Stoyan will never forget the night his only child, Ivan, was taken from him.
“A policeman came to the door and entered my home without asking and just took him. No warning, no support”, he remembers. “It was terrible for Ivan.”
His son was just three years old then, but because Stoyan was a single parent on a very low income and his child had cerebral palsy, the authorities had decided Ivan would be safer in an orphanage.
But orphanages do not protect children; they harm them. Ivan spent the next two years heavily medicated and confined to a cot in a darkened room on the top floor of the institution, alongside all the other children with disabilities.
“It was horrible”, Stoyan remembers. “I’m a labourer and I was working 12 to 15 hours a day because I couldn’t sleep. My friend told me, “If you carry on like this, you’ll kill yourself.” I was waking up in the night and crying because Ivan wasn’t with me”, he says.
“The institution would allow me to visit only once a week for 15 minutes, between 1030 and 1130 when Ivan was tired and hungry”, Stoyan remembers.
“How was the care? Total zero care. They tied him into a wheelchair. Before then, Ivan was beginning to stand and walk with support and he had started to speak. He could say mummy and daddy,” Stoyan angrily recalls.
For two years, Stoyan fought a lonely battle against red-tape, prejudice and indifference, to be reunited with his son.
“First, if I take my boy home, the institution loses income!”, he explains. “Then, even when I went to court and won full custody of my son, the institution just ignored it,” he says.
Elitsa Ivanova is a member of Hope and Homes for Children’s specialist social work team in Bulgaria. She has spent the last four years, working to close the orphanage where Ivan was taken, by reuniting children with their parents, building new parents through fostering and adoption and keeping vulnerable families together by providing the support that parents need to care for their children at home.
“I could see the love Stoyan had for his child,” she says, “but no one was supporting him. The local child protection department lied to him. They kept setting him tasks and challenges but when he met them, each time the authorities let him down again. It really made me angry!”, she recalls.
“Stoyan was losing faith”, she says. “He needed to meet someone who believed in him and who he could trust,” she says. “Because he is a man on his own, people could not see him as the parent for a child with a disability. I told them, “I can see how he cares for his child and I know he will do his best for him.”
So Elitsa set to work. She helped Stoyan find a better place to live and complete the paperwork to claim the child support he needed to prove he could provide for Ivan. She also made sure their new home was equipped with essentials, including a stove for heating, clothes and the right kind of toys for Ivan. At the same time, Elitsa helped Stoyan to take on the authorities.
“I told them, ‘I can see how he cares for his child and I know he will do his best for him.’”
“Many times, Elitsa intervened and told the social workers that I was the best person to take care of my son even though I am a man, I could take good care of my son by myself,” he confirms.
But just as vital was the emotional support and encouragement that Elitsa provided.
“I can’t put it into words”, Stoyan says now. “I have shared so much with Elitsa. Without her, I don’t know how I would have been able to carry on. I really trust her 100%”. I know she would never lie to me. She knows things I have never told anyone else.”
Together, Stoyan and Elitsa overcame every hurdle that was placed in their way and in June 2018, Stoyan and Ivan were reunited.
“It was the happiest day of my life, when I took my boy back, Stoyan remembers. “Now, we like to do everything together. He is very affectionate. He hugs and kisses me. He likes my stubbly chin so I don’t shave for him!” he says, laughing.
Nowadays, Ivan is a very active boy who responds well to other people and is curious about new adults and children.
Stoyan says he has seen a rapid improvement in his son’s development since Ivan stopped taking the drugs that were prescribed by institution.
His cerebral palsy means Ivan has problems controlling his speech and movement but now he can stand and walk by himself and is beginning to learn to speak again.
“There are no challenges now. I just love my boy and I am not interested in anything else.”
Ivan loves it when his dad sings folk songs to him. Stoyan strokes and sooths his son as he sings. Ivan rocks to the music and smiles and laughs.
“It was difficult, caring for him at first. For example, he only liked to eat bananas. Now I am helping him to learn to hold a spoon and feed himself. It’s slow, but we are making progress,” Stoyan explains.
Ivan attends the specialist rehabilitation service that Hope and Homes for Children has helped to establish in place of the institution. Elitsa has also made sure he receives regular speech therapy. And Stoyan is a very enterprising dad.
He successfully appealed to the viewers of a local TV show to help him raise funds for a mobility scooter, to take Ivan out and about. Now they can visit the park and the soft-play area at their favourite café whenever they like.
When we asked Stoyan about the challenges he faces, he told us simply, “There are no challenges now. I just love my boy and I am not interested in anything else.”