In Ukraine’s sprawling child protection system, war means tough choices



© Reuters. March 23, 2022 Sofia, 16, and her siblings are taken from their widowed mother and kiss her 8-year-old brother at a state shelter in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 23, 2022 Mihailo. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra


By Silvia Aloisi, Margaryta Chornokondratenko and Zohra Bensemra

LVIV (Reuters) – Nina, who celebrated her 16th birthday last week at a Lviv children’s shelter, was away from family and friends in eastern Ukraine after fleeing advancing Russian troops at the start of the war.

One of 23 children evacuated from another daycare center in Lysychansk, a small town more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away from the Eastern Front, Nina said she missed her friends there and didn’t know when she would see them again.

“They always come to visit us. We’ve been through so much together,” said Nina, who ran away from home last February when her mother started drinking and bringing men home after her father died.

At first, Nina lived with friends, but her school found out, and last year she was placed in Ukraine’s extensive childcare system. Ukraine has the largest number of children in state care in Europe, mainly because their families are too poor or broken to care for them.

Nina doesn’t want to go back to live with her mother — she doesn’t think her mother wants her back — but the war leaves her alone, trapped in a far-flung town.

The head of the Lviv shelter, Svetlana Havrilyuk, and her staff said they were doing their best to take care of Nina and the other children between the ages of 3 and 18 under their supervision.

But Ukraine’s sprawling national childcare program, a legacy of the Soviet-era government’s dominant role in society, has struggled as wars have forced thousands to flee their homes, often without the ability to find loved ones.

Before the Russian invasion, 100,000 children in Ukraine lived in nearly 700 shelters, boarding schools and baby homes, according to UNICEF.

About 6,500 of these children had been evacuated to safer areas at home or abroad as of March 25 since the crisis began, according to the latest figures shared by the Ministry of Social Policy with Reuters.

Some 47,300 children – almost half of the children in the system – were rushed back to their parents or legal guardians, which caregivers and child psychologists say is problematic in itself.

“Children come from places where there is fighting,” Havryliuk told Reuters. “I don’t know how it works during the war… How do we find their parents? Who knows if they’re still alive? What if there’s an emergency? »

No one at the Lviv shelter seems to know what happened to the parents of Nastya, 5, and her two brothers, 3.5 and 7, who, like Nina, were taken from Lysychansk on 24 February. The day the war broke out.

Olga Tronova, a caregiver who brought them to Lviv, the far west of the country, said the only thing she knew was that they were taken from her alcoholic mother late last year and had no relatives Tried to contact them since then.

In the background, Nastya, wearing a pink coat and a pink and white hat, is playing on the sand in the playground outside in the garden. His brothers rode up and down a nearby slide.

hard choice

Some children in the Ukrainian shelter network are orphans, but they are often taken from families struggling with drug addiction, alcoholism and domestic violence. About half of them have a physical or mental disability.

Ukraine’s large number of poor children and relatively short waiting times for adoption have made the country a popular destination for Western adoptive families.

For example, Ukraine was the largest European country of origin for adoption by American parents over the past 15 years, according to U.S. government data.

The system has long been questioned by child protection groups including UNICEF and Save the Children, who argue that, where possible, the priority should be to support families before they reach a tipping point.

Today, the war brings further upheaval to the tens of thousands of children in the state’s care.

The Ministry of Social Policy said that as of March 25, 230 public homes, or a third of the total, had been evacuated, and carers were faced with the difficult choice of whether to reunite children with parents or guardians to reunite them with Stay out of the war zone.

Oleksii Heliukh, a child psychologist who helps young residents of the Lviv shelter, said sending children home without proper testing could do more harm than good.

“When children are taken away from their families, there is a reason. If their needs are not met in peacetime, things can get worse during war. »

But Volodymyr Lys, regional child protection officer at the Lviv Ministry of Social Policy, said the dangers of wartime meant authorities often had no choice.

“The biggest risk is being bombed, trust me… It’s clear that no matter who the parents are, they’re still parents. »

children traveling alone

The fighting has also separated families where children live with their parents, and aid agencies have warned that large numbers of unaccompanied children have crossed into neighbouring countries and beyond.

“We have reports of children who travel alone end up in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany,” said Amanda Brydon, a child protection expert at Save the Children who has worked in Ukraine since 2014.

These could be children who traveled to Europe to reunite with relatives or friends, she said. Human trafficking is a big problem.

“We don’t have a system to register and systematically track these kids,” she said. “It’s a very messy system and trying to keep up. »

Regional child protection officer Lys said the situation had improved in the weeks since the war began, thanks to help from domestic and international aid agencies. “Ukraine.”

With documents and records lost or destroyed, UNICEF estimates that 1.8 million children have fled the country so far, and the Kyiv government has tightened border controls and suspended adoptions, interrupted by the COVID-19 emergency.

Aid agencies welcomed the decision.

Save the Children’s Bryden said he was “inundated” by calls from adoptive families desperate for help, but warned legal standards would be ignored and the risk of children being separated from their surviving parents.

For the 47 children in Lviv shelters and other state institutions, that could mean having to wait until the war is over.

Tronova, a caregiver who worked at a public children’s centre in Lysychansk when the war broke out, vividly remembers the call she received at dawn on February 24.

“Olga, now! You have to get the kids out,” she recalled, telling the shelter’s superintendent before hearing explosions in the distance. She hurried to pick up the child, leaving her family behind.

During the three days by train to Lviv, the children fell ill. “When they got here, they all had nausea, vomiting, fever,” Havryliuk said.

Since then, she and other caregivers, with the help of college student volunteers, have been working to regain a sense of normalcy and calm.

The children ate well and slept in neat dorms with blue and green walls painted with flowers, trees and animals.

Neighbors who barely said hello before the war flooded the shelter with food, clothes and toys. On one day of Reuters’ visit, a Polish charity sent stuffed bears from France with the word “courage” on them.

But even in relatively calm Lviv, which was largely spared the heavy shelling and fighting, it would be interrupted by counter-raid sirens at night, and the war would not be far away.

“The kids were sleeping when the alarm went off and they started screaming,” Havryliuk said.

Of the 23 children who arrived from Lysytchansk, all but 2 remained in the legal custody of their parents. Usually, the court will decide whether to deprive the family of parental rights.

Timofey, 11, was mentally ill and was two days away from foster care, but it all fell apart as he too was evacuated to Lviv.

“He was angry,” Tronova said. “I cannot predict my future or my children’s future. The only thing I can say is that we are under God’s mercy. »

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