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Ukraine: Child-Welfare System Failing

  • Lily Hyde



The number of children in state care or living on the streets in Ukraine has increased dramatically in the last few years. The welfare system has failed to cope, and many children emerge from state institutions psychologically damaged and poorly educated. Correspondent Lily Hyde examines Ukraine's new efforts to tackle the issue.

Kyiv, 20 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Children at Chaslivtsi internat, a state boarding school in western Ukraine, share bedrooms as bare as prison cells. It is hard to tell their ages, or distinguish the girls from the boys. All are dirty and raggedly dressed.

Several 17-year-old boys are due to leave the institution in a few weeks. One asks another what awaits them:

"After this school, where will you go?"

"(Jokingly) To the Perekhrestie girls' home."

"And what will there be at Perekhrestie?"

"Work."

"What kind of work?"

"Maybe stupid, maybe cheerful."

"Alright. What else?"

"I'll do embroidery, and maybe work in the fields."

The boys laugh, but it's no joke. These children -- diagnosed as mentally retarded before they were eight years old -- have spent their entire lives in an institution, and when they leave Chaslivtsi they will go on to another. The girls will do embroidery at Perekhrestie and the boys will repair shoes at another home. But there is no market for these skills.

Chaslivtsi's deputy director, Mikhailo Mikhailochko, says flatly that the children in his care have no future. They are among 160,000 children in Ukrainian institutions. Some are disabled, some have parents who cannot take care of them, others have parents who simply do not want them. Orphans make up only about one-third of the state's wards.

But when the state takes over from parents, it puts children into large institutions run on rigidly authoritarian lines. A chronic funding shortage keeps the children poorly clothed, poorly fed, and poorly educated, and they are given no notion of how to cope with life outside an institution.

A lack of any loving care is particularly damaging psychologically. The result, according to the estimates of some social workers, is that up to 75 percent of state-raised children fail to build a successful life after they leave institutions. Instead, they turn instead to crime, prostitution, or suicide.

Yet admission to state institutions is rising by 8 percent annually. And the number of children living on the streets is also increasing rapidly. Last year, 25,000 children passed through temporary state shelters -- nearly twice as many as the year before.

Earlier this year, the government established a ministerial commission to oversee various new committees and groups dealing with child welfare. The new government programs are aimed at working with families, trying to prevent children from being abandoned or put into homes in the first place. But that's far from easy. Ukraine's economic slump has put many parents in desperate financial straits, and drug and alcohol addiction are on the rise.

The children at Chaslivtsi were mostly abandoned as babies, and their parents only retrieve them if they can exploit them to obtain bigger government subsidies or flats. Then, says Mikhailochko, the parents send them back to the institution:

"The parents of our children show up here not when their children are young and helpless, but rather when they are in eighth or ninth grade, when the little tots have already grown up into healthy young fellows who can work for themselves. Mostly, we deal with parents who don't want to help their children but simply profit from them. They don't give to their children what parents should give, they do nothing but send their children to work and live on the money they make."

Nearly half of the street children who passed through Ukraine's shelters last year returned home after only three months. But many who end up on the streets need more extensive help than is available in the temporary shelters. A new pilot program of rehabilitation centers provides space for children to remain for an entire year to catch up on everything they have missed.

Tamara Hodareva of the recently established State Committee for Youth Policy explains the new program:

"These children need help -- especially psychologically -- over a long period because we take children from the streets who are 16 years old and have never studied. They've never been to school, they have no education at all."

Another task for the new committee is to aid in wholesale reform of the old institutional system -- which, says Hodareva, now only contributes to youth homelessness:

"The institutional system is outdated. Many children run away from all kinds of institutions -- those for orphans or for those who have been taken away from their parents -- and we find them on the streets. So there's plenty of reasons to reform the institutional system. There's the factor of cruelty to children, from the staff, and among the children themselves, when older kids bully the younger ones."

To replace the system of large institutions, the government has begun to support foster families and smaller family-type homes. A foster family in Krivih Rih in southeastern Ukraine, the Derevyankos, provides an example of how children brought up in such an environment receive individual attention and learn to adapt more naturally to society.

The Derevyankos have fostered 13 children from state institutions over 11 years. Some had been diagnosed as retarded, and none knew how to do the simplest things -- such as spreading butter on bread or riding a tram. But they have turned out to be hard-working, polite, and apparently capable of living full, happy lives. The foster father, Anatoly Derevyanko, explains why:

"What is an institution? They turn out the lights and leave at eight o'clock -- it's just a job. But we're there 24 hours a day. Where does pedophilia come from? Where does drug addiction come from? Prostitution? This is a home, they sleep, the doors are open, I'm their guard and their father. This is a family."

With an extensive network of homes like that of the Derevyankos, the government and aid organizations hope to break Ukraine's decades-old cycle of child homelessness. Working together, they are trying to make previously unwanted children fully functioning members of society. That, however, remains a formidable task.

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