We Must Provide a Family, Not Rebuild Orphanages

Human Rights Watch

The Consequences of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine for Children in Ukrainian Residential Institutions


Lviv, in western Ukraine, had largely been spared Russian attack until around 8:30 a.m. on April 18, 2022, when four cruise missiles killed seven people. One missile hit a car tire factory a few hundred meters from a residential institution for children. The institution’s director said 27 children had lived there before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, but that at the time of the attack there were an additional 50 children who had been evacuated from other residential institutions in eastern Ukraine, for safety. Some children were sleeping two to a bed.

Anton, 16, was from an institution in Lysychansk, a city in the Luhanska region. He slept through the air-raid sirens in Lviv that morning. “I woke up from an explosion and realized they were bombing because paint was falling from the ceiling,” Anton told Human Rights Watch. He and his friend Volodymyr, 16, ventured outside and found jagged, heavy metal remnants of the missile on the institution’s grounds, which they collected in a plastic bucket and later gave to Ukrainian war crimes prosecutors. One remnant flew through a kitchen window and landed between the cook’s feet.

Three caregivers accompanied the 22 children from Anton’s institution when they were evacuated to Lviv. The three women had been working for months without a break and were distraught about the lives and safety of family members left behind, and their own future. “We’re exhausted, and we don’t know what happens next,” said Irina. “Our institution [in Lysychansk] was bombed two days after we left. We were sheltering in the hospital at the time, and it was hit later. My home was destroyed.”

This report documents the consequences of Russia’s 2022 war against Ukraine for children and staff who had been evacuated from institutions in areas of eastern Ukraine, at the front line of the war at the time, to a dozen institutions in the Lvivska region and three institutions in Łódź, Poland. The war meant many children in institutions had to shelter from bombardments in basements without electricity or running water, for weeks. A group of children from an institution in Mariupol did not speak for four days after they were evacuated to Lviv, in March 2022, apparently due to trauma, one volunteer said. Dozens of Ukrainian children’s institutions have been damaged or destroyed. Most were built before 1991, during the Soviet period, likely with materials containing asbestos, a carcinogen, which may have been released into the environment by attacks. Institutions that had housed tens of thousands of children are in areas which at time of writing are under Russian occupation or where hostilities are most intense. Human Rights Watch has documented Russia’s forcible transfer of children from Ukrainian residential institutions. In December 2022, a Russian official in charge of children’s rights stated in an interview that almost 400 Ukrainian children had been “adopted” by Russian families. Inter-country adoption is prohibited during armed conflict; the forcible transfer of civilians from occupied territory is a war crime.

The war adds to the urgency for Ukraine to implement promised reforms to its institutional care system for children, by expanding a system of family and community-based care. As Ukrainian officials have acknowledged, institutional systems are harmful to children. Studies from around the world have shown for decades that placing children in institutions deprives them of the chance to form stable emotional attachments and harms their cognitive development. The younger the child and the longer they remain in institutions, the worse the harms. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has called for universal deinstitutionalization of children and acceleration of deinstitutionalization plans including during armed conflict, and found that children placed in institutions are likely to develop impairments and that existing impairments are likely to be exacerbated.

At a meeting in Kyiv in May 2022, the Minister of Social Policy at the time, Maryna Lazebna, told Human Rights Watch, “for every child who suffered from the nightmare of this war we must provide a family, not rebuild orphanages.” The current Minister, Oksana Zholnovych, told the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in August 2022 that she, along with the President and the Prime Minister of Ukraine, “believe jointly that deinstitutionalization reform is highly needed in Ukraine, therefore together we are going to do everything possible to minimize the number of children in institutional care.” In an interview with the BBC in September, Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s First Lady, said, “We want kids to stay in foster families and adopted families, in family-type settings. There should be no more orphanages around.” On February 3, 2023, President Zelenskyy pledged that as part of Ukraine’s European Union-accession reforms, and with EU support, the government will “change the system of children’s institutions in our country” to family-type settings. The Ukrainian government should ensure, and its allies should support, the realization of these goals.

According to data reported by Ukraine’s National Social Service, there were more than 105,000 children in residential institutions in Ukraine when Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. This is the highest number of institutionalized children in Europe, after Russia. Ukraine adopted a 10-year deinstitutionalization plan in 2007, but by late 2015 it had not closed any institutions. It launched another 10-year reform plan in 2017, which aimed to reduce the number of children in institutions by 90 percent by 2026, but in 2021 the government excluded institutions with about 50,000 children, many with disabilities, from reform plans. Despite the reform plans, the number of children’s institutions in Ukraine increased from 663 in 2015, to 718 in 2019, to 727 in 2022.

Russia’s full-scale invasion triggered the mass evacuation of many children from institutions, often mislabeled “orphanages,” to their families. Ninety percent of the children in Ukraine’s institutions have at least one parent with parental rights and were placed in the institutional system for reasons related to poverty or because their parents were otherwise not able to support them. To minimize the risk of attacks causing mass child casualties, Ukrainian authorities ordered institutions to send home children with parents or guardians. Ukraine is cooperating with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on a program to monitor and support the needs of nearly 39,000 children who were sent home from round-the-clock institutionalization during the war. But while program was able to reach and assess 13,000 children, the remaining 26,000 children sent home from institutions had not yet been reached or supported. Responsibility falls to local authorities to monitor and assess these children, but they often lack the staff and resources to do so, according to Ukrainian and international child-rights and disability-rights groups, who have called for an urgent mapping of all children in institutions as well as those discharged from institutions to ensure they are identified, located, and supported.

Ukrainian civil society groups also voiced concerns that many families did not receive financial or other support to facilitate proper care. Many children’s needs may be greater now than when they were first institutionalized, as the World Bank estimates that Russia’s war against Ukraine and the Russian naval blockade has caused US$349 billion in damage to Ukraine’s economy and may force 30 percent of Ukraine’s population into poverty. Without alternatives, families with prior experience of institutionalizing children may be likely to feel that their only option is to re-institutionalize their child when it is deemed safe to do so. In November 2022, an assessment by an international organization of 1,300 children who had been sent home from institutions in the Zhytomyr region, which was shared with Human Rights Watch in advance of being published, found that only 30 percent were still living with their families, after the Ministry of Social Policy issued an order permitting children to be returned to institutions that were equipped with bomb shelters. Ukraine’s National Social Service informed Human Rights Watch that as of December 31, there were still 25,061 children staying in institutions.

The Ukrainian authorities, together with the governments of states hosting children from Ukrainian institutions, and donor governments giving aid to Ukraine, should ensure that children are not re-institutionalized, and that instead their families are provided with financial support to care for them. Parents and other extended family members of children with disabilities should also be provided with the necessary and systematic support to care for their child at home.

About 6,750 children were evacuated elsewhere in Ukraine or abroad; as of December 2022, 693 of these children had returned to their original institutions, and 537 had returned to their families, according to the Ukrainian authorities. Some of these children have disabilities and high support needs and might need 24-hour personal care and support. Because institutional staff themselves were facing the crisis of evacuating their families, only a fraction of staff traveled and remained with the children, which one official responsible for five residential institutions in Donetsk region estimated was often one adult per eight or more children. Ukrainian regulations for evacuation state that at least one caregiver must be available for 15 children, or one caregiver for 4 children with disabilities. A former administrator at one institution, who had not previously provided physical care for children, said, “I was assigned to evacuate with them just because I was there at the time.” Like others who spoke to Human Rights Watch, she was exhausted after acting as a caregiver for children for months without a break.

In some reported cases, staff members accompanied children only until they reached another institution, meaning caregivers at the second institution struggled to cope, and children lacked adequate care. Ukrainian civil society groups have also called for urgent, nationwide monitoring of conditions at all institutions where children were not evacuated, to identify cases where many of the institutions’ staff may have left and where wartime shortages and cuts may be harmful to children who remain. Disability rights groups, news media, and UN committees have reported cases in Ukraine of children with disabilities who experience abusive situations in understaffed institutions, including children whom staff had restrained by tying them to their beds.

In a positive move, Ukraine set up an online system that allows families to register to foster children temporarily, during the war; more than 2,000 families had fully completed their applications and received the required trainings as of November 2022, although only 39 had succeeded in submitting all the required paperwork to adopt. But in the meantime, children are being newly institutionalized, including children whose parents were killed and wounded, as well as whose parents experienced mental health crises due to the war. Other children are stuck in the child welfare system: judicial procedures related to adoptions, parents’ ability to regain custody, and the cancellation of parental rights have often been disrupted or suspended due to the war.

Ukraine, its allies, and humanitarian agencies should adopt a coordinated strategy with the goal of urgently ensuring the welfare of children still in institutions as well as those sent home to their families, and to prevent children from being newly institutionalized. They should also address risks to at least 4,500 children from institutions who were displaced abroad. In the chaotic first weeks following the full-scale invasion, millions of people tried to leave Ukraine, and Ukrainian border guards were confronted with queues that were in places dozens of kilometers long, in freezing temperatures. They adopted, as many had urged, a “simplified procedure,” which meant they did not consistently register children’s identification documents, and adults with children were sometimes waved through. European governments collected data on entering Ukrainian children that were not shared with the Ukrainian authorities. Ukraine instructed staff from the children’s institutions who were evacuated abroad to register the children at Ukrainian consulates, but a Ukrainian monitoring mission had found in April 2022 that the number of children reported to have been sent abroad by Ukraine’s National Social Service was hundreds higher than were registered at consulates. Ukraine should continue efforts to ensure that all children abroad are identified and registered. In a positive step, in January 2023, Ukraine requested Child Rights Connect, a civil society network, to collect and share data on children in institutions evacuated to Europe.

Ukrainian authorities often organized evacuations of children and staff from several institutions at once. To keep track of them, however, Ukraine has required these groups to remain together while abroad. In one case, a group of more than 700 children and caregivers from several institutions was evacuated to Poland, where the only accommodation volunteers could find for them was an isolated resort hotel complex. A Ukrainian official told Human Rights Watch that the policy helps keep children in a familiar environment with staff who know their case histories. The government also has a legitimate interest in keeping track of the children, who it insists will return after the war. These goals could be met with a more flexible policy that better accounts for the best interests of the child, including their right to family and community-based living, as well as the welfare of staff. In October 2022, the UN committees on children’s rights and the rights of persons with disabilities jointly called for Ukraine to “repeal” this policy of requiring that “evacuated children must remain together in groups.” Ukrainian civil society groups have also called for the authorities to ensure that children from institutions who were evacuated abroad can be returned home and placed with Ukrainian foster parents.

Poland, which received the largest number of children from Ukrainian institutions—and of refugees—overall, has shown leadership by establishing new procedures to enable Ukrainian children’s relatives, foster family members, or caregivers to be recognized as temporary guardians under Polish law. Italy, however, requires that an unaccompanied child’s guardian be an Italian national. In one case, an Italian court exceptionally granted a form of guardianship to a Ukrainian institution director, but in another, a civil society group that helped evacuate children to Italy is tied up in expensive, time-consuming legal difficulties, and Ukrainian authorities have said the children should be returned to Ukraine. Some children also faced difficulties in Portugal; in one case, Ukrainian nationals brought 15 foster children to Portugal, but the authorities only recognized them as the guardians of five of the children, leaving the other ten children in their care unable to access government funding, healthcare, or education.

Ukraine has sought to negotiate formal agreements with 23 European governments on hosting children from Ukrainian institutions but succeeded in reaching agreements only with Poland and Lithuania. Such agreements should affirm the parties’ obligation to base all decisions about children on the child’s best interest, and comply with UN Guidelines on deinstitutionalization, which provide that “refugees and internally displaced persons should not be returned to institutions after emergencies or when conflict subsides.” Children who were evacuated from Ukrainian institutions to other European countries may benefit from better conditions—most European countries closed large institutions years ago and have foster-care and guardianship systems—but when it is safe to do so, it may also be in the child’s best interest to enable their return to live with their parents or family members within their communities in Ukraine. Small group homes should be used only on a temporary basis and for the shortest amount of time possible until a child can be reunited with their biological family, or have an opportunity to live in other family-like environments with relatives, foster families, or adoptive parents. To avoid a scenario where funding to Ukraine would result in the funding of children’s institutions, in which returning children would be placed, donor countries should urgently work with Ukraine to improve its family- and community-based alternatives to institutions, and ensure that their funding, such as pledges of recovery funds, supports returning children to their parents or other family-like settings, not institutions.