© Reuters. Sophia, 16, taken from her widowed mother with her siblings, hugs her younger brother Mykhaylo, 8, at a state shelter in Lviv, Ukraine March 23, 2022. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
By Silvia Aloisi, Margaryta Chornokondratenko and Zohra Bensemra
LVIV (Reuters) – Nina spent her 16th birthday in a shelter in the state of Lviv for children last week, away from her family and friends in eastern Ukraine, after she fled on the run. from attack by Russian forces early in the war.
One of 23 children evacuated from another child care center in Lysychansk, a town more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away from the eastern front lines, Nina said she missed her friends there and didn’t know. when will I see them again?
“They always come to visit. We’ve been through a lot together,” said Nina, who ran away last February, as her mother started drinking and bringing men to the house after her father passed away.
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 largest number of children living in state care in Europe, mainly because their families are too poor or broken up to care for them.
Nina doesn’t want to go back to live with her mother – and doesn’t think her mother wants her at home – but war has left her stranded and alone in a remote town.
Lviv shelter director Svitlana Havryliuk and her staff say they are doing their best to take care of Nina and the other children, aged 3 to 18, under their supervision.
But Ukraine’s vast state childcare program, a legacy of the government’s prominent role in Soviet society, is struggling as war forces thousands of people to flee their homes and oftentimes. making contact tracing impossible.
Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine had 100,000 children living in nearly 700 state-run shelters, boarding schools and children’s homes, according to the United Nations children’s agency Unicef.
The latest data shared by the Ministry of Social Policy with Reuters shows that as of March 25, about 6,500 of these children had been evacuated to safer areas at home or abroad since the beginning. war.
About 47,300 – or nearly half of the children in the system – were rushed to be returned to their parents or legal guardians, something caregivers and child psychologists say has set off own challenges.
“The kids come from places where there’s fighting,” Havryliuk told Reuters. “I don’t know how it works in war… How will their parents be found? Who knows if they’re alive? What if there’s an emergency?”
No one at the Lviv shelter seems to know what happened to Nastya’s parents, 5 years old, and her two brothers, 3-1/2 and 7 years old who, like Nina, were kicked out of Lysychansk on the same day. February 24, the day the war broke out.
Olga Tronova, the carer who brought them to Lviv in the west of the country, said the only thing she knows is that they were taken from their alcoholic mother late last year and no relatives have tried to contact them. them since then.
In the background, Nastya, wearing a pink jacket with a pink and white cap, is playing in the sand in the garden outside. Her brothers climbed up and down a nearby slide.
THROUGH WOMAN CHOICE
Some of the children in Ukraine’s network of shelters are orphans, but they are often brought in from families struggling with drug addiction, alcoholism and family abuse. About half of them have physical or mental disabilities.
Ukraine’s number of children in need and relatively short adoption wait times have made the country a popular destination for adoption families in the West.
Ukraine, for example, has been the top European country of origin adopted by American parents over the past 15 years, according to US government figures.
The system has long been questioned by child welfare organizations including Unicef and Save the Children, who have argued that whenever possible, priority should be given to supporting families. before they reach the breaking point.
Now, the war has caused further upheaval for the tens of thousands of children in the care of the state.
The social policy department said 230 homes in the state – a third of the total – had been evacuated as of March 25, and caregivers faced tough choices about reuniting children with parents or guardians if it takes them away from a war zone.
Child psychologist Oleksii Heliukh, who is helping young residents of the Lviv shelter, says sending children home without a thorough examination can 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 war.”
But Volodymyr Lys, head of the child protection section at the Ministry of Social Policy in Lviv, says the danger of wartime means authorities often have little choice.
“The biggest risk is being killed by a bomb, trust me… Obviously whoever the parent is, they’re still the parent.”
CHILDREN TRAVEL WITH SURPRISES
Fighting has also divided families where children live with their parents, and aid agencies have warned that a significant number of unaccompanied children have traveled to neighboring countries and more than that.
Amanda Brydon, child protection specialist at Save the Children, who has been working in Ukraine since 2014 said: “We have had reports of children traveling alone in Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Germany.
These could be children on their way to relatives or friends in Europe, she said. Smugglers are a big concern.
“What we don’t have is a system of systematic registration and tracking of these children,” she said. “It’s a pretty chaotic system to try and monitor.”
Lys, the regional head of child protection, said the situation had improved since the first few weeks of the war with the help of international aid agencies inside and outside 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 checks and suspended adoptions, which have been disrupted by the COVID-19 emergency.
Aid agencies welcomed the move.
Brydon at Save the Children said they had been “inundated” by calls from adoptive families wanting to help, but warned of the risk of legal standards being ignored and children being separated. from parents who are still alive.
For the 47 children of the Lviv shelter and those in other state institutions, that meant waiting for war.
Tronova, a babysitter who was working at a state center for children in Lysychansk when the war broke out, vividly remembers the phone call she received at dawn on February 24.
“Olga, now! You need to get the kids out,” she recalled the shelter principal telling her, before hearing an explosion in the distance. She rushed to pick up the children, leaving her own family behind.
In the three days it took to get to Lviv by train, the smallest people got sick. Havryliuk said: “When we got here, we all had nausea, vomiting, fever.
Since then, she and other caregivers, helped by volunteer college students, have been trying to restore a sense of normalcy and calm.
The children were well fed and slept well in a tidy dormitory with flowers, trees, and animals painted on the blue wall.
Pre-war neighbors who barely greeted them brought food, clothes, and toys to the shelter. On a visit by Reuters, a Polish charity sent stuffed teddy bears from France with “Courage” written on them.
But even in the relative quiet of Lviv, where there was virtually no bombardment and heavy fighting but where the nights of anti-raid alert lingered, war was never far away.
“The kids were sleeping, when the sirens went off and they started screaming,” Havryliuk said.
All but two of the 23 children from Lysychansk are still in the legal custody of their parents. In normal times, the courts will decide whether families take away their parental rights.
A mentally challenged child, 11-year-old Timofey, had just two days left in foster care, but that went up in smoke when he was evacuated to Lviv.
“He was very angry,” Tronova said. “I can’t predict anything for my future and the kids. The only thing I can say is that we are in the mercy of God.”