“The question is not whether all institutions can be closed in Bulgaria, but how soon”
Rebecca Allenby, Hope and Homes for Children’s Head of Grants Fundraising, captures her impressions of her recent trip to our work in Bulgaria, accompanied by Isabelle Sommer, Project Officer from Medicor Foundation, a long-standing supporter of our work.
One of my lasting impressions from a trip to Bulgaria in 2012 was the Hope and Homes for Children team’s courage and resilience. Resistance to child protection reform at that time was ferocious. Fighting to overcome entrenched attitudes and vested interests, the Hope and Homes for Children team were under attack from all sides, not least those who were benefitting from the institutional system. Boryana, our Programme Director, describes a time where the Hope and Homes for Children vehicle was scratched by enraged staff from an institution. Another time, as prevention efforts began to slow the flow of babies into an institution, a frustrated Institution Director called the CPD to ask “Where is my baby delivery?”
Just think about that for a moment. The sheer perversity of a system that incentivises institution directors to recruit children. The number of families broken and childhoods lost as a result.
Fast forward to 2019 and times have changed. The essential elements for the completion of reform are in place. There is a comprehensive legislation in line with the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, including a Government Strategy and Action plan on deinstitutionalisation, a new Social Services Act to be adopted later this year, a raft of experienced professionals to support the process, tried and tested models of prevention and alternative care, and Government and EU funding available.
“Just think about that for a moment. The sheer perversity of a system that incentivises institution directors to recruit children. The number of families broken and childhoods lost as a result.”
The question is not whether all institutions can be closed in Bulgaria, but how soon
Hope and Homes for Children has supported the closure of 17 baby institutions and stemmed the flow of children into institutions for older children, 67 of which have been closed. All 24 institutions for children with disabilities have been closed in parallel. By the end of 2018 only 26 institutions remained with an estimated number of 653 children resident. The official government deadline for the closure of all institutions is 2025 but we are hoping to see the closure of all baby institutions as early as 2022. The tipping point has been reached–the end really is in sight.
That’s not to say that this final phase will be easy. There are still a wide range of challenges; the ongoing involvement of our brilliant, dedicated team is critical to the success of the process. The government, although committed to the end goal, is still dragging its heels at times. Until very recently for example, there were still instances of healthy children being placed into institutions, despite a government ban. The combined forces of Childhood 2025 (a coalition of NGOs determined to see the completion of the reform) and an inspirational group of child advocates, who are part of our child participation programme, put an end to this through sustained petitions to the relevant ministries.
“That’s not to say that this final phase will be easy. There are still a wide range of challenges; the ongoing involvement of our brilliant, dedicated team is critical to success… Until very recently, there were still instances of healthy children being placed into institutions, despite a government ban”
The state provision for prevention support is improving but still not adequate. Emergency payments are available for families at risk of separation but the payment can take two months to process–an unacceptable time-lag, which for some families could mean the difference between separation or staying together. The child protection departments, constrained by the instruments of the law, lacks the flexibility to provide the kind of individualised support that families need. So we continue to advocate for enhanced social support to help families stay together, and work alongside state social workers, demonstrating over and over again that our flexible Active Family Support model works. The District Deinstitutionalisation Coordination Mechanisms set up at regional level are another effective inter-institutional case management tool, aiming to guarantee the best interest of the child.
Improving the quality of alternative family care is another key priority
Last year our team rolled out training in the management of challenging behaviour of children with disabilities to 101 FTH staff. The training resulted in a significant decrease in cases of aggression and self-aggression. Now we are planning to consult and support Small Group Homes staff for the transition of children out of Small Group Homes. Many children who were transitioned into Small Group Homes during the first phase of reform have now reached a point in their rehabilitation where with the right support, reintegration with a family is a real prospect for them.
I was reminded on this visit that our work is all about families. Families in all their complexity. Families of all shapes and sizes. Families which provide a child with all they really need in life; love.
One of the families we met had two small children. When their eldest child was born with Down Syndrome their reaction was shock and confusion. No one informed them about the condition. No one reassured them that it was perfectly possible to care for their child at home. Frantic Google searches threw up scare stories and misinformation. Completely bewildered, his parents made the decision to place him in institutional care. For two years they visited their little boy in the institution, watching him grow and change. They realised how badly he needed to be at home with them; it was clear that the institution was impeding his development. With our help they took him home. We connected them with a local organisation who supports families affected by Down syndrome and provided material support to help their budget stretch a little further. Today his smile lights up their cosy apartment. Like any two year old he loves being thrown up in the air, tickled and bounced on knees. He will start pre-school later this year but for now he spends most of his days playing in the park opposite their apartment. Happy and secure with his family around him.
“One of the families we met had two small children. When their eldest child was born with Down Syndrome their reaction was shock and confusion… Completely bewildered, his parents made the decision to place him in institutional care. For two years they visited their little boy in the institution, watching him grow and change. They realised how badly he needed to be at home with them”
It takes a village to raise a child: Hope and Homes for Children’s work
The fragility of families continues to require our expert intervention and the timely, flexible and non-judgemental approach that our team employs. On receiving the alert from the child protection department that a new mum is considering giving up her baby, a Hope and Homes for Children team member will be at the maternity unit within 20 minutes. This is the moment to intervene, to help the mother find a way through her situation, however complex that may be. Once the moment has passed it is much, much harder. The road to reunification is difficult and lengthy. Preventing separation in the first place is by far the best option for everyone involved, especially the child.
The support the Hope and Homes for Children team provides depends on the needs of the family. The four families we met had completely different circumstances; it was obvious that a ‘one size fits all’ approach would be futile. But what really struck me was the relationship the Hope and Homes for Children team had with the families. Their genuine respect for the way that these families were climbing out of seemingly impossible situations. The way they shared in the parents’ joy as they watched the children play and thrive.
After all isn’t that what all parents and care givers need when times get tough? Someone to reassure them they are doing a brilliant job. Someone who’s got their back. Someone to listen, with care and compassion, without judgement or prejudice. They say it takes a village to raise a child. For these families the Hope and Homes for Children team is part of that village at a critical time; reinforcing them, lifting them up and helping parents to see that they are exactly what their child needs.
Read about our latest closure, the Vidin orphanage.