Boarding schools: real stories from the past and the present

Almost five years ago reforms began in Ukraine under a complex name - “deinstitutionalization”.

Even today, not everyone knows that the term “deinstitutionalization” refers to the restructuring of residential institutions for children, like boarding schools and orphanages. This reform has its supporters, above all, of course, among the employees of this system and people who do not believe in alternatives to the family if the child and/or his/her family find themselves in crisis conditions. And then again there are those who do not consider this system relevant for the 21st century because orphanages were relevant to post-WW2 or post-WW2 periods, and the world has already accumulated enough experience in reforming them.

By Andrew Butko, CC BY-SA 3.0

The reform of boarding schools does not mean that all of them will be closed at once, and children will be thrown out into the street. The goal of this reform is to create conditions as closely resembling a family as possible for those children who have found themselves without one. In addition, the state helps the children to stay in their families by supporting parents, who have disabilities or addictions. This practice exists in different countries, for example, in neighboring Poland, where they try to get rid of the established clichés and stereotypes, by developing intervention families and rehabilitation centers.

This is both good for the children and beneficial to the state, because there is a systemic, however, targeted intervention, instead of maintaining the half-empty large orphanages, where the conditions maim children’s lives.

I still recall how some 15 years ago my colleagues and me worked on the city streets. Children who had been deprived of parental care or orphans of different ages, not all lived in boarding schools or with their relatives: some lived in sewage communications, construction trailers, or with some strangers.

To my question: “Why did you run away and do not want to return to the boarding school or the school where you studied?” there were many different answers, but almost everyone of those interviewed recalled cruelty, violence, bullying, prison-like life (with some strict regulations, schedule, “carrots and sticks”, etc.). Adults, of course, often question the veracity of such stories, after all, this was not the case in all boarding schools. But the system is such that such “regime institutions” – although seemingly designed for children – by default turn out to be the places of unfreedom. And if the child fails to adapt there, then this should serve as an alarm sign for the adults.

I remember a conversation with a dirty-looking guy of 15-16 years old. I asked him a question from the questionnaire:

“Did you there any contacts with law enforcement agencies?” I saw in his big blue eyes a total lack of understanding and an expectation for some explanation.

“Were you ever busted by the cops?” I asked him.

“Ah, this. Yes”, he replied –

“For what?” I inquired.

“They were replacing the heating system [in the boarding school], and an old heating battery was left unused. We didn’t have enough money for chewing gum and cigarettes, so we dragged it away and sold it as metal scrap. Then the director [of the school] came with the cops and this was discovered”.

I understand perfectly the motives of his act: after all, the boarding school for these children was a big house, and they perceived everything inside it as “their own”. Therefore, they did not see anything wrong with getting rid of scrap and earning some extra money this way.

This is an example of how real life is not being taught in boarding schools. Although the children study there, do some work of self-care there and some vocational guidance work is carried out there, nevertheless basically everything is done and decided for them by the staff.

In 2013, I came to a boarding school in my native town of Snezhnoye, there was a room there for teaching “life skills”. The project was presented pompously: the room was beautiful, freshly renovated, there was a washing machine there, a microwave oven, some furniture and even a coffeemaker. Everything seemed to be fine, but after the presentation, the room was locked. When I asked if the children could come into the room at any time, the staff answered affirmatively. But the children in a private conversation replied that this could be done only by the hour, and only when the teacher said, but otherwise the room remained mostly closed. This was not out of some ill will, but because adults were concerned about the safety of the equipment, since the project was designed for several years. So much for the life skills.

Not all of us take time to think about the fact that life skills are being acquired every day, every second, in the process of receiving feedback from the close people around us. If even “home” kids often fail to find proper attention and understanding in their families, then what can be said about children in boarding schools and orphanages.

Once at an orphanage, I was talking to another “fugitive”. It turned out that he was forced to run away by the fact that he wanted to be a driver, and was sent to a school where construction workers were trained instead. Nobody understood whom he envisioned himself to become or what professional path he wanted to choose for himself. The deputy director of the orphanage used even my presence as an occasion for an “educational conversation”. “What kind of driver you are,” she said, “you are a drug addict.” I found out later that the fugitive smoked weed with the guys a couple of times. This, of course, was bad, but when working with street children, I saw much more severe substance addictions. And humiliation and devaluation of the child’s personal choice has no educational effect ever.

Children from the boarding schools are not only deprived of a chance to realize themselves, but they are also alienated from any family ties: these children’s institutions are very remote from their parents’ places of residence, and it is difficult for the latter to maintain relations with their children in such conditions. But, true, employees of these institutions often argue that parents “do not express any desire” to communicate with their children.

In nominally adult life (at the age of 16 all children graduate from boarding schools), children face yet another problem – they find themselves with no housing. It so happens that children often find the strength to somehow finish school and return to the place that they considered their home. But other people may live there now, or their parental house is in ruins. For example, there are 625 children and adults in the Lviv region who were orphans and were deprived of parental care, and 64 of them are already over 35 years old. Only 122 people will be provided with housing of their own, as they are entitled to by the law. But what about the rest?

The war inflicted additional trauma on children from orphanages. In 2014, children from boarding schools of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions were relocated to the Odesa region. Then there were many telephone calls from them for help: some children were separated from their brothers and sisters, and some fell victims of violence and blackmail.

Our society has no shortage of prejudices towards former orphans. I remember that I came to a settlement, where displaced persons from my native region had been settled. Mothers were all up in arms against one young single mother: “She drinks, is promiscuous, can close her child in the room at night and go away on her business, the child must be taken away and she should be evicted.” I listened to women who talk and interrupt each other and my colleague, who shared their opinion, and then I asked: “Probably, this mom grew up in a boarding school?” In response there was some silence, and then they asked: “How did you know?” These caring and positive-minded women did not think that having grown up with a flock of abandoned children, who had been deprived of parental care, children also adopt and repeat this boarding-school-type model of upbringing their own children. But this, of course, is not true for all adults, as some former boarding school pupils have proper parental instincts.

Remembering the children whom I had been in touch with, it seems like I’m watching a film directed by myself. I told only a small part of their stories, but I am still overwhelmed with emotions. I do not know about them all, as not all of them successfully reached adulthood, while some others ended up in prison. But, of course, there were some happy stories, such as that of Masha, who became a successful landscape designer. Or Galya, who at the age of 16 was advised to abandon her child by the “merciful” workers of the maternity hospital, but was able to start her family after she turned 20 and gave birth to her second child. Galya respects the secret of adoption, but she hopes that her first daughter, who found herself a foster family, will decide whether she will communicate with her in the future when she grows up.

Deinstitutionalization is a proper decision by the state, which we should support. But besides that, there is no need to rush and condemn the former boarding school children. They went through an awful lot, and one needs to try to understand them and help them.

Svetlana Tarabanova, Women’s Consortium of Ukraine

Photo by Andrew Butko, CC BY-SA 3.0,

“Promotion of modern international standards of children’s rights: deinstitutionalization and humanization of closed institutions in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine” is a project of ADC Memorial and partner organisations (supported through the EaP Civil Society Forum Re-granting Scheme (FSTP) to Members and funded by the European Union as part of its support to civil society in the region). Within its Re-granting Scheme, the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF) supports projects of its members that contribute to achieving the mission and objectives of the Forum. Grants are available for CSOs from the Eastern Partnership and EU countries. Key areas of support are democracy and human rights, economic integration, environment and energy, contacts between people, social and labour policies.



This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its content is the responsibility of ADC Memorial and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.