Two years of war in Ukraine: Fearing many children may be lost forever

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

After two years of war in Ukraine, more families than ever are at risk of breaking down, threatening to increase the number of children in need of alternative care. 


The war has already separated many families: fathers serving in the military, while mothers and children take refuge abroad or in Western Ukraine.   


Adjusting to life in a foreign land, often without employment, has left families drained of their savings. The financial and emotional toll has become too much for some couples, leading to a rise in divorces.


Tragically, with over 10,000 civilian casualties, children are losing parents or caregivers every day. As of September 2023, 10,153 children have lost parental care since the full-scale invasion; 1,610 of them have lost both parents and lack any relatives to care for them, according to Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets. 


SOS Children’s Villages advocates for placing these children with foster families, but Ukraine’s nascent foster care system is ill-equipped to handle the influx. There's a legitimate fear that these children might end up in the same residential institutions that failed them before and during the war. 


Decisionmakers should take action to modernize Ukraine’s childcare system, aligning it with European standards. Legislation, especially regarding the court system, must be revamped to prioritize the needs and rights of the child. International support and longer-term plans for reconstruction should not be used to restore institutions, and the donor community should insist on realizing children’s rights by supporting family care in Ukraine. 


The war should not be an excuse to set these reforms aside; instead, the war is the moment to carry out reforms and provide children with proper alternative care. SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine is proving that it is possible by implementing a range of practical pilot projects in different communities. 


Children deported to Russia


Before the war, Ukraine had an alarming percentage of children, 1.3% of the total, residing in large residential institutions—roughly 100,000 children, half of whom lived there permanently. The majority, 92%, were not orphans but were separated from their families due to administrative and economic reasons. Without social services or economic support for struggling parents, families fell into poverty, leading many children to be placed in institutions. 


When the war erupted, around 75% of children in institutions were taken by their parents to safety. However, those in the war zone remained stranded, depending on staff for protection. 


Unfortunately, many staff, fearing for their own lives, fled with their families. They abandoned the children, leading the occupying authorities to deport many of them to Russia. Tens of thousands of children were either deported or displaced; 19,546 children have been identified.  


The situation is dire; the children in Russia are being hidden, their identities altered, and they are scattered across different locations, making them difficult to trace. The fear is that many of these children may be lost forever. 


In two years, Ukraine managed to reunite only 388 deported children with their families; SOS Children’s Villages has reunited 84 and worked with partners to bring back many more. Stronger pressure by national governments on the Russian Federation is needed to bring more of them home. 


Keeping families together


Fortunately, 75% of the children in institutions were reunited with their families before the war. Of course, most of these families are suffering from the dangers and hardships of war – but being with their parents, children endure that much better and suffer much less.


SOS Children’s Villages continues to work towards keeping families together by providing mental health, parenting, and economic support. In 2023, SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine supported 223,000 people, and since the start of the full-scale war, more than 400,000 people in total.  


When possible, we find foster families for children who have lost care. I am reminded of a brother and sister whose father was killed when their home was shelled, leaving no one to care for them. SOS Children’s Villages provided immediate psychological support to the children who were in a state of shock and transported them to temporary accommodation in a safe region while searching for a permanent family placement.  


With the support of local social services, the children were successfully placed in a foster care family in their community, which had evacuated to safety. Ongoing support is provided, turning a hopeless situation into a positive one for these children and their new family. 


Going forward, social services must be provided to help vulnerable families at risk of breaking down, preventing the need for alternative care. Financial reforms, where subsidies follow the child, can incentivize communities to support children and families, keeping them together and avoiding alternative care.  


Governments and international donors must redirect funds away from residential institutions, as institutional care is harmful to children.  


We work with many young people who grew up in institutional care, and it is painful to see how they lack essential skills for personal relationships, social adaptation, and financial literacy. Many require ongoing support to navigate through life. The ongoing war makes it much more dire, increasing the need for mental health services. 


Reform is a matter of principles and values


SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine actively works to expand the foster care system by supporting existing foster families (especially those evacuated from the battle zones) and recruiting and training new foster parents, although the shortage of qualified individuals poses a significant challenge.  


There are positive signs, with the First Lady of Ukraine supporting foster care reforms and the government establishing a special inter-ministerial body for family care development. 


Currently, there are approximately 15,000 children in foster care in Ukraine. The hope is that expanding foster care and supporting vulnerable families will diminish the need for residential institutions. Children, whether living with their family or foster family, forge the bonds and relationships they need to cope and succeed – even amid the challenges of war. 


Beyond the financial advantages, fostering children is a matter of values. If Ukraine is to shed its post-Soviet legacy and align with Europe, attitudes must change, political will must be found, and reforms must be enacted. It's not just about pragmatic concerns; it's about principles and ethical values. 


Why are we at war? We fight for human dignity and human rights, so why violate the rights of children by preventing them from growing up in family care in our own country? It's time for Ukraine to uphold its principles and embrace this essential reform. 


Written by Serhii Lukashov, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine. 

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