September 2018 marks the start of a two-year project “Continuing support for deinstitutionalisation of children and young people” in Bulgaria. This EU-funded intervention under operational programme “Human Resource Development” will be implemented by the Agency for Social Assistance in partnership with the State Agency for Child Protection, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy and the Ministry of Education and Science. It is expected that upon completion, all old-type institutions for children will be closed. Through newly-built social infrastructure, including family-based care alternatives and community-based support services, children will receive better quality individual care. The grant totals to 3 million leva (1.5 million Euro). Measures for “Continuing support for deinstitutionalisation of children and young people” will include:
- an individual assessment of the needs of children placed in homes for medico-social care for children (0-3) and institutions for children deprived of parental care;
- care planning and preparation for removal;
- updating the assessment of the needs of children placed in small group homes;
- training and supervision of staff.
The process of moving children and young people from the large institutions to family and community-based care started in the previous programming period in Bulgaria. During 2014-2020 funding period, over €160 million from the EU structural funds, including the European Social Fund, the European Regional Development Fund, and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, have been allocated to support the process of deinstitutionalisation via the Operational Programme ’Regions in Growth’, the Operational Programme ‘Human Resources Development’ and the Operational Programme ’Science and Education for Smart Growth’. The Action Plan 2016-2020 for the implementation of Bulgaria’s National Strategy “Vision for Deinstitutionalisation” focuses on the provision of prevention services, family-based care, closure of all remaining institutions for children deprived of parental care, gradual closure of homes for children from 0-3 years, ensuring successful transition to independent living for young people, and provision of social and medical services for children with disabilities.
Since embarking on the reform in 2007, Bulgaria has made a commendable progress. The Government’s commitment to achieving a complete transition from institutional to family- and community-based care by 2025, coupled with continued EU support, made Bulgaria a pioneer Member State in leveraging EU funding for catalyzing reforms in child protection. Some of the most important outcomes of the reform include 80% decrease in the number of children placed in institutional care: from 7587 children in 2009 to 979 children at the end of 2017. As of 2017, all specialised institutions for children with disabilities have been closed. There has also been a considerable increase (over 200%) in the number of children in foster care. The number of foster carers has increased by 440%. Admissions to institutions for children in Bulgaria have seen a 60% decrease. Bulgaria has significantly increased its use of small group homes (SGHs) as an alternative to large-scale institutions. Despite some over-reliance on the use of SGHs, they improved the lives of thousands of children and young people from disability institutions. There are more than 600 social services for children now funded by the national budget.
Even with clear progress, challenges still exist in Bulgaria. It is a worry that 49% of children in institutional care in Bulgaria are at an early age (0-3) who are considered the most vulnerable in any care system. Almost 200 children in conflict with the law and children with delinquent behaviour remain in institutional care, although institutions for children in conflict with the law are excluded from the strategy on deinstitutionalisation. As a result, children who live in six of such institutions are not included in the official statistics as “being institutionalised”, even though they are undoubtedly living in institutional care. Furthermore, almost all of the unaccompanied and separated children arriving in Bulgaria are accommodated in the reception and registration centres for refugees. Lack of safe and appropriate accommodation for unaccompanied children remains one of the biggest gaps in Bulgarian child protection system and require urgent solution.
According to the National Network for Children, the Opening Doors for Europe’s Children campaign coordinator in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian child protection system is severely under-resourced: there is an acute shortage of staff, poor material resources, high turnover of social workers who lack competency-based standards, training and supervision. This has a detrimental impact on the process of deinstitutionalisation, in particular, work with the birth parents and the overall quality of alternative care. In addition, the National Network for Children recognizes the lack of a financial mechanism for ring-fencing and transferring resources from institutions to new community-based services for children and families.
“Deinstitutionalisation of children and young people can only be achieved if root causes are
appropriately addressed and there are investments to tackle main drivers of institutionalisation, such as poverty or Roma exclusion,” says Madlen Tanielyan, representative of the National Network for Children and Opening Doors national coordinator. “Rather than improving infrastructure, measures should be focusing on enhancing the capacity of the professionals working in the system. Implementing the final phase of deinstitutionalisation would be an extremely difficult task without quality professionals in this field. Interventions must focus on targeted prevention, active field work, family support and family-oriented, integrated services and policies,” she adds.
The Opening Doors for Europe’s Children campaign welcomes Bulgaria’s commitment towards the comprehensive transformation of its child protection system. We encourage other EU Member States, as well as countries from enlargement, pre-accession and neighbourhood region to take Bulgaria’s experience as a positive example of how EU funding can be used on a national scale to facilitate the transition from institutional system that is detrimental to children’s health and development towards the system where the majority of children are supported to live in families and communities. We call on the Bulgarian Government to take immediate action to ensure sustainability of the EU-funded reforms through ring-fencing of the national budget and development of detailed financial standards for the various types of alternative care services.