Right now, there are about 750 institutions housing 106,000 orphans in Ukraine, with the majority of them being “social orphans” who were abused or abandoned by their parents and were placed in the care of others. Every three days an orphan with a disability dies, usually because they don’t get the necessary medical attention. In Ukraine, the orphanage, known as an Internat, is a mixed boarding school for orphans and children from families living in poverty and is a catch-all for children of every background and need.
Ukraine, a country in Eastern Europe, achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This independence brought joy as well as instability and economic turmoil. The economy is growing, but millions of people still live in poverty across Ukraine today. Why?
Living conditions at Ukrainian orphanages are very difficult for the children who end up there. Since they come from backgrounds that are usually complex and lacking in love and parental care, their situation often goes from bad to worse.
For example, Olga, one of numerous Ukrainian orphans, shares a large room with eight other orphans and uses the communal girl’s bathroom down the hall, where she may have a shower once a week. (During the day hours, the children use outhouses.) In Ukraine, orphans are given bunks to sleep on and donated clothing to wear. Orphanages also provide schooling, but the lessons are often outdated, given by teachers who would rather be somewhere else. Meals are high in carbohydrates, low in protein with virtually no fresh fruits or vegetables served. After school, the caregivers keep the children occupied with chores, homework tasks and busywork.
Around the age of 16, orphans in Ukraine must leave the orphanage. There is no funding for them to remain and most leave without the basic skills to protect or provide for themselves. The number of children in orphan care is rising. On average, 250 children enter the system each day, significantly more than the number graduating. The government says there are now 9,000 more Ukraine Orphans in internats than there were two years ago.
This trend is alarming considering that 60-70% of Ukrainian orphans will become involved in prostitution and organized crime. Twenty percent of children graduating from internats at age 16 end up in prison. Ten percent go on to commit or attempt suicide. Others embrace alcoholism and produce a new generation for the orphanage. Less than one percent make it to a university or higher education.
The biggest problem with the system is that it’s not designed to look after the children’s best interests. It is simply a government program that has limited resources to address the long term needs of the orphan and simply provides a band-aid.
The ongoing conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels has also complicated matters, forcing the government to cut funding for social programs like orphanages, to deal with the insurgency. So, orphanage budgets are even tighter than before.
The real solution is long-term, lifetime care that provides support from the whole community to respect the orphan as a viable citizen and helps provide the job opportunities that are available to the wider population.
Of course, such care is not easy to provide in a relatively newly independent country like Ukraine. It requires a hands-on commitment from both local and international organizations as well as a recognition that the plight of the Ukraine orphans is the responsibility of the Ukrainian people, the church and the community at large to address.