‘Social orphanhood’, an endemic Ukrainian malady made visible by the war

  • The foster family of Katarina Dolgova and her ten children enjoying dinner on any given day. | David Melero.

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‘Social orphanhood’, an endemic Ukrainian malady made visible by the war

Written by Andrea Gabarró

The war has turned the spotlight on Ukraine. And beyond the tragedy of the conflict, endemic problems of society are emerging. One of the most serious is the 'social orphanhood', the more than 100,000 children living in institutions inherited from the 'post-Soviet' system.

Adding to the delicate condition of orphanhood in Ukraine, with a slowly reforming post-Soviet orphanage system, is the complicated status of the “social orphan”. Social orphans are those children who are without parental figures due to parental neglect rather than death. Problems with alcohol abuse, the justice system or an increasingly weakened economy are some of the reasons why children are taken out of the hands of their parents by social services. An endemic problem that, with the armed conflict that began in 2014, seems to be increasingly evident.

Ten heads ride home in the back of a van driven by a short-haired red-haired woman. A cross hanging from the centre mirror is shaken to the rhythm of the road and, in the background, the music hits broadcast by the 5 p.m. programme. Underneath, a blue and yellow badge is proudly displayed. In the back, Veronika, dressed head to toe in pink, smiles mischievously as she tells her older sister, Marichka, on whose lap she sits to make room for the guests who are coming to snack at her home today. Sasha and Sashko, both 13, mumble in Ukrainian about this afternoon’s plan, while Maksym, with a mischievous face, looks out of the window in search of somewhere that tells him he is close to being able to run around again. The ten siblings share anecdotes and everyday friction in the back of the vehicle. This is not a Ukrainian adaptation of The Serranos, but the Foster Family that Katarina Dolgova has built up over the years.

The terms “foster care” or “fostering” are used in the United States and Europe to refer to care provided to a child in non-relative family settings, usually on a temporary basis (although it can be long-term). It is a placement administered and regulated by the state, which is given during the waiting period for permanent life options such as return to their family of origin, adoption or reaching the age of majority. This concept has gained particular prominence in the country in recent years, as the Ukrainian government has taken steps to reform the child welfare system, with the aim of shifting from institutional care to family care. According to Blanca Inés Santa María, a health psychologist specialising in family therapy and emotional management, foster care gives children the experience that there are other realities outside their own. “It gives them another opportunity to experience the family, to see other types of relationships, interactions and healthier family dynamics; other types of love languages,” explains Santa María. Often the families from which these children come are very unstructured, with “a lot of problems and a high level of aggression and altered emotions: a lot of very intense emotional expression – shouting, insults, verbal and physical aggression, breaking furniture, etc.”, continues the psychologist. This is why, according to Blanca Inés, giving them more resources to get ahead is giving them “another chance at life”. Despite all the benefits of foster care compared to the traditional orphanage model, progress has been slow and there are still many challenges to be addressed.

This theology and history teacher decided a few years ago that she wanted to become a foster mother and started all the procedures with social services to be able to do so. Her older sister was also a foster child, and she sees herself reflected in these children. “Ever since I was little, I have loved children, I was always babysitting the children of my neighbours, it is something I have always enjoyed very much”, says Katarina. Another reason she decided to set up a Foster Family is that, as the director of an orphanage, she realised that orphaned children were not really that difficult to deal with. “I saw that children will be whatever adults allow them to be,” Dolgova explains. “I realised that the institutional care system was failing and how necessary it was for the children’s future to have the opportunity to experience life within a family,” she continues.

Katarina Dolgova tells how she has ended up with ten children under her guardianship today and fifteen since she started as a foster mother: “I took the first children from the orphanage where I was working. They were quite difficult children, but I was proud of them, and I wanted to show them that they could change,” she says. “I have suffered a lot for those children, but now I can say that I am not afraid of anything,” she continues. She explains that the older ones are doing well: one of them is about to graduate, has a job and is getting married in the autumn. She often receives visits from her adopted children, and they help her with whatever she needs. Shortly after moving to Lviv, she became the mother of two more children: Yeyhen and her older sister, Marta. “I simply accepted them, they were entrusted to me and I, who believe in God, know that if he allows something it is because I need it,” Dolgova explains calmly. Later she took in Solomiya, whose caregiver – her grandmother – became ill and could not take care of her, and also Sasha. The latter was 5 years old, and Katarina hesitated to take him in because of the delicate situation of his mother, who was in prison and thought that when she got out she would take him back and it would be a very complicated scenario.

Veronika, Marichka, Maksym, Yura, Sasha, Sashko, Volodia, Ivan, Solomiya and Stepan on their way home in the back of Katarina’s van. | David Melero.

At the time she already had seven children in her care and needed to take in a few more to qualify as a foster home. “I asked the social services to give me younger children, I only had teenagers,” she laughs. So, three more children came into her life: Marichka, seven, Sashko, six, and Volodia, four. Adriana left the family and Tanya arrived, and so they lived for about five years, until Mykhailo left, followed by Tanya. Within a year and a half, she welcomed Veronika and Maksym, aged three and four, whose older brother was already living with Katarina. “Then I found out that Marichka, Sasha and Volodya had two more siblings and we started monitoring the foster care process: we established contact with them, the children visited their siblings in an orphanage,” says Katarina. Finally, when they obtained the legal status of children deprived of their parents, Stepan and Marta were able to join the family.

The situation of children in Ukraine

The situation of children in Ukraine is unusual, with the largest number of children in Europe placed in a vast, opaque, and often dysfunctional network of orphanages, boarding schools, or institutions for the disabled. Around 160,000 children live in state care in Ukraine and as confirmed by the United Nations, almost 100,000 were spread across the country’s more than 600 orphanages when the war broke out. The UN also warns in its latest report that half of these children have some kind of disability. Also, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), many of these children are considered social orphans, those children who have been separated from their parents due to poverty, neglect or abuse, rather than the death of their parents.

 There were “tens of thousands of children living in these institutions before the war, it’s huge,” Geneviève Colas, coordinator of the Together Against Human Trafficking collective for Caritas France, warned at a press conference a few years ago. A study carried out in 2016 by the organisation Hope and Homes for Children concluded that there is a failure in Ukraine’s extensive system of orphanages and other institutions to protect vulnerable children. The research, which compiles data from 663 Ukrainian orphanages, alleges that, in a country with one of the highest rates of institutional care in Europe, there is a “stagnant” system with directors recategorizing their institutions in a process of “fictitious reform”.

The comprehensive system audit monitored by Hope and Homes for Children in 2016 aimed to understand how and why children are placed in institutions, the conditions they experience and the impact this has on their development and life chances. After conducting the study, the organisation’s statements are bleak: “child protection in Ukraine still depends on an extensive institutional network, the size of a city, where children live isolated from the rest of society, condemned to arbitrary regulations and impersonal routines,” the organisation’s members write in an article. “In terms of attitude towards children and understanding of their needs, little has changed in Ukraine’s child protection system since Soviet times,” said Halyna Postoliuk, the organisation’s Ukraine director, in 2016.

Katarina holding proudly and smiling a portrait made by her foster daughter Marishka. | David Melero.

Unfortunately, the situation has not changed much since the study was conducted. In Ukraine, orphanages are called “boarding schools” and are usually government-run institutions that house children who have been orphaned.

Children in residential schools may live in dormitory-style rooms with a variety of other children, or in smaller family-style groups, although the latter are the exception. They usually receive basic necessities such as food, clothing and medical care, but the quality of these services may vary depending on the conditions of the facility. Boarding schools usually have limited resources and staff, which can affect the quality of care and support children receive. They may attend school on the premises or in nearby schools.

Addiction, abuse, or economic instability: some of the reasons why so many children are orphaned even though they have parents.

According to a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, as of 2021, there were an estimated 100,000 children living in institutional care in Ukraine, and about 75 per cent of them were social orphans.

The harsh childhoods of children whose parents suffer from alcoholism in a region as troubled as the Donbass – an area of eastern Ukraine bordering Russia that, since the beginning of the Donbass war in 2014 and following the start of the Russian invasion last year, is a fragmented area now under Russian rule – is captured in A House Made of Splinters, a documentary by Danish filmmaker Simon Lereng. “Our idea was to make visible children who were already on the lowest rung of a society totally devastated by the wounds of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” said Lereng in an interview with EFE. Most of the children featured in the film were in vulnerable situations after social services removed them from the custody of parents who suffered from alcoholism and were unable to care for them. The stories of Eva, Sasha, Polina and Kolya – the orphanage children who make up the storyline of the film – are the stories of the nearly 100,000 Ukrainian children in state care. A number that is likely to increase in the coming years due to the ongoing armed conflict.

“There have been some piecemeal improvements, but overall governments have not laid the necessary foundations to prevent family disintegration and ensure an integrated approach to protecting children’s rights,” says Halyna Postoliuk, director of Hope and Homes for Children in Ukraine. Institutional care remains the most common response by authorities to children whose own families find it difficult to care for them, largely due to poverty and disability.

Thus, one of the main problems in Ukraine is the lack of protection for children, who, after all, will be the future of the country. The problem of social orphans in Ukraine can be due to many factors. Sofia Vasylechko, social educator at the orphanage Orphans Care Centre, highlights the following as the most substantial ones:

One of the main reasons for this is the economic and social instability that Ukraine has experienced since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This instability has led to high levels of poverty, unemployment, and social inequality, making it difficult for many families to cope. In addition, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine has also had a significant impact on the number of social orphans. Since the conflict began in 2014, thousands of people have been killed and many more have been displaced from their homes, leading to an increase in the number of children left without parents or caregivers. Other factors that have contributed to the large number of social orphans in Ukraine, says Sofia, include the country’s inadequate child protection system, lack of access to education and health care, and a high prevalence of substance abuse and domestic violence.

The delicate bureaucratic situation of social orphans

Katarina explains that in order to become a foster carer you have to go through a process, which is part of a government programme to improve the situation of children in Ukraine on the road to deinstitutionalisation. Through this, the state pays a certain amount to help raise each child and also gives money for the upkeep of the house. In the process, they investigate different aspects of the applicant’s life: education, physical and mental health, economic status, etc. In addition, the applicant is subjected to various tests and interviews.

Sasha and Sashko treat their afternoon guests to an assortment of fruit, biscuits, coffee, and chocolates prepared by themselves under the guidance of their host mother Katarina. | David Melero.

There is also another obstacle for a child whose parents are still alive to gain access to a foster home: their parents must be officially deprived of their parental rights, which is a long and delicate process. It should also be noted that, according to Blanca Inés Santa María, depriving parents of their children can be very frustrating and can lead to mood disorders resulting from the situation or aggravate the previous situation that these people were suffering from: a mother who suffered from alcoholism problems may drink even more if her children are taken away from her. “The shared experience of most parents who are deprived of their children is that they are bad parents and that is painful for any parent, regardless of why they are not prepared to be one and that they know that it is better for their children to be away from them,” says Santa Maria.

What role do maternal and paternal figures play in an individual’s development?

For children, the family is the nucleus where emotional ties are established from the earliest stages. Usually, the bonds established with the family of origin have an impact that is reflected throughout life. The family is a place where children establish a dependent emotional bond that seeks survival and adequate development. In addition, the family provides a source of emotional support needed for psychologically healthy growth. The model offered by the family is vital to provide them with the self-confidence and self-assurance that will be reflected throughout the rest of their adult life (Palacios and Rodrigo, 1998). Esther Càceres, a health psychologist, stresses the importance of early childhood and the type of parent-child bond that is established there, because, according to the therapist, “it is through the bond and primary socialisation – above all with those who exercise the paternal and maternal function – that the child’s personality develops”. She adds that “it is estimated that the personality of individuals crystallises 65% up to the age of seven”. Blanca Inés Santa María, a health psychologist specialising in family therapy, explains that attachment is the way we bond and relate to others, “therefore, it has a great influence on socialisation and self-esteem”, she continues. She adds that “the relationship we build with our parents and the type of attachment we have towards them conditions the rest of our life: our mental, physical and emotional health and our social sphere”.

In addition, living in a boarding school can be challenging for children, as they may experience feelings of isolation and lack of emotional support, not to mention the emotional impact of parental death or separation. Experts have shown that children in residential schools are more likely to experience developmental delays and mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. “Another added problem for these children is that they don’t usually learn to develop socially like everyone else,” says social educator Sofia Vasylechko. “They just don’t know what to do, where to live, how to cook, how to manage their economy or deal with public services and often end up stealing to have a safe place to be,” Vasylechko continues. Hennadiy Melnychuk, who graduated 6 years ago from a boarding school in the Lviv region and is now employed by the NGO Care in Action, considers himself “lucky” to have found his way in life, since, as he says, “as children we were all alone, life after the institution is very difficult, most people cannot adapt to independent living”. “You get used to having everything ready and programmed, everything is decided for us, because, for most of the teachers, you are nobody and you have no name”, the young man recounts. The problem comes when you leave: you don’t know how to make a living. “That’s why many start stealing, gambling and using alcohol or drugs,” explains Hennadiy.

What can be the consequences of living as an orphan in a boarding school?

A Los Angeles Times report entitled These are the long-term effects of separating children from their parents at the US border, according to experts – which examines the consequences for children of being separated from their parents due to migration, war, or famine – points to a firm conclusion: separating children from their parents is detrimental to their physical and mental health. There is a reason why childhood in humans lasts so long: “It takes time for a child’s brain to mature into adulthood,” says Columbia University psychology professor Nim Tottenham, an expert on emotional development, in the article.

The psychologists Esther Càceres and Blanca Inés Santa María agree that those children who have had a caregiver figure who has exercised the maternal role – the first link and function most demanded by infants in the first years of life – “whether this is their parents, grandparents or uncles”, have “a moderately stable psychic and personality structure”. They point out, on the contrary, that “statistics indicate that children who have suffered an absence of this figure during the early years suffer great difficulties in terms of motor and cognitive development and, in future years, in other areas such as psychic, intellectual or physical development”. Melissa Healy, the author of the Los Angeles Times report, quoted Tottenham as saying: “That adult who is there on a regular basis provides a huge stress-buffering effect on a child’s brain at a time when the child has not yet developed it for itself. When that reliable buffering and guidance from a parent is suddenly removed, it can short-circuit the learning that shapes and forms the brain, he said. Furthermore, he explains that “the brains of children who have experienced such a situation appear to become hyper-vigilant in the face of threat, a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder. The regions of the brain that govern reward behaviour do not respond normally, making them vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. In addition, cortical structures necessary for attention, planning, judgement, and emotional control do not develop properly”.

When Hennadiy is asked about his memories of boarding school, he says that he does not have bad memories, but not excellent ones either. He stresses his good fortune, however, as he “was in a pretty good one”, a fact he understands after talking to graduates from different parts of Ukraine. He defines orphanages as “survival schools” where it was extremely important how you positioned yourself to “establish your authority in front of teachers, peers”, he explains.

According to Stepan Vovk, who went through a foster family, “being in a foster family where you are treated as a beloved child is a joy of all children, the value of life in a family-style orphanage cannot be underestimated.” He narrates how living in a foster family taught him to “live independently, honestly and organised.” He admits, emotionally, that for him the siblings with whom he shared a foster family are closer than his biological siblings, and that he still goes to visit them frequently. “They are always willing to listen, to help, to engage, which is a definite sign of a family,” he continues.

Kataryna with her foster daughter. | David Melero.

In this home, the children receive an education similar to what they would receive in any other healthy family. Unlike in foster homes or orphanages, here ten children live together with only one mentor: Kataryna. The children have the opportunity to play their favourite sports, play instruments and enjoy other hobbies. The atmosphere in the house is warm and welcoming, which contributes to a healthy learning environment for the children. Kataryna ensures that each child receives personal attention and feels valued as an individual. It is a place where children can feel safe, happy, and supported in their personal and academic growth.

“I am grateful to the local authorities for giving children the opportunity to live in family-style orphanages where all the necessary conditions are ensured, where children are loved and educated, where parent carers accept orphans as their own children,” says Stepan. “To anyone who is hesitating about fostering, I would say don’t hesitate,” says Katarina. “It’s a great thing, it gives you a lot of strength, it makes you grow, it fills you with love and we all need love,” she explains. She also says that these children have made her a less harsh and selfish person. When asked about their experience, both Stephan and Katarina are infinitely grateful that they were able to experience love so closely and make strangers their forever family. “I learned to live and be happy, despite the challenges; thanks to them I have had the happiest moments of my life,” Katarina says in a breathy voice as she sweetly cuddles Veronika in her arms, who seems to have been made to be loved by her.

complementary activities

The social orphanage


‘Social orphanhood’, an endemic Ukrainian malady made visible by the war

Written by Andrea Gabarró

The war has turned the spotlight on Ukraine. And beyond the tragedy of the conflict, endemic problems of society are emerging. One of the most serious is the ‘social orphanhood’, the more than 100,000 children living in institutions inherited from the ‘post-Soviet’ system.

In Ukraine, orphanhood manifests itself in complex ways, exacerbated by the presence of so-called ‘social orphans’. Unlike traditional orphans, these children lose parental care not because of death, but because of factors such as neglect, substance abuse or legal problems. The situation has become more evident with the armed conflict that began in 2014, shedding light on an increasingly worrying reality.

Foster Family by Katarina Dolgova: A Shelter in the Storm

In the midst of this scenario, the inspiring example of Katarina Dolgova emerges, who has established what she calls a “Foster Family”. This model of ‘foster care’ or ‘fostering’ has gained prominence in Ukraine as the government seeks to shift from institutional to family-based care. Despite the obvious benefits, such as exposure to healthier family dynamics, progress in implementing this model has been slow, and significant challenges remain.

Children in Ukraine: Orphanages and Social Challenges

Childhood in Ukraine is marked by a large number of children in a vast network of orphanages and institutions. Economic instability, armed conflict, and lack of access to basic services contribute to an estimated 160,000 children living in state care in the country. Alarmingly, half of these children are disabled, according to the UN.

Veronika, Marichka, Maksym, Yura, Sasha, Sashko, Volodia, Ivan, Solomiya and Stepan on their way home in the back of Katarina’s van. | David Melero.

Underlying Factors: Lack of protection and instability

Sofia Vasylechko, a social educator, points out that the economic and social instability in Ukraine since its independence in 1991 is one of the main reasons behind the lack of child protection. In addition, the conflict in the east of the country has left many children without parents or caregivers, thus increasing the number of social orphans. The country’s child protection system, lack of access to education and health care, as well as the high prevalence of substance abuse and domestic violence, also contribute to this alarming situation.

Bureaucracy and Legal Challenges: Barriers to Foster Care

Despite the benefits of foster care, there are significant bureaucratic and legal barriers. The process of becoming a foster carer includes extensive assessments. However, there is the obstacle that, in order for a child whose parents are still alive to be fostered, the parents must be officially deprived of their parental rights, a lengthy and delicate process.

Katarina holding proudly and smiling a portrait made by her foster daughter Marishka. | David Melero.

Importance of Maternal and Paternal Figures in Development

The absence of maternal and paternal figures can have long-term consequences on children’s cognitive and emotional development, experts say. The family provides bonding, emotional support and a model for psychologically healthy growth.

Living in a Boarding School: Emotional and Developmental Challenges

Living in residential care can present challenges for children, including feelings of isolation and lack of emotional support. Children in institutions are more likely to experience developmental delays and mental health problems. Separation from parents can have detrimental effects on children’s physical and mental health, according to studies and experts.

Sasha and Sashko treat their afternoon guests to an assortment of fruit, biscuits, coffee, and chocolates prepared by themselves under the guidance of their host mother Katarina. | David Melero.

Foster Family Education: A Healthy Environment

Foster family upbringing provides a healthy and warm environment. Katarina ensures that each child receives personalised attention and feels valued as an individual. Children have the opportunity to participate in activities such as sports, music and hobbies, contributing to a healthy learning environment.

Long Term Impact: Positive Change and Infinite Gratitude

Despite the challenges, the experience of being part of a foster family has positively changed the children’s lives and provided love and support. The gratitude of those who have lived this experience highlights the importance of providing children with a family environment where they can grow, learn, and feel loved. This approach not only impacts the children’s present, but also positively shapes their future.

Kataryna with her foster daughter. | David Melero.

The emotional connection and ongoing support provided in family foster care settings can make a difference in the long-term development of these young people, enabling them to overcome adversity and contribute meaningfully to society. It is crucial to continue moving towards a more family-centred childcare system, addressing bureaucratic challenges and promoting public awareness of the importance of providing a loving home to those who need it most. Ultimately, the well-being of children in Ukraine and around the world depends on a continued commitment to creating safe and caring environments where every child can thrive and reach their full potential.


The social orphanage

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