For every child, a family
How UNICEF supports quality foster care for children affected by the war in Ukraine
Growing up in a family is imperative to a child’s development. Children and adolescents in institutional care arrangements often experience developmental, psychological and behavioral issues. Experiencing war and having to flee your country can magnify those issues. If the biological family is not able to care for the child, family based care, including foster care, is the preferred alternative form of care. This is why UNICEF works to ensure quality foster care for every child deprived of parental care especially unaccompanied and separated children.
“When I first walked into the One Heart Association Office in Biala Podlaska, Edyta and Jaroslaw hugged me tightly, even though we were complete strangers to each other. I immediately trusted them and, for the first time in a while, I felt safe,” says Olena from Zhytomyr in Ukraine. Olena came to Poland in March 2022. She is a mother to her biological daughter and to nine adopted children. She attended a camp for foster families in Poland supported by UNICEF and partners.
To answer to the specific needs of foster families who had to flee Ukraine because of the war, UNICEF partners with the Polish Foster Care Coalition, a network of organizations focused on raising awareness about foster care in Poland and advocating to improve it across the country. With UNICEF’s support, two of its member organizations, the One Heart Association and the Polish Women Can Foundation, organize camps for both Polish and Ukrainian foster families in Poland.
“The idea was born shortly after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine when Ukrainian foster families started coming to us for help,” says Edyta Wojtasińska, a coordinator at the One Heart Association. At the camps, parents have the opportunity to step away from their everyday duties and better focus on therapeutic activities and the needs of the children under their care. The first such camp was organized in February 2023 and the second in June 2023 in Lichen, in central Poland. Besides organizing the camps, the organization runs a UNICEF-supported Lighthouse centre for foster families in Biala Podlaska and hosts therapeutic classes, sensory therapy and physiotherapy for foster families.
At the summer camp, there are 28 foster families, both Polish and Ukrainian – a total of 238 people including 45 psychologists, trainers and volunteers. The youngest children are still toddlers, the oldest are already over eighteen and often help take care of younger siblings.
The camp lasts a week, and each day has a theme (for example respect, compromise, personal superpowers, being together, etc.). The families start the day with greetings and breakfast, after which group work begins - children and parents separately. Following that, families meet with trainers to work on strengthening their family ties. After lunch, they have reserved time to spend together, giving parents the chance to practice the knowledge they have gained and to discuss the day's theme. Then everyone meets for dinner, after which the children can play, while parents evaluate the day and the assigned tasks with the trainers.
The activities at the camp are based on the Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) method. Its main principles, adapted at the camp, are 1) we are here together, 2) we don't hurt each other, 3) we have fun. “According to the TBRI method, the role of a parent is to be a coach, not an overseer,” says Edyta. "The method gives great results but also requires a lot of patience from parents. We also believe that family and daily rituals are an effective way to increase predictability, manage psychological transitions, and build family cohesion.”
Both parents and children appreciate the time at the camp. Olena recalls that when she arrived in Poland in March 2022, her children were emotionally closed off, scared, and reactive. The therapeutic classes at the camp have helped the children to open up again and cope better. Coaching received at the Lighthouse centre also helped her to feel safer and more confident about their future. Olena and her family were able to return to Ukraine, and they keep in touch with the trainers and other families from the camp.
Children unanimously say they would love to come to the camp again. Szymon, 9, says that all the activities at the camp are fun but he likes playing football the most. Maja, 7, and Magda, 8, like their free time the most because that is when they can play together outdoors.
Artem, 16, appreciates the friendly atmosphere at the camp and the fact that he has peers like himself with whom he can talk about various topics. He feels understood by them. This is already his second camp. He came to Poland shortly after the war broke out. He attends high school in Biala Podlaska and has learned to speak Polish very well. “I would like to study computer engineering here,” says Artem. “That's why I'm learning Polish.”
A community of support
Children who come to the camp are often those who experience a range of mental health issues. Some are extremely difficult to deal with, even for experienced psychologists and trainers. Children miss their loved ones that they had to leave behind in Ukraine.
Larysa, a foster mother to 10 children feels similar anxiety. After coming to Poland, Larysa adopted two more children and has been living there since, but her husband has stayed in Ukraine. Larysa misses her home in Ukraine, and her family, and worries about her husband. However, she has decided to stay in Poland for the time being. “The most important thing is the safety of the children. Here we feel safe and cared for,” says Larysa. She found support from the One Heart Association shortly after arriving in Poland in March 2022, in the border town of Medyka. “I can’t really imagine how it would be for us without this support.”
There are many similar stories at the camp. This is why this newfound community is so crucial to Ukrainian foster families. They receive much-needed support from the organizers and Polish foster families “The families support each other, take care of their children and trust each other. I think they have created a wonderful community that will keep in touch even if the families from Ukraine return to their country,” says Edyta.
Most of the staff at the camp were raised in foster families themselves. “I myself have 25 siblings,” says Anna Wernio. “Thanks to the fact that we are foster parents, we have a good understanding of the needs of other parents,” adds Edyta, Anna's mother. “Thanks to UNICEF's support, we can provide specialized assistance to foster families and scale up our activities. Initially, this camp was planned for 30 people. Today there are almost 250 of us here.”
UNICEF’s work on developing quality foster care in Poland is made possible thanks to support from the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (BPRM), as well as private donations received through the UNICEF USA National Committee.