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Bulgaria to close harmful baby institutions

Bulgaria is set to revolutionise its outdated childcare practices by outlawing the systematic warehousing of thousands of abandoned babies in grim state-run orphanages.

A groundbreaking Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) will enable the EU and the British charity Hope and Homes for Children to assist the Bulgarian Government to transform its childcare system and close eight baby orphanages by 2014. This will see 400 children under the age of three moved into loving families, in effect heralding the beginning of the end for a further 24 baby orphanages.

Working in Bulgaria since 2009, Hope and Homes for Children closed the country’s first orphanage for babies earlier this year in the municipality of Teteven. All 32 infants were reunited with their birth families, fostered or adopted. The landmark project was in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and scientific research which shows how orphanages are detrimental to a child’s physical and psychological well-being. The success of the Teteven closure has been key in providing the Bulgarian Government with the evidence and confidence to issue its new MOU - which essentially recommends alternative family-based care over the country’s current network of orphanages.

About 8,000 children are currently growing up in orphanages across Bulgaria. An estimated 2,500 of them are under the age of three and live in designated orphanages for babies – the highest number in the EU. Only two per cent of these babies are actually orphans, with most having been abandoned due to poverty, parental neglect or family breakdown. Bulgarian baby orphanages are more commonly known as baby institutions.

Dr Delia Pop works for Hope and Homes for Children, which is a world leader in deinstitutionalisation - the process of reforming childcare through closing institutions, developing family based care and prevention services for children and families at risk of separation.  

Dr Pop said: “Bulgaria’s MOU is a real watershed moment. It’s a direct result of the Government’s commitment to transform vulnerable young lives through a confidence in our professional expertise and skills.

“But we shouldn’t stop at closing eight institutions. We now need to help oversee the closure of all 32 orphanages for babies, while developing impactful alternative family-based care services.”

Twenty years ago Bulgaria began the transition to democracy and severed its affiliation with the Soviet Union.  As in many former communist states, the new Bulgarian Governments of the 1990s were plagued with political instability and strikes, resulting in poor economic performance and standard of life. Poverty remains the number one cause of family breakdown in Bulgaria and this has led to an increase in the number of children placed in institutions.

Institutions for babies are often overcrowded, clinical environments which work on regimented routines. Infants can be starved of interaction and stimulation, leading to serious physical, physiological and social consequences. Studies show how every 2.6 months spent in an institution before the age of three stunts a child’s growth by one month and significantly lowers their IQ levels.

Dr Pop said: “Research carried out in 2010 as part of our project in Teteven showed there was an overall physical underdevelopment in the children, poorer health and delays in cognitive development.

“We found the shorter the separation between child and parent, the lower the damage and higher the chance for reunification, fostering or adoption.”

As well as being damaging for children, having children resident in institutions is expensive when compared to preventing children being separated from their parents.

Research from 2005 (Carter) showed how institutions were six times more expensive than providing social services to vulnerable families; three times more expensive than professional foster care; and twice as expensive as small family homes.

As part of the Teteven closure, Hope and Homes for Children reunited 10 babies with their families; assisted the local authorities to place 20 children in adoptive families; and recruited and trained foster families for two other children.

The empty institution building was converted into a Centre for Social Support and a base for a team of social workers. After receiving the necessary training, these social workers identify families at risk of breakdown to prevent further child abandonment.

The eight baby institutions set to close in the next two years as part of the new MOU will be in the Sofia, Pernik, Montana, Ruse, Gabrovo, Targoviste, Plovdiv, Pazardjik regions.

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Now is the time to act

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