One in ten children from institutions in five regions were reintegrated into their families thanks to the UNICEF project
Ten per cent of children who returned from boarding schools to their families due to the COVID-19 lockdown were reintegrated with their families. These results were achieved in five regions in just six months thanks to a pilot project by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Child Rights Network. More than 437 children now live at home, attend a regular school or a boarding school as an educational institution and do not stay there around the clock. In addition, the project managed to prevent 788 children from being institutionalized in the first place.
The project began in summer 2020 when children were sent back to their families from boarding institutions due to the COVID-19 quarantine. The project’s priority was to assess the living conditions of children in families, ensure their protection and propose support so that children could remain with their parents even after quarantine and not return to the boarding schools. In addition, the project has helped to reveal the reasons for the institutionalization of children.
As part of the project, experts monitored more than 4,000 families from five regions of Ukraine: Volyn, Dnipropetrovsk, Mykolaiv, Poltava and Kharkiv.
According to the project monitoring results, many parents send their children to boarding schools due the lack of quality social services and inclusive education in their communities and/or limited access to them, including barriers of distance. Many communities lack professional consulting services, such as psychologists or neurologists. Other impediments include lack of school buses; and absence of extended day care groups at schools, daycare centres for children with disabilities, and early intervention or other family support services.
One of the major challenges is the lack of inclusion in educational institutions. Often inclusion in schools is only formal and does not provide quality education for all children with special educational needs. During the monitoring, cases of bullying by school principals, teachers and parents of other children were documented against children with disabilities or children returning from boarding schools. Moreover, often children find themselves in boarding schools due to the socio-economic situation of their families who cannot provide the children with essential items.
The project confirmed that it is possible to return children to their families by providing the support that their families need. Thanks to the project, 10 per cent of the children were reintegrated with their families, mainly through employment assistance for the parents, inclusive education for the children, and provision of social support to the families.
The highest level of willingness to cooperate for family reintegration was found among parents in Kharkiv region (100 families – 19 per cent of all assessed families in the region), and the lowest in Volyn (37 families – 11 per cent). It should be noted that Kharkiv region had the highest level of employment of parents (67 per cent), while Volyn region had the highest number of parents who themselves are graduates of boarding schools (20 per cent).
The project confirmed that the decentralisation and deinstitutionalisation reforms require local approach and adaptation to the local needs since, based on the recommendations of the project, each region needs a unique response. Often, communities lack knowledge about the ongoing reforms and the ways to implement them. In fact, communities were not engaged in the development of regional implementation plans for the reforms, and there is insufficient interaction between the various departments and administrations at all levels. Also, the number of social workers responsible for identification and response to the needs of families is limited in the communities. As a result, in five regions, the first phase of the deinstitutionalisation reform plans were implemented partially.
However, the communities are motivated to develop social services supporting families, and they need guidance, support, training, supervision and budgets.
“In 2020, the Ministry introduced a new approach to the children's placement for round-the-clock residence in institutions. This approach has already reduced the number of children in institutions by 19% and allowed local authorities to see every child in institutions as well as their families who need support to keep children at home. Intersectoral cooperation is also important in communities. If each specialist working with children and families acts in the best interests of the child and makes respective decisions, we will be able to provide timely intervention and reduce the number of children in institutions,” says Borys Lebedtsov, Deputy Minister of Social Policy.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected people and the country, but has also revealed problems and gaps in the system of social protection of children, especially those who have vulnerabilities," Aksana Filipishyna, Representative of the Parliament Commissioner for Children's rights.
“The return of children from boarding schools back to their families during the spring quarantine proved the system's inability to support children and their families in difficult circumstances. Most of these children could live with their parents instead of a boarding school. Policies should be designed to support the family and ensure that every child can receive all the necessary social, medical and educational services at their place of residence. This is the essence of the deinstitutionalization reform,” Mykola Kuleba, Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for Children’s Rights.
“In addition to common challenges of the child protection system in the regions, we see a significant impact of the pandemic on child welfare. Challenges include delays to the adoption process, the development of family-type care for children deprived of parental care and the creation of foster families. When developing contingency plans for COVID-19, the Government and local authorities should keep these issues in focus,” Laura Bill, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Ukraine.
“Boarding schools keep “recruiting” children and many parents just can’t resist such a pressure. Because of lack of real social services for families in communities commonly parents have no other choice,” Daria Kasyanova, Head of the Board of the Ukrainian Child Rights Network.
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