The state is attempting to make a shift from institutional care for orphans to family-based care, and is succeeding.
The media craze over Elton John’s emotional attachment to a 15-month-old boy in an eastern Ukrainian orphanage missed the bigger picture. While thousands of children remain in orphanages, the nation is making a genuine attempt to shift from state-run institutions to private family care for those unfortunate kids who lost their parents early in life.
John’s visit to Ukraine on Sept. 12 ignited international attention to the issue. The legendary pop star fell in love with Lev, an HIV-affected boy in the industrial city of Makiyivka, and expressed interest in adopting him. Authorities quickly nixed the idea because of John’s age and homosexual marriage to partner David Furnish. Same-sex marriages are not recognized by Ukraine. Moreover, the child’s parents – identified as Marina, 25, and Sergey, 31 – have said they do not want to put Lev up for adoption in interviews with the London Sun tabloid.
Lost in the hoopla are concerted efforts by the Ministry For Family, Youth and Sports to eliminate the remaining boarding schools and homes altogether by 2016. The ministry believes that family-centered care based in foster homes, adoptive families and group homes is better for the child.
Success stories abound. Among them are the three Krylenko boys who, in 2008, were adopted into a Cherkasy Oblast family while under foster care. There is the story of Karina Hlushchenko, orphaned at the age of two because her mother, the sole parent, was suffering from tuberculosis. She found an adoptive mother 10 years later, which happens rarely once a child is past the toddler age.
As for celebrities, the public may have forgotten about 1996 gold medalist gymnast Liliya Podkopayeva’s adoption of eight-month-old Vadym in Donetsk.
Of nine million children in Ukraine, more than 100,000 are being cared for by someone other than their parents, according to Holt International, a non-profit organization that supports family-based services for such children and is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Another 180,000 children are estimated to be living in at-risk families.
Anatoliy Krylenko, head of the board at a local charity organization and his wife, Lyubov, are part of the trend. The Krylenkos have completed courses for adoptive parents and welcomed twin brothers and another brother into their family in 2008, after three months of preliminary foster care.
“Having a child of our own, we thought the mandatory courses for adoptive parents were silly. But after taking them we realized their value,” Krylenko said. “They [courses] tell us everything about parenthood. More importantly, they teach us how to tell our sons they are adopted.”
Yuriy Pavlenko, the nation’s minister of family, youth and sport, said the transition to family-centered care is based on best Western practices. Although Ukraine has been a member of the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child since 2001, Pavlenko admitted that his ministry has only started acting on it in 2005, when the original Orange Revolution team of President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko came to power.
“We looked at what Poland was doing, what the Baltic countries (of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania) have done and decided to replicate their efforts here to reform child welfare,” Pavlenko said.
The president signed a decree in 2008 designating Sept. 30 as the National Adoption Day. With high-level support from the president and the Cabinet of Ministers, monetary and social incentives for adoptions were set in place and partnerships were established with non-profit organizations.
As of Jan. 1, adoptive families are treated as birth families in the sense that mothers are given maternity leave, vacation time is allotted and families receive the customary Hr 12,240 allowance per child.
“Although the money didn’t influence our decision to adopt, it’s nice to know that the government treats us as equals to birth families,” said Vera Hlushchenko of Kozyatyn in Vinnytsia Oblast. She adopted Karina in 2007.
“The Family, Youth and Sports Ministry underwent a revolution,” said Alyona Gerasimova, Country Director of Holt International. “You don’t have to fight with this ministry. We’re on the same page. The bottom line is every child should have family care, not in an institution.”
There are plenty of statistics to demonstrate that the government effort is a success. In 2004, 130 foster families and child-care centers existed. Today there are 453 such centers. The number of children adopted by Ukrainian families has increased from 1,500 in 2005 to 2,500 in the first three quarters of 2009, according to Pavlenko.
Meanwhile the number of children residing in state-run boarding homes and schools has decreased from 30,000 in 2004 to 11,000 in the first half of 2009.
But head of charity fund Pruyateli Ditei, Maryna Krysa, however, said that statistics confuse quantity and quality. In her experience, some foster families abuse the state privileges that come with a child.
“It’s very sad when these families take children to exploit them for physical labor and money that comes from the state," Krysa said. "We get signals that some children run away from these foster families and lose faith in all sorts of foster care altogether.”
Boarding schools and homes are often criticized for failing to give a proper education to children and prepare them for life once they turn 18 and enter society. “These institutions are like greenhouses. They artificially grow children,” said Gerasimova, whose organization runs the Families for Children program in Ukraine.
The public-government partnership has also made progress in reducing parental stigma against adopting children through various outreach programs. Many infertile couples with a desire to adopt fear orphans have psychological problems or are apprehensive about health issues.
However, last year, Pavlenko said that parents have even started adopting children with special needs, including 20 HIV-positive children who went to Ukrainian families. Another 25 HIV-positive and 46 street kids went to foster care. Gerasimova praised the gradual disappearance of large boarding homes and schools. But she said that plenty of challenges remain.
“There is a need for more group homes that house less than 50 children. Children need to stay in close proximity to their hometowns and not be moved to a different part of the country. Above all, they require nurturing which only a family can provide,” Gerasimova said.