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Finnish child services take Ukrainian kids into care while mother shops, Russia cites case in anti-Western propaganda

Russian media have claimed the case is part of a wider phenomenon where European countries are using child protection laws to abduct Ukrainian children.

Illustration shows an adult figure divided from two children by a broken line, with the Ukrainian flag in the background.
Image: Riikka Kurki / Yle
Yle News

In the spring of 2022, a Ukrainian family fled their home country because of Russia's invasion, and sought temporary protection in Finland.

The family — comprising a mother, two children and their grandfather — first lived in reception centres before moving to a small apartment in Central Finland's city of Jyväskylä.

In March this year, the mother took a bus to a nearby grocery store. The family's grandfather accompanied her to help carry the shopping. The primary school-age children stayed home alone.

When the two adults returned from the shop, the children were gone.

A note in the hallway had a phone number on it and the words sosiaali- ja kriisipäivystys (social and crisis services) in Finnish.

Child protection authorities with the Central Finland Welfare Region — concerned about the family — had arrived at the home unannounced and found the children alone. They made an on-the-spot decision to take the children from their home and place them in a child protection unit for a period of 30 days.

The story of Finnish authorities suddenly taking the Ukrainian children into care soon gained traction in the Russian media, and was cited by Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia's Deputy Envoy to the UN.

According to Polyanskiy, Finland had abducted the children under false pretences.

The following article — compiled by Yle's investigative journalism unit MOT and Yle Novosti, the Finnish Broadcasting Company's Russian-language news unit — clarifies the facts of the case. Yle is not publishing the name of the mother to protect the privacy of the family.

Russia says Europe is stealing Ukrainian children

Polyanskiy wrote on Twitter about the case involving the Ukrainian mother in Jyväskylä a few months after the children were placed into protective care.

Screenshot of Dmitry Polyanskiy's tweet.
Screenshot of Dmitry Polyanskiy's tweet. Image: Kuvakaappaus Dmitry Poljanskin Twitter-tililtä, kuvankäsittely: Otso Ritonummi / Yle

The Russian official claimed that the Finnish child protection authorities had taken the children to a shelter for possible adoption. He added that the children were living in poor conditions in the shelter, that they were malnourished and were being given harmful medication.

He called on his followers to spread the story as widely as possible so that "citizens and the media in Finland and Europe know the truth," adding the hashtag #EuropeStealsChildren.

Russia began its counter-offensive propaganda campaign after numerous Western media outlets reported evidence that Russian soldiers were abducting Ukrainian children and transporting them to various parts of Russia.

Polyanskiy further claimed that this "child theft" has occurred not only in Finland, but also in Germany, Portugal and Spain, adding that Russia was aware of hundreds of Ukrainians in Europe who had their children taken away.

Polyanskiy also repeated the accusations at an informal meeting of the UN Security Council in April. The Russian delegation at the meeting showed a video which they said were interviews with Ukrainian mothers whose children had been placed in child protection services across Europe.

Screenshots from the video shown by Dmitry Polyanskiy at an informal meeting of the UN Security Council.
Screenshots from the video shown by Dmitry Polyanskiy at an informal meeting of the UN Security Council in May. The identities of the people in the video, and the veracity of the allegations they make, have not been independently verified. Image: Kuvakaappaukset RussianUN:n Youtube-kanavalta, kuvankäsittely: Otso Ritonummi / Yle

How did the story spread to Russian media?

Back in Jyväskylä, the Ukrainian mother whose children had been placed in care was desperate for help as she feared she would lose her children permanently.

The mother is from Mariupol in the south of Ukraine and speaks Russian better than Ukrainian. Therefore, at the urging of her friends, she contacted Johan Bäckman, although she was not aware of who he was.

Bäckman is a controversial pro-Russian academic and convicted stalker known for propagating anti-Finnish and anti-Western propaganda in Russia. He also spread the narrative to the Russian media that Finnish child protection services arbitrarily take children into care.

However, Bäckman told the mother that he did not have time to help her.

She therefore contacted the Ukrainian embassy in Finland. This was confirmed to Yle by the Ukrainian ambassador, but no further details about the case were provided.

"She has been given all the relevant information on Finnish legislation and advised on how to proceed," the ambassador wrote.

Eventually, the mother also decided to approach the Russian embassy in Finland by email. She told her story to an embassy official, but was not offered direct help because she is not Russian. Instead, she was given the contact details of a Russian-born lawyer working in Finland who is on the embassy's recommended list of lawyers for Russians to use.

She later told Yle that she suspects the lawyer spread her story to the Russian media.

In an emailed reply to Yle, the lawyer stated no information about the case had been passed to the Russian media, adding that in their view, Finnish authorities do not take children away from their parents without a reason.

"The family themselves wanted to tell their story to everyone, to get attention so that society would react in some way," the lawyer wrote.

On Twitter, Russia's Deputy Envoy Dmitry Polyanskiy claimed that the Ukrainian mother asked him to speak about the case.

Screenshot of articles by Russian news agencies Regnum and Ria Novosti.
Russian news agencies Regnum and Ria Novosti quote Polyanskiy as saying that numerous Ukrainian mothers have asked the Russian state for help. The articles claim that European authorities are systematically taking Ukrainian children away from their mothers. Image: Kuvakaappaukset Regnumin ja Ria Novostin verkkosivuilta, kuvankäsittely: Otso Ritonummi / Yle

However, the mother told Yle that she never gave permission for her personal information to be made public, and she now realises that Russia had used her as a propaganda tool.

"I didn't know who to turn to, so I had to find someone. I knew I shouldn't accept help from the Russian side," she said.

Yle also approached Polyanskiy and the Russian embassy in Helsinki for comment on the case, but neither replied to requests for interviews.

The Ukrainian mother's case is now being handled by a Finnish lawyer.

Why were the children placed in care?

The views of the child protection services in Central Finland and the Ukrainian mother are very different in terms of the course of events that led to the children being taken into care.

In addition to the mother's account, Yle has also investigated the details of the story through documents, telephone recordings and interviews with people who followed the proceedings closely.

The mother strongly criticised Finnish child protection services, noting in particular that neither she nor the children were consulted when the decision was taken to place the children in emergency care.

According to documents related to the decision, interviewing the mother would have prolonged the situation and endangered the safety of the children. The authority ruled that the mother had left her children alone for at least a whole day and that this was not the first time she had done so. This, the document notes, is based on an account the children told the authorities through an interpreter.

However, the mother told Yle she had only been out shopping for a couple of hours and had left the children food to eat at home.

The protection services did confirm that sandwiches and apples had been left for the children, but added further that there were no toys in the apartment and it was difficult to find suitable clothing for the children. According to the mother, the family had just moved and the toys had been left in their previous home.

In its decision, the child protection service said the mother had abandoned the children and their welfare had been seriously compromised. It further stated that the children had not attended school or early childhood education.

The mother replied to this by explaining that the children were ill but it was always the intention that they would attend school.

An illustration of a mother and two children.

Mother, children now living in family shelter

Maria Lehtinen, Director of Child Protection Services for the Central Finland Wellbeing Region, told Yle she could not comment on individual cases but said she regrets the publicity and misinformation surrounding the case.

"In that [Russian] article there were various allegations of abuse or that children would be given up for adoption by child protection services, but such a thing is not possible under Finnish child protection legislation. In Finland, child protection law is based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child," Lehtinen said.

With regard to the process of taking a child into care in Finland, Yle enquired if it is usually the case that child protection services would immediately take the children away, rather than wait for a parent or guardian to return to the home, for example.

"This is carried out on a case-by-case basis and is also confidential," Lehtinen replied.

According to documents seen by Yle, the child protection services became concerned about the family following the filing of a child protection report. Authorities were also concerned about the mother's mental health and wellbeing, and this increased further when she failed to turn up for a scheduled appointment.

When the mother could not be contacted, the office decided to make an unannounced visit to the home.

The mother told Yle that she and her children had experienced hell on earth in Mariupol, which remains under Russian control. She added that the children's father was killed in the war, although he had not played much of a role in the family's life. Yle has not been able to confirm these details.

The mother and her children are now living in a family shelter, where they moved after the children's 30 days placement period ended. The purpose of a family shelter is to support a parent who is not able to take sufficient care of their children, for example.

"It's like a prison here. They watch me everywhere and they won't even let me go to the shop alone. The control is total," she told Yle.

The mother has also previously criticised the authorities about the food and medication that was given to her children during their placement in care facilities, saying that child protection services have caused fear and anxiety within the family.

Lack of trust creates anxiety, fear

Anita Novitsky of the Family Federation of Finland has a long and experienced career of working with multicultural families and their encounters with Finnish child protection services.

Novitsky is familiar with the case of the Ukrainian family in Jyväskylä, but said she can only comment on issues in general terms.

In her view, Finnish child protection authorities could often do a much better job than they sometimes do, even if there is a genuine concern for the welfare of a child or children.

She added that cultural understanding is a key component when handling such delicate situations.

"When people come from a crisis area, the authorities here [in Finland] always assume that its message to the customer is taken at face value. But these people do not trust authorities," Novitsky explained.

Problems arise when a family is left without information and support, and then start looking for information online — especially in Russian. This leads to more anxiety and fear.

"The longer the delay in contacting authorities, for example until the next working day, the more of a mess it creates," Novitsky said.

The Ukrainian mother at the centre of this case told Yle that she and her friends began looking for information online and from acquaintances as soon as the children were initially placed into care. She added that she was disappointed by the help she received from the Russians, but would never have turned to them if she had not first lost confidence in the Finnish authorities.

"We knew nothing and we were scared. Should a mother just sit quietly and wait idly while her children are taken away," she asked, adding that she does not understand why she must live in a family shelter with her children as she has always managed fine as a single parent.

"If we had known this, we would not have come here [to Finland]. We have all suffered a great deal. I don't know how we will ever get out of here," she said.

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