Prolonged isolation due to COVID restrictions and the economic consequences the pandemic has had for families has created various types of crises in Bulgaria: an increase in cases of domestic violence, neglect, online harassment, deteriorating mental health or psychological problems. This is confirmed by the Eurochild report, “Growing Up in Lockdown: Europe’s Children in the Age of COVID-19”, which contains information from 25 countries, collected in August–September 2020. In these conditions, and to build a better early warning system in the presence of risk factors, Bulgarian non-governmental organizations for children’s rights call on the authorities to invest in the capacity of specialists in the child protection system.
Eurochild’s report points out that the differences of opinion expressed by the government on the one hand and by scientific experts on the other, have led to confusion among Bulgarians. Some NGOs have been forced to adopt their own pandemic procedures to meet the needs of their clients. Online education has become one of the biggest challenges due to the lack of technical equipment and staff to support it. For a long time, it was not clear what steps to take if a child or staff member became infected, as isolation at home, in a small group is not possible. At the same time, government financial support to maintain employment remains inaccessible to most NGOs, as one of the conditions for obtaining it is to declare a 20% reduction in sales revenue.
In addition, the process of deinstitutionalization has been stalled. According to the government’s plans, the assessment of children in the remaining institutions should be completed by the end of 2020. The deadline for training staff in the new small group homes and medical staff is also planned by the end of 2020. These activities are part of the Social Assistance Agency project (2014–2020). Yet, due to the crisis, they are expected to slow down. Similarly, the process of closing down specialized institutions has been stopped, including the process of moving children from institutions to homes for small groups or foster families.
Nevertheless, the COVID-19 crisis had a supposedly positive effect in the form of the new Social Services Act, which entered into force on 1 July 2020. The Act was adopted in February 2019, and was due to enter into force on 1 January 2020, but due to the fears that children would be taken away from their parents and the protests that ensued, it was postponed by half a year.
Another concerning point raised in the report is that Bulgaria lacks a state policy regarding young people leaving social care. Instead, there is a general provision for drawing up a care plan (“a meeting between a social worker and the person leaving the home to fill in a sample form”). NGOs have made recommendations to the government for a comprehensive approach to support, but so far there has been no commitment at the state level. As the state does not offer any services to those leaving institutions, despite their vulnerability, NGOs currently fill this gap – “they are in contact with young people, support them in paying their rent and help them access health care and further education “.