Ukraine: BBC exposes abuse of disabled and slave labour

BBC iPlayer: Ukraine’s Forgotten Children (viewable in UK only until 28th June); more here

Last night (Monday), the BBC broadcast a 90-minute exposé on the state of care for orphans and disabled people in Ukraine, in which there are ten times as many children in institutional care as in England. The documentary was shot over six months and heavily features one particular institution for children, which is run by a very caring man named Nikolai but which has extreme difficulties finding suitable staff. It also exposes the way perfectly capable adults, some with minor disabilities, are declared “incapacitated” by the courts, often entirely spuriously, depriving them of their right to work or marry or live independently and consigning them to institutional life. Some also report being sent to mental hospitals as a punishment, and given beatings and psychotropic medication as punishments for non-compliance. You can hear the programme-maker, Kate Blewett, interviewed on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour here for the next week or so.

The situation seems like a cross between the Romanian orphanages which came to public attention in the west in the early 1990s and the Irish “industrial schools” of the mid-20th century, with a touch of the much more recent “kids for cash” scandal in Pennsylvania. The chief difference with Ireland is that the church (not Catholic but Russian Orthodox) does not appear to be invovled, or at least it was not suggested (quite the opposite — they did not appear to turn up to bury those who died), but it was a similar case of young people who had been through institutional care as children “graduating” to geriatric institutions where they are then forced to work without pay (in the cases shown, on farms, and also as grave-diggers). In other words, the institutions have a vested interest in keeping the inmates legally incapacitated so they can profit from their slave labour. The court documents that declared them incapacitated claim that they were unaware of their surroundings, but all of those interviewed are shown to be entirely coherent.

There is an effort to get some of the wrongly held people out of the institutions, and it seemed to be based on transferring the inmates’ guardianship to individuals (some of whom worked in the institutions) so they could enjoy family life. One of those who had been so rescued was shown flourishing in his new home, calling his new guardian “mama” and her mother Granny, or its local equivalent. Around the time the filming took place, a woman in eastern Ukraine managed to get her “incapacitated” status overturned by the court, and the team’s contacts in Ukraine were taking similar action for two men featured (at the end, the writing on the screen told us that they had succeeded). There is one businesswoman named Tatiana who the presenter told us was the sole person advocating for these people in Ukraine, and she has been contacted on mobile phone by a number of the incarcerated people (two of whom were interviewed, but the interview was cut short when they were discovered by the institution’s director). Nikolai also set up a group home for some of the more able boys, so he could give them an education and possibly save them from going on to these wretched places, for which he had secured funding from, among other places, Russia. He intended to set up a similar facility for girls, but that was in the very early stages, and the boys’ home had taken years to bring to fruition.

The programme also showed what life was like for the most severely ill children in Nikolai’s institute, who were all bedridden (which, I suspect, they didn’t need to be), one of them with what sounded like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and another with a huge cyst on the back of her head. Several of them were severely malnourished. The institute had to admit some of them to hospital periodically, but the hospital seemed unwilling to treat them and tried to argue that the children were not their responsibility and to discharge them back to the institute, which did not have the ability to treat them. The hospital also demanded that Nikolai’s organisation pay for their food and nappies. Two or three of the children died during the making of the programme, including the young girl with the cyst who died shortly after surgery to remove it. The staff at the institute (which was nominally an orphanage, although only four were genuine orphans, the others being so-called social orphans, meaning children given up by, or taken from, their parents) seemed to be doing their best, but did not have the resources or, in many cases, the qualifications. The “doctor”, for example, was in fact a retired dentist.

As important as the issues raised in the programme are, I could not help but think “why Ukraine, and why now?”. There must be quite a few countries, particularly around the fringes of the western world, where the treatment of disabled people and particularly children has not reached anything like the level of care and compassion all of us British supposedly have for them, and this programme did not mention that. Other countries would not have let them in (such as Belarus). As the same was previously exposed in Romania, when that opened up and let the cameras in, one might well suppose that the same goes on throughout the former Eastern Bloc in particular, where neglect has replaced authoritarianism in some places. Although there is not much in the way of resources put into this, even without a vast popular movement, people are managing to get their “incapacitated” status overturned, albeit in very small numbers, and although they used hidden cameras for some interviews, they did not encounter thugs trying to stop them doing their job. So, there is obvious potential for progress and some semblance of the rule of law, despite the very corrupt political situation in the country at present — it is not China or North Korea. Other countries have overturned a culture of institutionalisation and the corruption that attaches to it. One might hope that some sort of organisation to improve the lot of people like those seen in this programme throughout eastern Europe might be set up, so as to educate people about the potential of those with disabilities to lead independent lives, and to fight for the rights of those being abused.

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