Escaping the war in Ukraine: A new life for children in care
Tuesday, January 3, 2023
Children in care are among those who have faced danger and disruption due to the war in Ukraine. Gabriella Józwiak reports on the evacuation of more than 50 looked-after young people to the UK.
Within days of Russia invading Ukraine in February last year, orphanage “mother” Nadiia Kudriavtseva told the nine children in her care to pack a single backpack of belongings and prepare to flee. “We could hear the explosions and feel the whole earth shaking,” she recalls. “At that moment we decided: it's time to leave.”
The children were among more than 50 children and young people aged two to 18 who were helped to leave Ukraine by small Scottish charity Dnipro Kids. They are understood to be the first and only group of care-experienced young people evacuated to the UK.
An estimated 100,000 Ukrainian children lived in care institutions before the war – one of the highest rates in Europe. The system of more than 700 state-run “orphanages” remains almost unchanged since it was established during the time of Soviet rule between 1922 and 1991.
Although described as “orphans”, such children often have living parents. The state can place children in homes for safeguarding reasons but often parents choose to send their children to institutions.
About 90 per cent of children in institutions in Ukraine have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), according to charity Hope and Homes for Children, which works to end the institutionalisation of children across the globe. Poverty is another factor that drives parents to place children in institutional care.
The charity Lumos has campaigned for reforms to the country's care system since 2013 but Ukraine country director Galina Bulat says institutional care remains popular because of a lasting Soviet cultural perception that the state should be responsible for children in need rather than families. “There is also a lack of community-based services to replace institutions,” she adds.
Prior to the evacuation, Dnipro Kids mainly funded excursions or Christmas and birthday presents for children living in orphanages in Dnipro, the fourth largest city in Ukraine. The charity was founded in 2005, after Hibernian Football Club supporters travelled to Ukraine for a UEFA Cup football match. “When we first started, the orphanages were big with 15 beds per dormitory,” says Dnipro Kids chairman Steven Carr. Later, local reforms saw children moved into smaller, home-style accommodation headed by orphanage “parents”.
Kudriavtseva, a former hairdresser, has managed her children's home alone since her husband Sergei died before the war. They became orphanage parents in 2014. Both had to complete care training before getting a licence. They received monthly funding from the state for each child. The eights boys and one girl in Kudriavtseva's care are aged between eight and 16 and comprise two sets of siblings. In both cases their mothers gave them up because of poor personal circumstances.
When the war began, there were concerns about the children's welfare. Carr travelled to Ukraine to convince the households to leave. “The orphanage mothers were too scared to get a bus because of stories of vehicles being attacked,” he says. “I didn't really have a plan regarding visas.” At this point he applied to the Home Office for the paperwork.
In total the organisation brought over 56 children and six orphanage mothers – 52 children on the first flight with four arriving later. They stayed in a hostel just outside Stirling for three weeks. But since April 2022, the Dnipro evacuees have lived in a student accommodation block provided by Edinburgh College.
City of Edinburgh Council has worked closely with Dnipro Kids, the Scottish government, the college and other services to support them. The partners meet weekly to review their care.
Authorities had to agree on the children's status. “We don't see them as having looked-after status here in the UK,” says the council's acting senior manager for children's practice teams Andrew McWhirter. “The Ukrainian government defined their house mothers as having care and control.” However, the group is seen as “children in need” with the council treating each household as a family unit. The UK government views the children as minors with consent from legal guardians rather than unaccompanied children.
The council has taken a “light touch” approach to providing support and the children have not been allocated social workers. “Our approach has had to be sensitive and paced to build up relationships and an understanding of needs,” says McWhirter.
The council registered the college accommodation with Scotland's Care Inspectorate, which regulates care settings and confirmed the facilities and support were appropriate. Some of the group have SEND. “We had to guestimate the appropriate level of staffing without undermining the mothers' authority,” says McWhirter.
A member of his team oversees the day-to-day management of the project and the council is also providing care staff to support the orphanage mothers and offer some respite. The council and charity translated signage around the site into Ukrainian and organised English lessons.
The council funds the catering, which is provided by the college canteen. A local healthcare centre provided health assessments for the whole group. These revealed many children required dental work and opticians' appointments.
With the council's help, the charity found a primary and secondary school with places for all the children. Dnipro Kids sourced a minibus to do school runs. Two- to four-year-olds receive government-funded childcare at a local nursery. The charity organises excursions at the weekend and fundraises to provide clothes and all other necessities.
Council staff referred two of the children to local child and adolescent mental health services. But has been cautious not to “overwhelm” the group with mental health support because of cultural differences, explains McWhirter. The Ukrainians find it more acceptable to receive whole-family help, rather than individual talking therapies. While the group feel more relaxed now, he adds that they are still “living in the war”. “They have family and relatives in Ukraine,” he says. Dnipro was hit by several missile strikes in autumn 2022.
Kudriavtseva says she and the children in the group “are thankful to God” for everything. The children have made local friends and are learning English. “We are loved, we are cared-for,” she says. While the hope is most of the children will return to Ukraine she accepts some of the older ones might wish to stay in the UK, which may involve applying for refugee status. She is keen to return. “I left my house that I love very much. I left my parents,” she says. “I dream that I can go back as soon as possible.”
THE JOURNEY TO SCOTLAND
The first Dnipro children and care workers left by train on 8 March
They travelled to Lviv in west Ukraine where they were met by a Polish bus and driver
The driver made two journeys to move 48 children and their carers to Znin, a town in central Poland where they stayed in accommodation provided by a Polish charity
The group was delayed in Poland while they awaited British visas
On 21 March the group travelled to Warsaw airport where they were joined by another four children for a specially chartered flight to London Heathrow organised by charity Magen David Adom UK
There were further administrative delays but they eventually touched down in London on 23 March
The Scottish government provided the connecting flight to Edinburgh
CHALLENGES EVACUATING LOOKED-AFTER CHILDREN
About 2,294 Ukrainian orphans are currently displaced outside the country, according to data from the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy. Some institutions returned children to their families when war broke out, according to Lumos Ukraine country director Galina Bulat. But the picture is unclear as the government does not publish data.
One of the main challenges in bringing children from Dnipro to the UK was obtaining the necessary visas. “The UK government wasn't really being very helpful to try and make that process any quicker,” says Dnipro Kids chairman Steven Carr. “It was before the Homes for Ukraine scheme had been launched. I think some MPs and ministers did not want to be seen to be encouraging refugees to the UK.”
Carr says backing from Scottish National Party MP Ian Blackford and Conservative peer Lord Harrington, former minister for refugees, was instrumental. As the children awaited visas in Poland, Blackford demanded action from the government during Prime Minister's Questions.
Lord Harrington says the reason the Dnipro group are the only care-experienced children in the UK is because “the policy of the Ukrainian government is to have them as near as possible” in part due to fears about people trafficking. Ukraine viewed Poland as a safe location and needed convincing to allow the children to move on.
Edinburgh Council's Andrew McWhirter says it would be “really hard” for other local authority areas to replicate what has been achieved with the Dnipro group. The success of this scheme has depended on Dnipro Kids’ financial and emotional commitment. “The charity is there for the long haul,” he says. “That's helped us – they're not just our problems to solve.”
A Home Office spokesman said the government acted quickly. “In a few weeks we found a solution to a complex problem stemming from an unprecedented international crisis,” he said. “It was only right that we only moved these children once we had the full, written agreement of their home and host governments.”
A Scottish government spokesman said: “We continue to work with partners to ensure that all young people, including those in the Dnipro cohort, are given a ‘warm Scots welcome’, with access to meals, suitable temporary accommodation, trauma support and translation.”