Kyiv wants $2 billion from the EU to scrap its Soviet-era orphanages.
Driving fast, Maxim Timotin jolts us along the pitted and potholed road to his old orphanage. The route is deserted except for a horse and cart, plodding through snow drifts toward the Moldovan border. Bitter frosts tear fresh scars into the tarmac each winter, but scars are often left neglected in rural Ukraine.
This home wasn’t that bad, Maxim says. The worst abuse was over by the time he was 11. “When I was very small, life there wasn’t so good. There were as many bad teachers as good ones. But I grew up and it became easier and easier for me,” he explains. “Until the fourth grade a teacher could beat us. But after that she stopped because we could hit her back.”
Timotin is skinny, pale and unkempt, but talks with a brash assertiveness that belies his 22 years. Born in 1994 in Odessa region, Ukraine’s south-western corner, the Soviet Union had collapsed just three years earlier. Gangsters fought gun battles in the streets as their oligarch bosses raced to strip apart and swallow state enterprises relinquished by communist Ukraine. To Timotin’s small-town parents, the future must have looked bleak and uncertain.
“They were drinkers, their lifestyle was immoral,” Maxim tells me, although the only details he has about them come from the government. “My mother gave birth to me and brought me straight to an orphanage for babies.”
For these teenagers, the jarring adjustment from complete dependence to sudden adulthood is too much
Despite being born in independent Ukraine, Timotin’s future would be decided by Soviet design after entering the welfare system. At age seven he was moved to the small town of Kotovsk, where he entered an internat — a mixed boarding school for orphans and children from families living in poverty. The schools were developed to accommodate the massive number of children in the USSR whose parents had been killed by wars and famine. Their goal - to take vulnerable children and mould them into patriotic workers equipped with the skills to work in heavy industry.
Other residential schools catered for children with disabilities or those with a unique talent the state wanted to nurture, such as sporting prowess. Potential Olympians were persuaded to part from their families for a strict training regime. The impact on young minds of growing up deprived of a family’s affection was neither considered nor catered for.
“The biggest problem with the system is that it’s Soviet, it’s not designed to look after the children’s interests,” says Mykola Kuleba, Ukraine’s Presidential Ombudsman for Children. “Back in the Soviet Union, it didn’t matter that the child was not in the family, the main thing was to train him to love the motherland and to be obedient.”
No country for young people
Little appears to have changed since independence. At Timotin’s old school, patriotic poems and drawings are plastered on the walls. The pictures are annotated by messages of support for Ukrainian troops fighting Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine, scrawled in children’s handwriting. The compound in which the children spend all day, every day, is as spotless as a military barracks. Each child has half a shelf for their neatly folded clothes and a single toy laid across their small, perfectly made beds. The teachers and some of the older children are all smiles when we arrive, but many of the younger ones look subdued and achingly sad. It’s so cold in their classrooms that students are still wearing their outdoor jackets.
Twenty-five years after the demise of Soviet industry, internat graduates are still encouraged to enter a technical college and train for jobs now no longer in demand
Today, Kuleba’s office counts 106,000 children living in 750 institutions similar to Timotin’s. Every three days one of them dies, he says.
“A lot of children with disabilities die because they don’t get the necessary medical support. Most of those deaths could have been prevented if they had been transferred to a medical care centre.”
The number of children in care is rising. On average, 250 enter the system each day, significantly more than the number graduating. The government says there are now 9,000 more children in internats than there were two years ago.
Coupled with Kiev’s statistics on what happens to children after leaving the system, this trend is alarming. Twenty percent of children graduating internatsat 16 end up in prison. Ten percent go on to commit or attempt suicide. Others embrace alcoholism and produce a new generation for the internats. Less than one percent make it to a university.
For these teenagers, the jarring adjustment from complete dependence to sudden adulthood is too much. “When children leave an internat they don’t know how to cook for themselves, even fry eggs or boil pasta,” says Tetiana Semikor, director of Faith, Hope, Love, an NGO which works to support vulnerable children in Odessa. “They don’t know how to budget. They come to a shop and buy chocolates and biscuits without thinking about the rest of the week. They’re used to everything being provided for them.”
Twenty-five years after the demise of Soviet industry, internat graduates are still encouraged to enter a technical college and train for jobs now no longer in demand. Without the means to find an alternative future by bribing their way into one of Ukraine’s increasingly corrupt universities, many look for other ways to make ends meet.
Parents are persuaded to give up their children by local authorities, who receive and rely on government funding per child in their care
“If you go to the train station you’ll see women that offer you a prostitute younger than 18 - 80% are from internats or bad families,” Semikor tells me. “There’s no control by workers at the internat, they don’t care. Sometimes the girls go out at night and come back in the morning. The staff in the internat don’t pay attention. Sometimes the girls just leave the internat altogether.”
Semikor has joined a group of organisations, led by Ombudsman Kuleba, that want to shut down internats for good. They argue that Ukraine should focus its resources on preventing children ending up in the system instead.
“From these 106,000 children in care, only 8,000 are genuine orphans. The rest have parents,” Kuleba says. “They choose to put their child in care because they have no other options, they’re poor and are persuaded the state can take better care of them. Or if you or the child have a disability, the child has to go to an institution, there’s no specialised support in the community.”
Even now parents are persuaded to give up their children by local authorities, who receive and rely on government funding per child in their care. Bureaucrats then cream off money allocated for food and medicine by ordering goods at inflated prices, taking a kickback from the suppliers in return. Concerns about exploitation were heightened in November, when a 52 year-old female teacher was arrested and accused of offering an internat child’s organs to a prospective buyer.
Finding a way out
Kuleba says he has a detailed plan for replacing the internats with an integrated network of social workers, support centres and foster families, largely modelled on reforms implemented with EU help in Romania and Bulgaria. He wants to end an inefficiently centralised system of institutional care, focusing instead on supporting impoverished parents to look after their children themselves, with education, training and specialised healthcare services available in the local community.
“Now we spend 170 million dollars for all the institutions, but only 12 million on just 5,000 social workers helping vulnerable families, preventing children having to be taken into custody. That should be reversed,” he argues.
driven millions of Ukrainians from their homes and ravaged its economy, swelling the number of children at risk of poverty, abuse or neglect to nearly 600,000, according to government estimates.The need for government assistance is growing ever more acute. War in the country’s east has
But there’s a catch to Kuleba’s plan. He says Ukraine will need $2 billion over ten years from the EU to implement his proposal. In a country where the welfare system is already riddled with corruption, that’s a big ask. When new legislation forced officials to reluctantly declare their assets last year, career bureaucrats revealed huge stockpiles of cash, countless luxury cars and apartments, all well in excess of their meagre monthly wages. Kuleba himself hasn’t declared his assets, citing a law that exempts his position — considered political rather than governmental — from doing so.
Despite the widespread frustration with government graft, there’s a growing consensus among psychologists and social workers in Ukraine that Kuleba’s plan deserves support. In Kotovsk, two social workers take us to see a foster family. They want me to see Yana, a 13 year-old girl whose mother died of alcoholism three years ago. Yana was taken to an internat when her stepfather abandoned her shortly afterwards, but social workers were able to place her with a local family unable to have children of their own.
Even if Kuleba gets the money, resistance from vested interests in the internats and local authorities could skewer it
“At first it was difficult to adjust, because there were very different rules there [at the internat],” Yana tells me. “Now I’m used to it. At first when they took me here they were helping me with all the things I didn’t know about, they were asking what I didn’t know, then when I came here I saw that I had a sister here and we were playing together and now we are friends.”
Yana is clearly thriving in her new environment, but placing orphans in foster families and monitoring children at risk is labour intensive.
“We have a data-bank with parents who want to adopt a child,” says Oksana Tkach, the social worker that found Yana a home.
“To get a child they need to have a medical test and bring a statement that they don’t have a criminal record. They both need to have an income. Because if they don’t work it means that they’re going to spend state money allocated for the child. They need to own an apartment or a house. And we work with them. We talk to them and decide if they have a parent potential. Then we sent them to an education centre in Odessa.”
Once a child is settled, social workers should check in once a week for the first month, then once a fortnight, gradually transitioning to one visit every two months. With only 5,000 professional outreach social workers in the country, Ukraine is far from being able to cater for the 600,000 vulnerable children on its books.
Without external funds, Kuleba’s planned transition will be impossible. Even if Kuleba gets the money, resistance from vested interests in the internats and local authorities could skewer it. Faced with the prospect of losing a local cash cow, over the past two years local authorities and internat directors have begun changing the official status of their institutions from orphanages to specialist academies in the hope of avoiding any future cull.
Back on the bumpy road out of Kotovsk, I discover a more unlikely opponent to Kuleba’s plan. Internats aren’t bad for everybody, says Maxim Timotin. After all, his experience hasn’t affected him — he has no scars, he claims. Even finding out his mother had died while filing paperwork at a government registry didn’t faze him. It all depends on the person, he argues.
Throughout our trip, Timotin has been at pains to show he’s twice as tough as friends that took the easy route and ended up in jail. He talks about how he’s made his own way out of poverty by running a small bar and his plans to go into politics. Locally, he’s developing a public profile as an irreverent children’s rights activist. Full of bravado, Timotin confronts teachers, berates government officials and strides the corridors of his old orphanage as though he were its headmaster.
Only once does he let his guard down. As he steps into the bedroom where he slept as a child, I snap a series of photos. He offers a shy smile. For a fleeting moment, this gruff, thick-skinned young man becomes scruffy seven year-old Maxim, left alone to take on the world.
All photos courtesy of the author.
Maxim Tucker is a British journalist based in Ukraine. He writes for The Times and has been published in the Guardian, Newsweek and Politico Europe. He previously worked as Amnesty International's campaigner on Ukraine and the South Caucasus, and has spent most of the past seven years working on and in the former Soviet Union. Follow Maxim on Twitter @MaxRTucker.