KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — An international rights group said in a report Thursday that growing numbers of disabled children in Ukraine are being condemned to life in orphanages and institutions blighted by neglect and abuse.
Disability Rights International said its three-year investigation found that Ukraine is expanding its pool of orphanages and children's homes, going against a global trend toward aiding the disabled to integrate into society.
Children in institutions in Ukraine are exposed to physical and sexual violence and live in danger of being trafficked for sex, labor and pornography, the report said. DRI president Laurie Ahern said children with disabilities are often the worst-abused and most languish in institutions their whole lives.
While there are no reliable figures for the number of Ukrainian children living in care, estimates vary between 82,000 and 200,000.
"When most countries are closing institutions and supporting children to live in communities and with families, Ukraine keeps rebuilding institutions and orphanages," said Eric Mathews, who led the DRI research project. "We know they are dangerous on so many levels and they violate children's most basic human rights."
One issue is that it's often easier and less expensive to institutionalize children with disabilities than to create programs to integrate them into society.
Larissa Samsonova, director of the Rodyna day care center in the capital, Kiev, said cultural issues are also a factor. Disabled children are still something of a taboo, one she has worked with parents to reverse through public events such as musical performances.
Parents struggling to cope with disabled children worry that they will have to rely on overstretched or mismanaged government facilities.
Nataliya Palok said her daughter, Lera, was diagnosed with atypical autism a few months before turning 3.
For years, Palok guided Lera, now 11, through the state school system before landing her a place in a day care center, but worries that she too could eventually end up forced to place her child in a government institution.
Lera suffers from regular fits, making dedicated care a key priority.
Palok said government health services have told her that all they are able to provide for Lera is a 30-minute speech and movement therapy session every three months.
"With that, they consider that they have solved my problem," Palok said. "But I told them that my child needs to be cared for every day, so they suggested I hand her over to a live-in therapeutic school."
Lera currently spends most of her time at the Rodyna center, which is funded through a mix of fees, charity and government assistance. Samsonova said parents are required to pay at least one-third of costs.
Rodyna is the kind of facility that organizations like DRI would like to see emulated across Ukraine, and demand is intense.
"Every day, new parents call us and tell us to take in their children, but we just don't have the space," said Samsonova, whose center cares for about 20 children.
Samsonova said parents reluctant to give up custody of their children to government institutions contrive to keep them at home, sometimes in the care of siblings, other times on their own.
"It's dangerous, but what can you do?" she said.
DRI said that Ukraine's Coalition of People with Intellectual Disabilities estimates that most of its members have no access to day care services, inclusive education or therapy services. The result is almost inevitably that disabled people are cut off from their families.
Gabrielle Akimova, a child protection specialist at UNICEF Ukraine, said political instability compounds the difficulties.
"With tight government budgets, combined with massive population displacements caused by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, there is a risk that even more children are placed in institutional care," Akimova said.
DRI said its investigators, who visited more than 30 institutions over three years, heard numerous accounts of systematic mistreatment.
"At the Rozdil orphanage in western Ukraine, DRI investigators were told that older residents are used to keep younger children in check. We observed a teenager watching over other children with a pair of brass knuckles in his hand," the report said.
In some homes, poor staffing creates miserable conditions, the group said.
"DRI investigators found that many children with limited mobility spend almost their entire days lying in cribs with minimal staff interaction," it said. "Such children only degenerate in cribs without consistent therapy."