True and Social Orphans of Ukraine


As an orphan advocate, adoptive mother of two Ukrainian teenage children, host mom, former Ukraine host program director, and current Project 143 staff, I have learned a lot about Ukrainian child welfare.  

In the vast world of orphan care, we can see that there are differences between every child’s personal stories.  Each story has its own truths and ultimately these truths define how a child’s status is classified.  There are two main classifications for orphans: true orphans and social orphans.  Though these classifications may seem black and white, they can be more complex than that given unique situations.

In a true orphan situation, the child does not have any parent that has rights to them. They are a ward to the state.  Does this mean that both parents are deceased?  Absolutely not.  The child may in fact have two deceased parents however, it is more common that they will at least have one parent yet living.  It is important to note that each country is unique in how they view “being a parent” and “recognizing a parent”. In Ukraine, for example, if a child is born out of wedlock and the father’s name is not listed on the child’s birth certificate, the father will have absolutely no rights to that child.  This happens often because with the culture differences as it is not looked down upon as much there for the father to walk away.  Some fathers do stay in the picture but they may not be able to take care of the child on their own.  They could petition to adopt the child themselves however, it is costly and most don’t recognize it as their responsibility.  So, if something happens to the mother, the child becomes a ward of the state.  

You will see true orphans in the foster care system in many countries as well as orphanages.  These children in most cases can be adopted.  One may need to recognize though that they may have family and may even be close with them.  The child should make the ultimate decision (if they are old enough) on whether or not they would want to be adopted.  Adoption in itself comes out of some sort of tragedy so one would never want to add yet another tragedy on top of an already existing dire circumstance.

The second type of orphan is the social orphan.  Many of us who have visited orphanages in other countries have learned that these children are a bit more complex.  A family member such as a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or other guardian will have rights to the child, but they are housed in the orphanage due to poverty or other situations that put the child in great harm.  In many countries, it is not uncommon for family members to not step up and take care of their own.  They just don’t have the means.  However, in some cases- they do step up for getting the rights but they still cannot afford to care for them.  So ultimately, the child does end up in the system just like a true orphan.  The difference is, they cannot be adopted unless all rights are removed from surviving guardians.  Many families do the best they can in this scenario.  They have the child go to the orphanage during the week for meals and an education while they visit as much as they can and have the children come home on the weekends and holidays to be a part of the family.  This is the best scenario for a social orphan but it is not the case for all.  Some may have a guardian that has rights, but that guardian does not participate in their lives at all, thus making them “stuck” in a system that they will not be able to get out of.  They have no family support and they have no future for one because they cannot be adopted.  An example of a child that is stuck would be one that is not uncommon in Ukraine.  Here a child has a family member who has rights.  But, that family member is in prison.  Thus, per the law there- the guardian has lost their rights to give up their rights for the child.  So even if they wanted to remove their guardianship so that the child could find a family, they cannot because they no longer have the right to do so.  It is a sad reality for many as poverty leads to alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, stealing and so forth that ultimately puts a lot of guardians in prison.  Another situation would be where the guardian receives funding for having rights to the child, but they don’t use it on the child at all and they leave them to fend for themselves in an orphanage or foster care.  It is a sad reality that there are many children who are stuck.  The glimmer of hope for some social orphans is through hosting.  Most do qualify for the program and they can be brought here on a mentorship program so that they can be exposed to the love of a family and see that there can be a different life out there waiting for them.

Project 143 has hosted both true orphans and social orphans alike as the need for help is great in both capacities.  I will speak from my own experiences that children just need to know that there is a safe place to fall.  I have hosted and adopted two boys that were true orphans.  One had a mother who had passed but has a father that was not on the birth certificate but is still in his life.  We keep in contact with the family, but they knew that they could not take care of him.  I will never forget the day I met his father and he shook my hand and said, “thank you”.  He knew he couldn’t give the life to the child that he needed but we made sure that they could get a hold of each other at any time.  My other son’s mother was also deceased and the father lost his rights after not showing up for specified court dates.  He had no interest in his life and therefore, he has no contact with family.  Lastly, we have hosted a girl multiple times that is a social orphan.  She has a family that loves her deeply but lives below the poverty line.  We brought her into our family a few weeks at a time during the year so that she could see how life could be for her if she could break the cycle that is a part of her life.  If she follows her mother’s path, she will be in the same scenario.  But being a mentor and letting her know there is more out there, we only pray that she will push herself to want better for her life as she knows she is loved by many.

All children need love.  All children need guidance.  Whether it is through mentorship, hosting, adoption, or supporting those that do these things, we can make a difference in a child’s life.

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