How many children have you helped to leave and transition from state institutions?
Our first achievement, after we began our project more than 13 years ago, was shutting down the institution for children with intellectual disabilities in Gorna Koznitsa. Fifty-eight children were living there under appalling conditions, very similar to the ones in the infamous state institution in Mogilino. Today they live within in considerably improved environments in family-type homes in Kyustendil and the surrounding area.
During the years we have helped in the shutting down of 14 more institutions, we contributed to the provision of quality care for more than underprivileged 1,500 children and trained more than 430 specialists in the field of social care.
Currently, we are providing around-the-clock individual care and specialized support to more than a hundred underprivileged children and youths in Kyustendil and Kazanlak. In the meantime, in our Center for Social Rehabilitation and Integration, we support the families of youths, living with disability in their efforts to help them lead a fulfilling life.
We also help day centers for children and youths living with disabilities, we share our expertise at the national level, we initiate and implement legislative changes. In addition, we actively collaborate with institutions in the process of deinstitutionalization and we are directly involved in changing the policies that affect people living with disabilities in Bulgaria.
Where do the children from the state institutions live? Who cares for them?
Most of them live in family-type homes. Nationwide, there are currently over 280 such facilities. They are located in well-connected areas and have normal living conditions—children and youths live in smaller groups and have more opportunities for individual care and integration. They attend school, play in the park, and have friends. You can see them shopping or taking a walk.
Social therapists and social workers care for them and effectively take on the role of the children’s absent families. They provide them with around-the-clock care, which means that they are available every day, in the challenging, and the joyful moments, and work to help them become well-rounded individuals.
Recently there has been an active conversation about whether the people working in the centers are enough. What needs to change?
The most severe cases usually live in family-type homes. This includes children and youths who have had traumatic events in their childhood. Negligence, violence, many cases of abandonment or rejection. They have a great need for attention and care which need to be met every day, which takes a lot of work, patience, understanding, and acceptance. This requires motivated and qualified people who will establish trust with the children, as well as a suitable environment for their development. Meanwhile, their pay is equal to or close to the minimum working wage. In addition, because of the low government financing of family-type homes, one carer would care for twelve children; as a result, they are also overworked. This leads to burnout, deterioration of the quality of care and high carer turnover.
In our centers, we provide 25 additional employees, and we raise funds for their pay through corporate and individual donations. It is important that the specialists will also feel prepared and supported in order to meet the challenges of working with the children and youths in family-type homes. This is why we also provide training—the so-called supervision, which is also funded through our fundraising activities. We believe that this model of care for our employees needs to become a reality everywhere and we call for an urgent change in policy on a national level, including the introduction of wage standards for the workers in the social sphere as well as for opportunities for education and further training.
Are there still any angry reactions that the children are accommodated close to other people’s homes?
When we began the process many people started petitions and protests because they were afraid of this change. Attitudes have changed with time; the protests have ceased and it is a lot more common to find the understanding that these children and youths are part of our society and it is normal for them to live with everyone else.
People are declaring their support through the provision of a normal environment for the children and youths but they still do not feel engaged with another aspect of development— inclusion. By showing that they don’t want these children to study in the same class as their kids or play with them, they are showing that they still see them as different.
Meanwhile, society’s role is incredibly important in the inclusion of the children without parental care and it is beneficial for all of us for them to develop, to have relationships and to take their own roles in society.
How can one help? Is there a misunderstood form of care?
We often see misconceived gestures of support. The fundamental needs in the center are met and children do not need treats, toys and old clothes. They need additional specialists who can work with them. Oftentimes, when we decline such support and explain that we need funding to provide these extra specialists, people give up, offended that we don’t accept their wish for donation. The reason for this is that there is a lack of understanding of the fact that children and youths need quality care, acceptance, inclusion, friendships, and understanding—all things, which are important to every one of us.
How many children are still to be taken out of the state institutions? What are the challenges that delay this process?
When the process of deinstitutionalization began, more than 7,500 children lived in state institutions. Today the majority of these institutions is closed and the children and youths live in either a family environment or a family-type one.
Still, 620 children live in big state institutions, which are expected to close by the end of 2020. There needs time for the construction of enough family-type homes and the provision of the teams who would be working in them. There is also a deficit of prepared foster families, who are ready to care for the children and youths with traumatic experiences in their pasts, who harbor fears or undergo crises because of their experiences.
What happens with these children after they come of age?
This is a very important problem, which remains unanswered on the national level.
We are facing the challenge of having an increasing number of youths who will have to leave our centers after they turn 20. We are planning strategic steps but with us, as with other organizations, it happens in pieces and with limited resources.
The youths living with physical and intellectual disabilities can be supported in our centers after their 18th birthday because their nominal age is not equal to their real one.
The youths without disabilities usually have problems with social interactions due to early childhood abandonment or traumas that they have experienced. To them life presents an even bigger challenge as after they turn 20, they need to leave the centers without having where to go and having to rely only on themselves. It is expected that they will face life and its difficulties, will find a job, start families and raise children. This would be immensely difficult if these youths are without support and they often face a situation of survival.