In November, the executive director of the National Network for Children Georgi Bogdanov spoke with Sergio Costa Araujo from the Portuguese information portal SAPO. The text below is a translation from Portuguese of the media interview .
Children’s rights and child poverty specialist Sergio Costa Araujo talks to Georgi Bogdanov, a colleague from Bulgaria – a country that, with the fall of the Wall in 1989, woke up to a harsh reality: 30,000 children distributed in more than 300 large children’s institutions. Today, the reality is much different, but there is still much to improve, including the support of more than 32 thousand children who were sent to Bulgaria by the war in Ukraine.
Georgi Bogdanov was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria on November 14, 1969. His parents divorced when he was 7 and his sister was 5. He says that in Bulgaria in 1977, being the son of divorced parents was was extremely rare and such children were not looked upon favourably by communities and society. He admits that this is how his interest in the topics of human rights and in particular – the rights of children was born.
In his late teens, Georgi Bogdanov began studying arts management. In parallel, he works in a Youth Center, where he develops public activities, various arts and creative activities with children and youth, mostly with charitable organisations that support homes for abandoned children. It was in these projects that the motivation to work as a social worker dedicated to supporting children and families was born. That’s why he enrolled in the social services course and later completed his doctorate in social anthropology with a thesis on the relationship between social networks and discrimination against Roma communities through the publication of fake news and disinformation.
He considers himself a humanist who finds solace in reading, “especially books about the meaning of human existence” and such that could serve as a tool for transformation, such as Virginia Satir’s The New Humanism or The Art of Helping individuals, families, groups and communities’ by Lawrence Shulman, both without Portuguese translation.
Bogdanov is a staunch defender of children’s rights, which he considers endangered worldwide, as well as of human rights in general. We started the conversation with children’s rights and child poverty in Bulgaria.
George, I’m not sure exactly when we met, but I think it was in 2009 when you took over as executive director of the National Children’s Network (NNC). What was the impact of this network in Bulgaria, especially in the promotion of children’s rights and the fight against child poverty?
I was the executive director of NNC for nearly 15 years. I led NNC from the time it was a voluntary initiative to the moment when it became the strongest network for the protection of children’s rights, both in Bulgaria and in the Balkans. When I started at NNC in 2009, there were 12 institutions in the organization, and today there are 130 organizations and individual members. Despite restrictions on Bulgaria’s NGO sector and recent attacks on children’s rights activists, the NNC has catalysed some of the most important policy reforms for children in Bulgaria, such as the deinstitutionalisation of children, education reform, and juvenile justice reform. On average, the NNC prepares more than 70 opinions, open letters and positions on topics important to children and families.
How did the social and economic life of Bulgaria in the 20th century affect the situation of children until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell?
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were no problems in Bulgaria, or so it was said. There were no orphans and abandoned children. In November 1989 it became clear that there were 30,000 children spread over more than 300 large children’s institutions. Some of these buildings were located in remote and hidden locations away from the public eye. It was common for the courts to punish parents through their children, and it was very easy for some of these children and youth to end up in boarding schools. When I started working in this field in 1995, I saw a lot of pain; children who were separated from their parents and moved from house to house. For children abandoned by their parents, no one looked for adoptive parents because there was still no child protection system. The protection system began to be built only in 2001. Until then, it was not clear what the role of the social worker was and what social activities his work would involve.
In 2007, Bulgaria joined the European Union – what were the main expectations from the membership and what assessment do you give today?
Without a doubt, Bulgaria’s entry into the European Union was a great success for the Bulgarian political class. On the other hand, however, our country was not fully ready for joining the EU and made too many commitments to the EU. For example, at the level of the rule of law, even today, Bulgaria has huge problems related to corruption and political upheavals. But the benefits of Bulgaria’s membership are enormous, both in terms of infrastructure projects and in economic and social terms.
And with regard to the child and youth care system, has membership made a clear impact on the way care is provided for children who for whatever reason cannot be in the care of their biological parents? What were the main changes?
Bulgaria introduced the grandfather protection system in 1998 following a loan from the World Bank, accompanied by a series of legislative reforms. The undoubted success of this process was the fact that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that provide services funded by various private donors were also included as service providers. The possibility for NGOs to transform themselves into service providers, beneficiaries of public funds, was an example of good practice for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
EU membership has led the government to take steps to close down large institutions providing ‘care’ for children and adults. In 1998, with the adoption of the Social Assistance Act (SAA) and its regulations, the concept of “community-oriented services” was introduced. According to ZSP, social services can be provided in specialised institutions and in the community. They are provided by the state, municipalities and other providers specified in the Social Assistance Agency. With the adoption of this law, local authorities began to play a more defined role in the service delivery process, thus becoming major actors, for example, in the deinstitutionalisation process. Although decentralisation has been a very positive precondition for changing the foster care system, there are still a large number of outdated government-funded institutions. Community-based solutions have slowly started to develop over the past 15 years.
As I mentioned, in Bulgaria there were about thirty thousand children in homes for children and youth, today there are less than two thousand. Huge projects were launched that favoured deinstitutionalization, including the closure of large homes for children and youth. Small group homes were established, community services were promoted to support families and children at risk.
How does the system for the protection of children deprived of parental care work?
The child protection system is centralised and led by the Social Welfare Agency, which established Child Protection Units (CPUs). They deal with cases of children without parental care or children who are at risk. Social workers refer children and families to specific social services based on their needs. These can be sheltered houses designed for small groups, foster families, emergency centers or reception centers for children with disabilities. Cases are reviewed every 6 months.
You are active in the activities of Eurochild and also in the Balkan and Black Sea regions, which consider child protection policies as an investment rather than a welfare policy. How do you see your role and what lessons can other European Member States learn from this model of coalitions – of NGOs working as a network?
In general, I think that nowadays all child rights advocates and organizations should unite. There is a broad front against children’s rights, against which detractors oppose parental rights. Moreover, in all propaganda campaigns, children are used as a tool. This is especially evident in countries like Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Serbia and many other countries where Russian propaganda is particularly strong. Not only do we need to work to build stronger networks and systems to protect children and young people, but we also need to work much more actively with politicians to mainstream children’s issues into all government policies.
Bulgaria is also well known for the many challenges it faces in integrating Roma children. What is the current situation of these children?
According to data from the European Commission, 750,000 Roma live in Bulgaria, which represents 10.33% of the total population. They face severe discrimination in a country where the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found that racist and intolerant hate speech continues to increase and that Roma are often subjected to racial violence.
The European Roma Rights Center published a report on the situation of Roma children in state care in five countries (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova), which highlights the failures to reduce the number of Roma children in state institutional care, as well as the lack of significant progress in the final closure of institutions. Removal of Roma children from their families is common, either due to extreme poverty or the inability of social workers and the state welfare system to provide adequate support to their parents. For the poorest, without any source of income, living conditions are particularly delicate and children are at risk of being neglected in overcrowded housing, without access to drinking water and sanitation, where there is often no electricity or heating. Children in such an environment are often malnourished and miss medical examinations and mandatory vaccinations. They are often exposed to high-risk environments. There are no statistics on how many Roma children are in the care of the foster care system, but the report mentioned above estimated that 45% of respondents said “50/50” or “more than half”; 35% of respondents state that Roma children in institutions are “overrepresented” and estimate their number at around 80-85%.
How do you feel the war in Ukraine in Bulgaria and what impact do you see in your daily life as a human rights specialist?
The National Children’s Network announced its position immediately after the start of the war regarding the military aggression of the Russian Federation against the Republic of Ukraine. We expressed it in an official letter sent to the president, the prime minister, the speaker of the National Assembly, the ambassador of Ukraine and the ambassador of the Russian Federation in Bulgaria.
Since the beginning of the war, more than 1 million Ukrainian refugees have passed through Bulgaria, and there are currently about 72,000 of them in the country. As of February 2022, about 40-45% are children, some of them practically unaccompanied, and among the rest there is a very large proportion of pregnant women who also need protection and special support. During the first two months of the conflict, so many Ukrainian children came to Bulgaria that the country’s child population grew by 2%.
National Network for Children was and continues to be one of the main organizations monitoring and ensuring the protection of the rights of refugee children from Ukraine during the military conflict, together with their families in locations across the country. We also advocated for the improvement and facilitation of all procedures for access to health care, education, social action, child protection, legal aid, humanitarian aid and accommodation. In the current conditions of unprecedented political crisis in the country and in the interim governments, the non-governmental sector is sometimes the only party that can provide assistance to the refugees.
We have supported more than 800 Ukrainian citizens, families with children who are seeking protection from the war in Ukraine in our country and cannot meet their needs. In 2022, we implemented an early childhood development project aimed at supporting refugee children from Ukraine. The project uses the capacity and inner strength of the Ukrainian community itself. More than 90 Ukrainian experts – psychologists, pediatricians, therapists, teachers and parents – work as family consultants and group facilitators and support Ukrainian children with disabilities and at risk and their parents in 27 locations in Bulgaria; in June 2023, more than 2,000 consultations were held, more than 1,000 children aged 0 to 7 were helped, of which more than 450 were disabled and at risk.
What do you think we can expect from the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the European Child Guarantee? Do you believe that all planned actions will have an equally effective impact on all children in all countries, including in Bulgaria?
Every third child in Bulgaria lives at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Poverty implies not only material deprivation, but also quite a few challenges in accessing basic services. The dimensions of child poverty and social exclusion in Bulgaria can be seen in the following data:
- Poverty line: BGN 451.00 (€225.00)/month per household member;
- People below the poverty line: 23.8% (1,659,900 people);
- Share of children at risk of poverty and social exclusion: 33.3%;
- Share of children living in poverty: 28.3%;
- Percentage of children living in material deprivation: 38.5%;
- Large families at risk of poverty: 59.2%;
- Single parent families at risk of poverty: 39.5%;
- Students at risk of dropping out of school: 25% (180,000).
2021 was a turning point in the fight against child poverty with the launch of two historic initiatives, the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the European Child Guarantee. As EU Member States presented their National Child Guarantee Action Plans, Eurochild shared highlights from each plan that members and child rights activists can use in their own work to ensure children’s rights remain at the forefront on the political agenda. On December 5, the Bulgarian government presented the National Action Plan for the Child Guarantee. The Bulgarian national action plan mainly focuses on:
– Early childhood education and care: expanding the network of services and home visits and their links with other social systems; support for children with learning difficulties.
– Education: improving the referral and reception of migrant children; promoting desegregation; support for children with learning difficulties; combating bullying and violence
– Health: day psychiatric care, community mental health care and parenting counselling; improving access for children with disabilities and chronic illnesses and migrant children.
– Nutrition: support (vouchers) for vulnerable families with children; free lunch for children from disadvantaged families.
– Housing: housing strategy; improving housing for migrant children; support for Roma, migrants and children with disabilities.
– Children in alternative care: supporting young people who have left social care and developing the reach of foster homes.
– Others: Digital inclusion (especially in rural areas or children with disabilities).
Personally, I hope that the Children’s Guarantee will help many poor children in Bulgaria and we at NMD will work for this.
Finally, what would you like to say to me in ten years?
We did it, Sergio! Now children are happier, there is less violence and poverty and adults respect children’s rights!
So be it! Thanks!