The Illusion of Protection


In June 2016 Country Director of Hope and Homes for Children in Ukraine, Halyna Postoliuk,  have paid a regular visit to a family-type small group placement for children “My Home”. She writes for ‘Zerkalo nedeli’, one of the most influential analytical weekly newspapers in Ukraine.

Among familiar faces I have noticed the new one. Smiling cordially, Maxim invited me to the house, proudly showed his room and spoke about his life in this small community of peers and adult carers. Only six months ago he kept looking down and almost never lifted his head; he was ashamed of his appearance, he did not know how to behave and was afraid of questions.

Maxim is 16 years of age, spending 13 of them in various institutions. When he was three, he caught a cold. His mom took him to the hospital and never returned. Then fate, or rather influential adults with the right to make decisions, determined his future life. 


Initially it was a children’s home – a place where his older sister Anya would shortly be placed to as well. Other children often teased Maxim because of his facial expression (congenital eye disorder), and he was quick to respond with his fists. When the boy went to school, the situation worsened. To get rid of this undesirable student, they diagnosed “mild mental retardation” in Maxim and sent the boy away to the specialised boarding school in different rayon, about one hundred kilometres away. No one ever asked Maxim if he wanted to go; they didn’t even let his sister say goodbye. The boy had spent 8 years in the new facility. At first he showed defiance – he cried, begged to see his sister, kept silence and refused to eat, but eventually Maxim came to terms with his situation, as all his efforts did nothing but enraged educators.

“Sometimes we left the facility, when our teachers took us to their kitchen gardens to work. Sometimes we simply ran away to eat some fruit. We loved plucking ripe cherries from the trees. We desperately wanted apples and watermelons… At least we could see the village where our institution was located. Of course, we were punished for our deeds”, recalls Maxim.

After spending 8 years in this place the boy was transferred to another specialized institution in different rayon. When I asked Maxim why he believed it happened, he said “I have no idea. No one ever explained it to me… One day our headmaster came and told that she was taking me to the city to some meeting. And there we met another headmaster. He put me in his car and told that he was taking me to his facility for holidays. After the holiday season was over, I asked him when I was going back. The answer was “never”, and I was here to stay forever. They wouldn’t even let me take leave of my friends”.

So the boy had been tossed around like some stock without any explanation.

Last year we battled really hard to transfer Maxim to our small group home. It turned out that the boy’s facial defect that no one even tried to fix wasn’t the only problem. Because of chronic otitis he almost lost his hearing. According to the boy, he repeatedly told his educators about ear pain, but no one reacted, so he stopped complaining.

Maxim’s story is about Ukraine’s child protection system, about professionals and officials working in the system, about regulations that guide their work, and about options available to children in need of their protection and support. If we dive deeper, we will see that a child is a hostage of this system, and a means of its existence. Owing to these children many adults have jobs and get paid.

As for attitudes towards children and understanding of their needs, little has changed in the system since Soviet times. Over the years we could observe only fragmented improvements, such as creation of foster families and family type children’s homes, support for national adoption, and development of specific services, but we failed to lay the foundation for preventing family ill-being and ensuring professional work of all structures and specialists called to preserve children’s rights.

Institutional care remains the most common government’s response to situations of poverty, mental and physical development disorders in children, and antisocial behaviour of parents. Instead of strengthening families and creating conditions that enable parents to care properly for their children, the state often accepts “parental” role in caring and educating children – the role that it is unable to perform.

Despite evidence from countless international studies, which confirm irreparable damage of institutional care to child development, and even compare institutions with prisons; despite growing number of gruesome media reports of abuse, violence and even killings in residential facilities, and stories about life difficulties faced by their graduates, no decisive action is taken to address the situation. Political elites are silent, because children are too young to vote – they are the future of the nation, therefore they should be taken care of by those who will come to rule the country tomorrow.

We’ve been hearing same excuses from the officials for many years: “reformation of institutions is untimely”, “we cannot ditch institutions”, “where do we place children?”, “some families put children at risk”, “intertnats are necessary for children with disabilities” and the like. Unfortunately, even after visiting countries that found all answers long ago and were able to successfully reform their national child protection systems, our ministerial officials still don’t see the daylight and lack enthusiasm.

System’s self-preservation

The organisation “Hope and Homes for Children” recently completed processing and analysing the data, collected during the study of the national child protection system. This was done to assess real situation within the system of institutional care, to identify causes and consequences of institutionalisation, and to collect relevant evidence in order to become even more convincing in promoting necessary changes, as both official statistics and formal reports do not offer a full picture of the situation.

During the study we collected the data from 663 residential facilities for children administered by three government ministries, as well as information about availability of services and specialists to support families with children in the regions. In addition, we carried out in-depth study of the situation with the rights of children in ten institutions of different types.

In short, our data analysis confirms that current child protection system is in stagnation; it undergoes the stage of “fictional reformation”, where things are not called by their proper names, where it doesn’t matter how budget money is spent, where no one cares about outcomes for children and future generations, and where inertia serves to conserve the system.

The size of the institutional network is overwhelming – its total area reaches 48.6 square kilometres, roughly the size of an average oblast centre in Ukraine. In other words, it is a city that lives in isolation, obeys rules and follows routine – the “territory”, inhabited by almost 100 thousand children and 68 thousand staff.

Daily routine in almost all institutions follows strict schedule. Therefore, children have almost no free time for themselves; they usually perform standard tasks assigned by their educators who disregard children’s individuals needs and preferences.

Each one of us has a toothbrush and a cup to rinse mouth. We brush out teeth every day. We bathe once a week on Saturdays. We do have hot water, but they give us one shampoo per group. You still have to ask your educator about everything – can we take a shower? When do we brush teeth? Otherwise they may scold you (from the interview with a child in instituition).

Children are tired. Even though we have summer holidays right now, they still have to observe their routine. We have compassion on our own children – we usually let them sleep and rest longer during holidays and on weekends. But children in this place have a schedule: you must be up at 7 a.m. If you miss your breakfast at 8 a.m., you will be hungry until lunch. Moreover, children don’t have private time. Their entire lives are scheduled and planned” (from the interview with a teacher in a specialized boarding school (internat).

Most institutions were established during the Soviet era, with some of them constructed in 1930s. Most facilities are intended for large numbers of inmates (100 to 400). Despite significant resources, invested by the government and sponsors, living conditions in institutions are often poor and degrading. For example, standard bedroom is designed for 6 – 16 children; there you find only beds, rarely one closet and a table for all roommates. Our specialists who assessed select institutions pointed at the lack of showers and toilet rooms (those available to children often have no curtains and partition walls); specialists also mentioned dirty conditions, non-working faucets, unpleasant smell in premises and the like.

Indoor toilet in the bedroom block for children of secondary school age is out of order; children have to use pit latrine, which is really insanitary. The smell around this facility is terrible; you cannot lock the door. There is no toilet paper inside. At the same time, a brand new toilet facility was built for the staff, and no one else can use it” (orphanage).

Less than 15% of 6.4 billion hryvnas allocated from the State budget to support residential facilities are spent directly on children’s needs. Average daily ration per child costs UAH 18; roughly 3,000 per year are spent on clothes; a few beggary pounds are allocated to buy medicines. In the meantime, the lion’s share of budgets (70%) covers staff salaries. So the question is: who is the main beneficiary of the system?

Our data bust popular myths and nullify arguments of the institutional care advocates, especially concerning children of certain categories who might need services of specific institutions, because, they say, only these facilities are positioned to provide professional assistance. One of these myths is that institutions are populated mostly by orphans and children deprived of parental care.

In fact, they make up only 9% of institutionalised children. The remaining inmates were placed in institutions upon their parents’ requests due to poverty, difficult life circumstances, or inability to receive educational, health and rehabilitation services at the place of residence. Psychological, medical and pedagogical commissions (PMPC), another Soviet-era holdover, introduced back in 1949 and composed of the bunch of communists to select children for special needs schools, currently “help” to fill the institutions. PMPCs make a diagnosis, thus “labelling” children and sending them down the road to specialised facilities. As many as 47 thousand children were referred to institutions upon PMPC recommendations. Maxim’s tribulations were also caused by PMPC decisions.

As soon as children with impaired mental or physical development, or, as in case of Maxim – with false diagnosis – find themselves in special boarding schools, they, according to teachers and doctors, are expected to receive qualified assistance, rehabilitation and special education – everything for what they were removed from their families. However, having analysed staffing and available specialists, we have serious doubts about these institutions’ ability to meet developmental needs of children. For example, there are almost 100 children per speech therapist; 30 children per special needs expert; and 118 – per psychologist. On the other hand, 11 out of 218 specialized facilities do not have special needs experts; 74 institutions do not employ speech therapists.

In general, interpretation of our data exposed a number of things beyond any rational explanation and simple logic. I have always wondered why we needed boarding schools of sanatorium type? Why a child with gastrointestinal or respiratory disease should travel to some far-off facility instead of receiving treatment in the local hospital, staying at home, and attending regular school? What quality treatment and rehabilitation of children with cardiac disease in the rural institution are we talking about, if this place has no general practitioner, let alone a professional cardiologist? And how come the community that hosts this particular specialised facility has the largest number of children with health conditions that match this facility’s profile? The answer is simple: reasons for institutionalisation are poverty and disadvantaged status of families, whereas the system seeks to pack its institutions with children.

Opportunities for filling institutions expand every year. We never had such an extensive and intricate system – it includes nine categories of institutions, subdivided into 33 (!) types. Even child protection experts find it very difficult and even impossible to make sense of it.

How to explain creation of residential facilities for children in need of social assistance, or children from poor families? According to the official data, more than 2 million children in Ukraine (or 30% of the total child population) currently live below the poverty line. So in theory they all can be placed in institutions. This means that the government offers parents a peculiar “relief”: you don’t need to think about pulling yourself out of crisis. Just place your kid in the institution. Forget about the Constitution, according to which only orphans and children deprived of parental care are entitled to full state support. Again, these institutions usually “attract” children from surrounding areas. For example, 107 of 149 children in one oblast-level facility are locals.

Residential facilities in rural areas and small towns often serve as the local economy mainstay, being one and only major employer.

During our visit a man, who introduced himself as a member of the village council, approached us and asked: “Are you people who arrived to close down our internat? You cannot do this! It is a strategic site for us, as many people from our village work there. Other employment opportunities are very limited!” (internat of general education).

More children means more money. This is the main funding principle of all institutions, and it has nothing to do with quality and performance. Huge buildings of residential facilities, 90% of which are currently in oblast subordination, remain half empty. But it is still necessary to maintain them, and to pay salaries to the staff, which may be reduced with dwindling numbers of children.

So what should sectoral departments of regional administrations and the heads of institutions do in the face of reducing population of orphans and increasing superiors’ demands for reform?

Things that occurred recently within alleged reformation of institutions can hardly be called anything but the struggle for survival and adaptation, which looks like uncontrolled process. 345 administrators claim to have completed the reform. Here’s what has changed: the type (by expanding the categories and age of children), and name (by adding daily rehabilitation) of institutions. One of the common ways of the “reform” is to reorganise the orphanage into a special boarding school. Some went even further: one residential facility that used to be an institution for orphans, where children lived and studied until the 9th grade, is now called a specialised boarding school of general education of levels I-III “Lyceum of Information Technologies”. Only 18 months ago this orphanage, designed for 260 children, held only 28 kids. The local community asked the authorities to transfer this institution under the city subordination to set up a public school. However, the oblast department of education had interests of their own and figured out how to stay afloat. Officials made sure that children stayed in the institution as long as possible, up to the 11th grade. Having received additional children from the Luhansk oblast, they made things look even better by renaming the institution into lyceum.

There are many other bizarre examples. How about transformation of a specialised boarding school into a grammar school for gifted children from rural areas and from low-income families? One may ask, why talented but poor children cannot study along with other children?

Institutions’ efforts to keep children as long as possible, reluctance of their administrators to grant children relevant statuses, thus preventing them from family reintegration, adoption, foster care or guardianship, also serve the interests of the system. This is especially maleficent for young children in baby homes, as they are particularly vulnerable. Two months ago we successfully removed Artem from the baby home, securing his status and finding him new parents. Until then he lived in the institution for five years, and his mother never visited her son. The institution’s director and services for children alike consistently ignored the boy’s desperate need for a family, even though there is a long waiting line of those willing to adopt young children. Such cases are rather frequent, but the worst thing is that no one is held responsible for them.

Social services, services for children and residential facilities operate in parallel. Findings of our study show that not a single family, where a child was placed in the institution due to difficult life circumstances, received adequate social support. In reality, none of these services works towards returning a child to the family.

Institutions keep strengthening and protecting themselves, while the amount and types of local services do not increase. Moreover, the number of specialists has dropped dramatically. If compared to 2013 the number of community-based social workers decreased by 64%; the same is true for services for children (19% staff reduction). Less than 2% of children are reached by inclusive forms of education in schools of general education and preschools.

Local authorities would be happy to deliver social services, but they lack necessary funding. Moreover, it is better not to do anything without fiat, because “no good deed goes unpunished”.

Such an initiative in this country may lead to a criminal case. Apart from general declarations, our legislation does not specify functions. There are no laws regulating introduction of specific services. I understand my colleagues, who find it easier to refer a child to the institution. They forget that this child returns in 5 years, and this problem will be much more difficult to address. During my previous term I as a head of the village council took five children from one family and sent them down to the boarding school. Now they have returned with disastrous consequences: they don’t want to work, they keep giving birth to new babies… The number of thefts in the community has increased… One problem multiplied by 10” (interview with the head of village council). 

Every year up to 12 thousand children leave institutions after graduation. We can assume that during 25 years of Ukraine’s independence close to 300,000 children left institutions for adult life. According to our estimates (also confirmed by international studies), less than 10% of previously institutionalised children successfully re-integrate in society and arrange their lives properly. This means that the remaining 270 thousand care leavers join the “army” of homeless, unemployed and socially disabled citizens, who are easily tempted to crime. Eventually many of them end up in prisons. Most graduates, as well as their families, become primary clients of social services, requiring ongoing support and assistance from the state.

Those who survived institutional care choose the same fate for their children, sending them to institutions. The study shows that 20 to 30% of currently institutionalised children have parents who also lived in institutions. Here we talk about lost generations, about hundreds of thousands of people with the background of collective upbringing in institutional care.

This is true social and economic impact of billions of taxpayers’ investments in the system that makes children suffer. And Ukrainian government must finally admit this fact. If we had a special commission to investigate abuse against children in the state institutions, we would receive a document as striking as the Judge Ryan’s report (2009), which included evidence of former inmates of the Catholic Church shelters in Ireland from 1920 to 1990. The report revealed massive physical and psychological abuse, sexual harassment and neglect. Many documented cases transformed into court cases, where victims are demanding compensation from the government for violence they experienced in childhood. Publication and open discussion of the report stirred significant public response and forced the Government of Ireland to publicly recognise its fault, leading to complete overhaul of the state child protection policy in the country.

What to do and what to expect?

While working on the report I kept on thinking about a plethora of documents, concepts, policies and strategies that have been published recently to answer the questions about what to do, how to identify priorities, what services to create, and what areas to reform…

So why nothing is being done? As corny as is sounds, but we lack that proverbial political will, framed in clear vision and words of direct action; there is no clear division of functions between branches of power; we have no single coordination centre with the authority and responsibility for children’s rights. Legal formulations, procedures, mandates of ministries and local authorities are blurred to justify the process for the sake of the process, and to avoid responsibility. Each ministry deals with the rights of children in its own way, whereas the coordination function of the Ministry of Social Policy is rather fictional. Leaders come and go, bearing no responsibility for their predecessors, because continuity is something alien for our political tradition. They want prompt results seeking publicity, but building a new system is long and difficult. The latter reminds me of old Gothic cathedrals, which took hundreds of years to build. None of the architects could see actual realisation of his plans, but this did not affect the construction process – successors came and continued his work.

I truly hope that someday people with genuine statecraft take offices and involve professionals and community organizations in reforms, leading to real improvements in children’s lives. More importantly, I expect external pressure (the reality shows that it is one of key preconditions for structural change in our country), and hope that the child protection system reform and de-institutionalisation will be in the spotlight of negotiations with international organizations providing assistance to Ukraine. These are equally important as anticorruption efforts and utility tariffs.

And what about Maxim? He already had two surgeries and is getting ready to another one. His dream of having normal appearance and not being ashamed of his face will finally come true. His sister Anya often comes to visit him; she is really happy for her brother. Maxim also got rid of his phony diagnosis. He attends regular school and wants to become a shoemaker and to design his own models of shoes. Despite his mutilated childhood and betrayals of adults, Maxim harbours no grudge against them. He even forgave his mother and recently met her. There is only one thing left in him: “I would like to see that woman who made up my diagnosis and sent me to the institution. I would like to ask her just one question: Why?”

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