More than 250 experts from universities, institutions and NGOs from Europe, Australia, Central Asia and the USA discuss childcare reform at an International Conference on “Deinstitutionalisation of Childcare: How do we invest in change?”. The event takes place from 6 to 8 November at the National Palace of Culture. Representatives of the European Commission, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy and other national institutions, international and local NGOs, social service providers and child policy specialists are participating in the conference. Participants in the conference share research evidence and experience, as well as best practices and challenges in the field of deinstitutionalisation.
The conference was opened by Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev. He defined the deinstitutionalization of childcare as one of the purest examples of reform in Bulgaria – according to high global standards with needs assessment and adequate planning. “Problems are not divided into financial instruments and institutions, but when there is a problem, all institutions that are not used to working together should be involved,” the deputy prime minister stressed. “There was organised and spontaneous resistance from staff in the old-style institutions, and it was difficult for the experts to explain to everyone what the point of the reform was,” he added. “Out of nearly 7,500 children in institutions, today there are nearly 500 left, which does not mean that the process is complete. To deinstitutionalise children is not the final goal – we still have to make a lot of efforts. A reform does not mean changing the legislation, but convincing people that this is the way and it cannot be changed,” the Deputy Prime Minister is adamant. He stressed the huge role of NGOs in the implementation of the reform, which, besides being a helper, are also a necessary corrective. According to Donchev, Bulgaria’s experience with the reform is unique and should be used in other reforms.
“The key to successful deinstitutionalisation is that we all looked in the same direction and worked together – government, NGOs, academia,” Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policy Zornitsa Rusinova stressed. She recalled that in the last 10 years 94% of specialised institutions for children have been closed. Before the start of the reform about 7 600 children were placed in 137 Homes for children with disabilities, Homes for children deprived of parental care and Homes for medical and social care. “We all remember Mogilino, which became a symbol of poor institutional care and children forgotten by society. Half of the newly created services are small family houses of residential type, where children live much better, are located in a residential area, go to school, are close to a hospital. I believe that the lessons we have learned can be passed on to many of our partners,” the Deputy Minister added. Rusinova recalled that the reform in childcare was implemented with EU funds. 450 million BGN have been allocated from the national budget for the implementation of the deinstitutionalization.
The initiator of the International Conference, Dr. Galina Markova from the Know-How Centre for Alternative Child Care at the NBU also stressed the harm of institutions. “We know a lot about child development. We know a lot about the harm of institutions. We know a lot about which programs lead to good child development. We know what the training of professionals should be. The question before the conference is how to apply this knowledge, because it is in the application that there is a problem. And new questions seem to be arising about what is preventing us from implementing good practice. Because the number of foster carers is declining, there are barriers to quality training of professionals and the culture of society in general is preventing the acceptance of different ones. What do we do in this situation?” she asked. She said that people who surround a child with a problem and difficult-to-understand behavior need to learn to make an effort to understand the roots of that behavior and how to create a culture of empathy. “This empathy and support must also exist for the very people surrounding the child, because they in turn also experience many difficulties,” she added.
Alexandrina Dimitrova, Executive Director of the Cedar Foundation, called on this conference to talk about how we provide quality care and support to children and young people who have been removed from specialized institutions. “Our experience shows that the worst cases end up in Family Residential Centres, those with severe intellectual disabilities, often with challenging behaviour, mental health problems or children who do not have disabilities but have experienced extremely traumatic events in their childhood, often a number of separations. In order for these children and young people to receive adequate care, it is important who the people working in the family-type centres are, because it is they who provide the care. And that is why our message is to invest more in them – in their motivation, in their training and in their ongoing support. Also, the responsibility for these children and young people should not fall only on the social system, social services, child protection departments. It is time to share the responsibility so that disadvantaged children and young people can receive quality care,” she insisted.
The executive director of Hope and Homes for Children – Bulgaria Branch, Georgi Simeonov, said that for him it all started in Mogilino, when together with several experts he had to assess the children. “Back then we proposed to start the process of deinstitutionalization. I am very glad that my personal cause for the closure of institutions has become a national one and our organization is actively contributing to the implementation of the process in 21 districts of the country,” Simeonov addressed the conference participants. He recalled that Hope and Homes for Children Foundation – Bulgaria Branch supported the closure of 18 Homes for Medical and Social Care and works on the ground directly with families, following the model of active family support. “I am glad that I was able to involve people in the team who also accepted the cause as their own and supported it with all their strength. We are working to close the entrance to institutions, supporting the process of returning children to their biological families. Our organization is also working globally to completely eliminate institutional care for children by 2025,” he added.
The UNICEF representative in Bulgaria, Dr. Jane Muita, said that the process of deinstitutionalisation in Bulgaria is going very well. “Our goal in the coming years is to have no children in institutions. But deinstitutionalisation is much more than closing institutions – we need to focus our efforts on preventing child abandonment, on quality support for families,” she added.
Irina Malanchuk, head of the Lumos Foundation for Europe, stressed that there is a lot of scientific evidence showing the negative effects on children of being in institutions. She said it is important for all of us to know about them, but it is more important to start talking about practical solutions that will make a difference, what concrete steps to take to make children feel safe and loved, how to develop foster care for children with disabilities, and how best to support parents who are struggling. “The questions are many and I hope this conference will answer some of them,” Malanchuk added.
Richard Pichler, SOS Children’s Villages International’s Special Representative for External Relations and Resources, began his talk by recalling what a young man who grew up in social services had shared with him. “I want to grow up in a place where I would love to come back to for Christmas.” he replied when asked what he would tell the next children who will grow up without parents. He said that should be the ultimate goal of politicians, society and professionals. “As we look at child protection reform, my plea to you is to have the courage to look into the issue beyond the facade because deinstitutionalization is only one small part. You need to define the quality of care that these children need, define a vision and take the process of deinstitutionalisation to a higher level. We at SOS Children’s Villages will support the Bulgarian authorities in this effort, as we have done for almost 30 years,” he added.