unsure which space he had trouble orienting in, and how the state arrived at this conclusion.
*Olga Betko participated in the filming of “Ukraine’s Forgotten Children” as one of the producers.