An exploration of Ukraine’s mishandling of vulnerable young people and children in state care.

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Whilst the EU and Ukraine grow ever closer, a group of international children’s charities shine a spotlight on the Ukraine’s treatment of the vulnerable babies, children, and young people in state care.

At a recent summit meeting the President of the Ukraine, Charles Michel and the President of the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen issued a statement reaffirming a commitment to strengthening their political and economic association. The statement also offered promise to Ukraine for a ‘gradual economic integration in the European Union Internal Market’. Ukraine governments have been lobbying for EU Membership for a number of years and a recent poll revealed that there is growing support amongst Ukrainians to join the EU. Arguably, the Ukraine already has one of the strongest free trade agreements with the EU, and they also have access to programmes like the Erasmus scheme and visa free travel within the Schengen zone. However, beyond trade there are significant challenges ahead for the country to align with wider EU laws, principles and values.

One such divergence in policy has been highlighted this week by a coalition of children’s charities, who issued a joint statement that raises significant concerns about the Ukraine Government’s treatment of children in public care. In the Ukraine there are over 100,000 children growing up in the state’s care and this is mostly provided in institutional settings. This means the Ukraine has the highest number of children living in institutions amongst all European countries. This wholesale use of institutional care is in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations Guidelines on Alternative Care. It is also at odds with EU policy. For example, in the EU budget, it is now prohibited (under article 6 of the scope of the ERDF and Cohesion Fund) to use funds to develop institutional care settings. Historically, EU funds were used to build childcare institutions and renovate buildings, but they have now committed to a divestment approach and call for states to prioritise reforming care systems, which focus on community provision and family-based support.

There is seventy years of international research evidence that highlights the negative outcomes for children growing up in institutional care. The seminal work on attachment by John Bowlby in the 1950’s showed that children need a consistent and attentive care giver for their emotional and cognitive development. Subsequent studies have shown that institutional care settings, are often typified by large numbers of children being looked after by relatively low numbers of staff, and they are unable to provide children with the consistent care they need. In more recent times, research studies have followed the cohorts of young people who left the institutions of the Ceausescu regime in Romania, which clearly highlight the negative effects a care setting can have on children’s development. Last year the charity Lumos supported a Lancet Group Commission that undertook a systematic review of the research evidence, and they found that institutionalisation often has a profound effect on a child's physical and psychological development and can be associated with long-term mental health problems. The review found that at least 80% of institutionalised children were impaired in their physical growth and cognitive development.

The outcomes for babies in institutions are particularly poor and the UN Guidelines on Alternative Care highlight that institutional care is principally unsuitable for children under three years of age, and the guidelines call on member states to avoid placing infants in institutions. Hope and Homes for Children state that prior to the covid-19 pandemic (as of 1 January 2020), there were 38 baby homes in the Ukraine with 2742 infants. If you take an average that would mean that these baby institutions, house over 70 babies each. The reliance on these large-scale baby institutions is at stark odds with the research evidence that suggests institutions are often a structural form of child neglect.

The Ukraine government have made previous commitments to reform their care systems and in 2017 published a National Strategy to reform the system of institutional care. However, as the joint statement from the children’s charities highlights, in June 2021 the government have made a ‘worrisome U-turn’ with amendments to the strategy. The amendment now excludes the deinstitutionalisation of special boarding schools, education and rehab centres and what are known as sanatorium boarding schools. These settings care for around 50000 children, and they are some of the most vulnerable children in Ukrainian society, including the infants in the baby homes and the children in state care who have disabilities. This u-turn not only ignores the research evidence on the harmful effects of institutions, for a government keen to better align itself with the EU it is also a glaringly regressive step. The continued use of institutional care means that the government continues the structural neglect of children in their care, and puts them at odds with the EU’s guarantees to further child rights and improve the lives of vulnerable children.

Dr Justin Rogers

CASP Visiting Researcher

Lecturer in Social Work

The Open University


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