The woman who closes orphanages
“When I see a child return to his family or find a new family, I am so happy to see their smile. That’s what keeps me moving and motivated and I know that I’m doing the right thing.”
Quietly spoken and seemingly shy, Elitsa Ivanova is a young woman with a will of iron. An experienced social worker and a member of Hope and Homes for Children’s dedicated team in Bulgaria, Elitsa has spent four years working to close the orphanage in her hometown of Vidin by finding safe and loving families for children. This is how she tells that story:
The orphanage was like a hospital. There was nothing warm or cosy about it. The rooms were huge, with babies kept in cots. The children had no chance to play, to socialise, to interact. They rarely went outside.
These institutions exaggerate the children’s disabilities to keep them because that’s how they get the funding. Sometimes the child is only disabled as a result of being kept in the institution.
Most of the children had families but their parents were not supported or encouraged to visit them. The staff had no faith in families. They saw parents as the enemy.
The orphanages also exaggerated or invented the children’s disabilities to stand in the way of fostering.
Foster carers who took six-year-old twins from the orphanage found needle marks on their skin. They think they were sedated when they visited to make them seem less responsive. Now they are both chatting, affectionate children.
One little boy with a cleft palette, he was four years old but he couldn’t speak. He is with a foster family now and he can talk, run, he plays with other children. He has the love and care he needs. In the institution, his emotional needs were never met. He was denied family or a community.
The children with disabilities were kept in darkened rooms on the top floor.
“These institutions exaggerate the children’s disabilities to keep them because that’s how they get the funding. Sometimes the child is only disabled as a result of being kept in the institution.”
When I see a child return to his family or find a new family, I am so happy to see their smile. This is what keeps me moving and motivated and I know that I’m doing the right thing.
My lowest point in the closure programme was when I felt the people in the institution wanted to keep it open. I made one step forward; they pushed me back two and so there were times when I asked myself, “how can I ever make any progress?”
My husband told me, “You can do it. You can change this. I know you are the person.” He gave me the courage to go on.
“I asked myself, ‘how can I ever make any progress?’ My husband told me, ‘You can do it. You can change this. I know you are the person.’”
If I hear about a child who is at risk of being taken to an institution, I visit the family to see what we need to do to keep them together: clothes, nappies, fuel for the stove, housing problems, unemployment, difficulty accessing welfare payments.
When people are facing challenges, they need to believe they can overcome these problems and keep their family together. They need someone to encourage them and believe in them. I can do this. I am good at it!
I travel a lot to visit families. Often, I don’t get home until 10 o’clock at night.
Every day is different. Liaising with institutions, the local Child Protection Department, convincing the Centre for Social Work to support families. It’s complex work but I enjoy it and it suits me.
“When people are facing challenges, they need to believe they can overcome these problems and keep their family together. They need someone to encourage them and believe in them. I can do this. I am good at it!”
I have been a social worker for nine years and through this work I can change people’s minds and attitudes to orphanages. It’s difficult but it’s possible. That’s what keeps me going.
Life is hard for many people here in Vidin. There is not much work. Many people have left but I am someone who follows their heart. This is where I grew up. I like the people here.I love the river and the countryside. I know I can change things for the better here and that makes me happy.
I couldn’t believe it when the last child left the orphanage in Vidin and it was finally closed. It was hard to accept it was true. I went and had a beer and broke my diet with some fried food!
I think I have shown people in authority that institutions are not good places for children and that all children should be with a family.
Hope and Homes for Children is working alongside the Bulgarian Government to fulfil its commitment to close all orphanages by 2022. So far, we have helped to close 19 out of the 32 institutions for babies and children under three and we are currently working on nine further closure programmes.