Pitomnik: Ukraine’s Forgotten
Pitomnik, translated from Russian, can mean either a nursery where flowers are grown or a kennel where stray animals are left until they are adopted or put down.
Thus far, the photographs in this project are being made inside 2 orphanages in central Ukraine (the exact locations are withheld to protect the directors who are allowing access at the risk of termination) which are reserved for mentally handicapped children. The national system sorts approximately 25,000 disabled children based on the severity of their handicaps, but only in the broadest sense. The children suffer from a wide spectrum of disabilities, each requiring different treatment protocols. While modern institutions would separate the children based on the necessary treatments, the Ukrainian orphans are mixed together. For example, 30 of the 60 children at one institution are confined to a crib all day, every day except for 15 minutes of physical therapy 10 - 15 times a month (the others are left to roam the compound). Left in their beds, they have never been properly diagnosed, receive only basic and outdated medication (many of the children are kept heavily sedated), and get no other form of treatment.
Many of the staff members handle them with gloves, denying them even the most basic human contact. Many cannot eat because their teeth cause them pain and are malnurished. Children with only physical defects have been left in bed for years, never developing the ability to express themselves. Most bang their heads on the wall, hit themselves, pull their hair out, or engage in other self harming behaviors in order to feel any sort of stimulation. The lack of human interaction and activity leads to developing sensory disorders, bed sores, and complete atrophy of their bodies. Those who survive to adulthood will be relocated to mental hospitals; institutions they certainly do not belong in.
An estimated 70-80 percent of handicapped children born in Ukraine are sent to orphanages at birth. I have recently made contact with several families who have kept their children. So, I will also explore the challenges these families face raising their children without any support from the government and extremely limited private resources. My intention is to convey the children's humanity, primarily to a Ukrainian audience, in the hope that it can lead to a reform of what is now an empty child welfare system.
I am also using the work to connect with volunteers who can have a more immediate impact on the conditions at the orphanages I am shooting in. Thus far, I have arranged for a group of volunteer dentists to provide dental surgery to over 60 children at one of the orphanages.This is in the final stages of planning and will happen in May 2017. I have also connected with a doctor from Weil Cornell hospital in NYC who will come to Ukraine in the summer of 2017. He will take blood samples in order to provide proper diagnosis of the children, and from there create a plan to utilize existing resources to better manage the staff’s time so that they may provide basis physical and emotional therapy to the children. I also have a commitment from a Kiev based advertising agency to create an awareness campaign when the political climate is safe enough for the orphanage directors to go public with their concerns on the system’s failings.