Outside the Ukrainian town of Drohobych, in a clearing in the forest, there is an
old monastery that has been converted into an orphanage for 75 girls. It is one
of hundreds of Ukrainian orphanages that house at least 85,000 children who
live cut off from society. When I visited last year, I witnessed a scene painfully
played out too many times in Ukraine: a mother saying goodbye to her child. As
an 8-year-old girl cried and clung tightly to her mother, the woman was likely
rationalizing that “the doctors told me she would be better off here. I would keep
her if I could. But she can’t go to school, and I cannot afford to stay home to take
care of her.”
In the heady days after the protests in Kiev’s Maidan square brought
transformation to Ukraine’s government, a wide array of citizens began meetings
to plan the new Ukraine. Disability rights and children’s advocates at the meetings
were clear: We must get rid of Soviet-era orphanages and institutions for people
As world powers jockey for control and influence in Ukraine, what chance do these
children have of ever growing up outside the walls of an orphanage? Their lives
hang in the balance — especially as Ukraine’s economy reels from debt and turmoil.
The future of Ukraine’s children will be determined as much by international donors
and aid workers as by government leaders in Kiev or Moscow.
Recent history in the region tells us how that future might unfold. After the Republic
of Georgia fought its war with Russia in 2008, the United States gave Georgia a $1
billion aid package. International aid workers helped spearhead an ambitious plan
to close down Soviet-era orphanages and create homes in the community for the
children. But children with disabilities were left behind. And the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers rebuilt institutions for young adults with disabilities who aged out of the
country’s orphanages — where they are likely to remain for a lifetime. U.S.
government money has been used to build, rebuild and refurbish orphanages and
institutions for people with disabilities in dozens of countries around the world. After
the earthquake in Haiti, for example, the U.S. government provided support to more
than 100 orphanages there.
It is easy to view aid to orphanages as the best of all possible acts of charity —
helping the most vulnerable children living in the most difficult of circumstances. As
Ukraine’s economic crisis deepens, many more families will feel the pressure to give
up their children. But why not provide U.S. aid to help parents keep their children?
Why not support adoption or foster families for those very few children who do not
have parents? The truth is, support for orphanages now makes future reform even
harder and may end up perpetuating segregated service systems. As the parents
of children with disabilities struggle to make ends meet, even small international
donations to orphanages have outsized influence. A plaque on the wall of an
orphanage saying “gift of the people of the United States” sends a message that
placement in this facility must not be so bad.
The situation in Ukraine is part of a large-scale human tragedy facing 10 million
children in orphanages around the world. An estimated 90 to 95 percent of
children in the world’s orphanages have at least one living parent. Children are
given up to institutions mainly because of abject poverty or disability. Most
heartbroken mothers and fathers would do anything to keep their children if they
received the tiniest amount of support.
It is widely accepted that all children need to grow up with a family. For every three
months in an orphanage, children at sensitive stages of growth may lose a month
of cognitive development. Studies have shown that raising children in a group
setting is psychologically damaging. Children learn to form emotional attachments
at an early age, and they lose this ability if there are not consistent people in their
lives to give them love and attention. My organization has documented atrocious
abuse of children locked away and forgotten — children tied down to beds, children
denied medical care and children subject to sexual abuse.
The 85,000 children in Ukraine’s impoverished institutions need urgent help and
the opportunity to grow up with a family in the community. Let us not make social
policy for Ukraine or other developing countries through poorly planned crisis
For starters, Congress should require that U.S. funding for foreign assistance not
perpetuate segregation by rebuilding orphanages — in Ukraine or elsewhere.
It may seem crazy to be thinking about the children as Russian forces are massed
near Ukraine’s border. But now is exactly the time when we must do so.
Eric Rosenthal is the executive director of Disability Rights International.