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Helping the children in Ukraine

May 12, 2014, 11:35 4349 Author: Eric Rosenthal www.chicagotribune.com In the heady days after the protests in Kiev's Maidan square brought transformation to Ukraine's government. Disability rights and children's advocates at the meetings were clear: We must get rid of Soviet-era orphanages

This boy, like tens of thousands of other children in Ukraine's orphanages, could be another victim of good intentions if international donors don't focus their aid toward other solutions for poor, displaced youths. (Eric Matthews, Disability Rights International / September 23, 2012)

Outside the Ukrainian town of Drohobych, in a clearing in the forest, there is an old monastery that has been converted into an orphanage for 75 girls. It is one of hundreds of Ukrainian orphanages that house at least 85,000 children who live cut off from society. When I visited last year, I witnessed a scene painfully played out too many times in Ukraine: a mother saying goodbye to her child. As an 8-year-old girl cried and clung tightly to her mother, the woman was likely rationalizing that "the doctors told me she would be better off here. I would keep her if I could. But she can't go to school, and I cannot afford to stay home to take care of her."

In the heady days after the protests in Kiev's Maidan square brought transformation to Ukraine's government, a wide array of citizens began meetings to plan the new Ukraine. Disability rights and children's advocates at the meetings were clear: We must get rid of Soviet-era orphanages and institutions for people with disabilities.

As world powers jockey for control and influence in Ukraine, what chance do these children have of ever growing up outside the walls of an orphanage? Their lives hang in the balance — especially as Ukraine's economy reels from debt and turmoil. The future of Ukraine's children will be determined as much by international donors and aid workers as by government leaders in Kiev or Moscow.

Recent history in the region tells us how that future might unfold. After the Republic of Georgia fought its war with Russia in 2008, the United States gave Georgia a $1 billion aid package. International aid workers helped spearhead an ambitious plan to close down Soviet-era orphanages and create homes in the community for the children. But children with disabilities were left behind. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt institutions for young adults with disabilities who aged out of the country's orphanages — where they are likely to remain for a lifetime. U.S. government money has been used to build, rebuild and refurbish orphanages and institutions for people with disabilities in dozens of countries around the world. After the earthquake in Haiti, for example, the U.S. government provided support to more than 100 orphanages there.

It is easy to view aid to orphanages as the best of all possible acts of charity — helping the most vulnerable children living in the most difficult of circumstances. As Ukraine's economic crisis deepens, many more families will feel the pressure to give up their children. But why not provide U.S. aid to help parents keep their children? Why not support adoption or foster families for those very few children who do not have parents? The truth is, support for orphanages now makes future reform even harder and may end up perpetuating segregated service systems. As the parents of children with disabilities struggle to make ends meet, even small international donations to orphanages have outsized influence. A plaque on the wall of an orphanage saying "gift of the people of the United States" sends a message that placement in this facility must not be so bad.

The situation in Ukraine is part of a large-scale human tragedy facing 10 million children in orphanages around the world. An estimated 90 to 95 percent of children in the world's orphanages have at least one living parent. Children are given up to institutions mainly because of abject poverty or disability. Most heartbroken mothers and fathers would do anything to keep their children if they received the tiniest amount of support.

It is widely accepted that all children need to grow up with a family. For every three months in an orphanage, children at sensitive stages of growth may lose a month of cognitive development. Studies have shown that raising children in a group setting is psychologically damaging. Children learn to form emotional attachments at an early age, and they lose this ability if there are not consistent people in their lives to give them love and attention. My organization has documented atrocious abuse of children locked away and forgotten — children tied down to beds, children denied medical care and children subject to sexual abuse.

The 85,000 children in Ukraine's impoverished institutions need urgent help and the opportunity to grow up with a family in the community. Let us not make social policy for Ukraine or other developing countries through poorly planned crisis intervention.

For starters, Congress should require that U.S. funding for foreign assistance not perpetuate segregation by rebuilding orphanages — in Ukraine or elsewhere.

It may seem crazy to be thinking about the children as Russian forces are massed near Ukraine's border. But now is exactly the time when we must do so.

Eric Rosenthal is the executive director of Disability Rights International.

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