War means tough choices in Ukraine’s sprawling child welfare system

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LVIV — Nina celebrated her 16th birthday at a public children’s shelter in Lviv last week, away from family and friends in eastern Ukraine, after fleeing advancing Russian forces at the start of the war. war.

One of 23 children evacuated from another daycare center in Lysychansk, a town more than 1,000km (620 miles) near the eastern front lines, Nina says she misses her friends there and doesn’t know when she will see them again.

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

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

Nina has no desire to return to live with her mother – and doesn’t think her mother wants her home – but the war has left her alone and stranded in a distant town.

The director of the Lviv shelter, Svitlana Havryliuk, and her staff say they are doing their best to look after Nina and the other children, aged 3 to 18, under their care.

But Ukraine’s vast state childcare program, a legacy of the government’s leading role in society during the Soviet era, is in trouble as war forces thousands to flee their homes and makes often impossible to find relatives.

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Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine had 100,000 children living in nearly 700 shelters, boarding schools and baby homes, according to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency.

The latest data available from the Ministry of Social Policy, from March 19, showed that about 5,000 of these children had been evacuated to safer areas in the country or abroad since the start of the war.

Some 31,000 – almost a third of the children in the system – have been hastily returned to their parents or legal guardians, which caregivers and child psychologists say poses its own problems.

“The children come from places where there is fighting,” Havryliuk told Reuters. “I don’t know how it works during a war… How are we going to find their parents? Who knows if they are alive? What if there is an emergency?

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No one at the Lviv shelter seems to know what happened to the parents of Nastya, 5, and her two brothers, aged 3½ and 7, who, like Nina, were taken from Lysychansk on February 24. the day the war broke out.

Olga Tronova, the carer who brought them to Lviv, in the far west of the country, said the only thing she knew was that they had been taken from their alcoholic mother at the end of the last year and that no relative has attempted to contact them since.

In the background, Nastya, wearing a pink coat with a pink and white cap, was playing in the sand of the playground in the garden outside. His brothers were riding up and down a nearby slide.

HARD CHOICES

Some of the children in the Ukrainian network of shelters are orphans, but more often than not they have been taken from families struggling with drug addiction, alcoholism and domestic violence. About half of them have physical or mental disabilities.

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Ukraine’s large number of needy children and relatively short waiting times for adoptions have made the country a popular destination for adoptive families in the West.

According to US government figures, for example, Ukraine was the top European country of origin for adoptions by US parents for the past 15 years.

The system has long been questioned by child protection organisations, including Unicef ​​and Save the Children, who have argued that where possible the priority should be to support families before they reach breaking point.

Today, the war has caused further upheaval for tens of thousands of children in state care.

The Department of Social Policy said 179 state homes – about a quarter of the total – had been evacuated as of March 19, and caregivers face tough choices about whether to reunite children with their parents or tutors if it takes them away from the war zone.

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

“When children are taken from their families, it happens for a reason. If their needs are not met in peacetime, things can get worse in wartime.

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

“The biggest risk is being killed by a bomb, believe me… It is clear that no matter who the parents are, they are still parents.”

CHILDREN TRAVELING ALONE

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

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“We have had reports of children traveling alone ending up in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany,” said Save the Children child protection expert Amanda Brydon, who has worked in Ukraine for a long time. 2014.

These may be children on their way to join relatives or friends in Europe, she said. Human trafficking is a big concern.

“What we don’t have is a systematic registration and tracking system for these children,” she said. “It’s been quite a chaotic system to try and keep up with.”

Lys, regional child protection officer, said the situation had improved since the first weeks of the war thanks to the help of international aid agencies inside and outside the country. ‘Ukraine.

With documents and records lost or destroyed, and 1.8 million children estimated by Unicef ​​to have fled the country so far, the Kyiv government has tightened border controls and suspended adoptions, already disrupted by the COVID-19 emergency.

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Aid agencies have welcomed this decision.

Save the Children’s Brydon said he had been “inundated” with calls from adoptive families eager to help, but warned of the risk that legal standards would be ignored and children separated from their still-living parents.

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

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

“Olga, now! You have to take the children out,” she recalls, telling her the director of the shelter, before hearing an explosion in the distance. She rushed to pick up the children, leaving her own family behind.

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During the three days it took to get to Lviv by train, the little ones got sick. “When they got here, they were all nauseous, they were vomiting, they had a fever,” Havryliuk said.

Since then, she and the other caregivers, aided by university students turned volunteers, have been trying to restore a sense of normalcy and calm.

Children are well fed and sleep in neat dormitories with flowers, trees and animals painted on blue and green walls.

Neighbors who, before the war, barely said hello flooded the shelter with food, clothes and toys. On one of the days Reuters visited, a Polish charity sent stuffed teddy bears from France with the word “Courage” written on them.

But even in the relative tranquility of Lviv, largely untouched by heavy shelling and fighting but where the nights are punctuated by anti-raid alarms, war is never far away.

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“The kids are sleeping, then the siren goes off and they start screaming,” Havryliuk said.

Of the 23 children who arrived from Lysytchansk, all but two are still legally in the care of their parents. Normally, courts would decide whether or not to take away parental rights from families.

A child with psychiatric problems, Timofey, 11, was two days away from being placed in foster care, but that fell apart as he too was evacuated to Lviv.

“He’s very angry,” Tronova said. “I can’t predict anything for my future or that of the children. The only thing I can say is that we are at the mercy of God. (Writing by Silvia Aloisi; editing by Mike Collett-White)

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