The process of remodelling foster care in Bulgaria started in 2010. It involved closing down the larger public institutions for abandoned children and substituting them with wholistic care homes resembling family environment. The Mogilino orphanage, that became notoriously famous in a BBC documentary, has been closed since then. Along with it another orphanage, the one in Gorna Koznitsa village, in which the living conditions resembled a scene from a horror movie, was shut down. Since then the number of children in institutions drastically went down – from 7500 to 620 children. The last 29 institutions are about to be closed and children relocated to residential care homes by the end of 2020.
What is happening with the children and youngsters who have been relocated from fostering institutions?
Most of them are living in the so called residential homes. More than two hundred and eighty residential homes have been established so far. They usually are located in lively neighbourhoods and because of the small group size, the living conditions allow for better individual care and attention for every child. A study by Alpha Research, ordered by the Bulgarian Agency for Social Assistance, showed that approximately 75% of people have a positive attitude towards the children living in residential homes and do not mind having them as neighbours. However, throughout the building of the residential homes locals were often organising protests, signing petitions and commenting that they do not wish “mentally ill” and “dangerous” young adults to live nearby and to play alongside their children. So the evidence from Alpha Research’s study indicates a mindset shift in a positive direction among locals. Even though their attitude has changed somewhat and they stopped protesting and showed that they support adequate conditions for children and youngsters in foster care, they still see them as different.
The examples vary from downright rejection to misunderstanding that manifests as gestures out of pity
One of the examples in Alpha Research’s study is of a child who invites all of his classmates to a birthday party except for one classmate – the one who lives in a residential home. Another example is of a child from a residential home becoming the first suspect after a theft among classmates. In the second instance the child turned to home schooling because of what happened. At the same time people who seem eager to help the children and youngsters deprived of parental care see donating clothes, toys and food during public holidays as the only way to help. But children need more than that, they have been receiving material help while they were raised in foster institutions too. It did not help them feel more secure, loved, and assured. It simply confused them even more, because strangers constantly wanted to meet them, to come in the residential home and to see smiles on their faces, but once holidays were over they never saw them until the next holiday. It is confusing for the children and it is high time to reconsider this type of help.
Feeling genuinely cared for and feeling included in their school and city communities are two of the children and youngster’s basic needs
Carers and social workers in the residential homes provide support and care and so they need decent working conditions, support, guidance, and training to enable them to create an environment similar to the one in a family home, to take a good care of the children and to connect with them in a trustful and lasting way. The carers need to possess a specific skill set, because in residential homes they come across children with really challenging behaviours for whom there is no other option, i.e. children with severe and complex disorders or children who have experienced repetitive abandonment and violence and the emotional trauma that comes with it. So a lot is expected of the teams whilst the conditions they have to work in are very far from corresponding to the demands. For instance, the salary is either minimal or close to minimal and there are no opportunities for development. Low payment rates are demotivating and compared to other fields such as education they are not going up. As a consequence, turnovers are common and children have to experience constant separation with staff. It is high time to standardise payment rates for social workers and carers in order to ensure better funding for the residential children homes. This could help attract qualified and motivated candidates and allow hiring enough people to provide individual care for every child. At the moment it is common for a single carer to support about twelve children per shift, which is unrealistic given the complexity of each case. It is vital to provide opportunities for further development accordant with the specifications of children and youngster’s needs, i.e. supervision or professional team support. Because only truly motivated people could offer attention and make the children feel heard, seen, and understood even when they themselves are feeling lost.
We, the carers who have chosen to support the children in residential homes, often feel lonely. We work closely with them and as such we have a great responsibility for their wellbeing and development. We spend our days together and so we have become their families. However, society is equally responsible for helping children feel accepted and included in the social day-to-day life. Thus, people’s attitudes need to be changed.It is true that children in foster care show challenging behaviours, but this is mostly due to traumatic experiences they have gone through in their early years. It is equally important for them and for society that they are given an opportunity to mature, to form healthy relationships, and to become valuable members of our society one day. So if you are a parent have the talk with your child and while you are at the playground encourage them to get to know the children living in residential homes and to play with them. If you are not sure of how to do that, we invite you to seek guidance from the carers and social workers at the residential homes. They are the ones who know the children and youngsters best and will help you with inclusion and connection. If you are a teacher, create a culture of inclusivity and appreciation of differences in the classroom. Leading by example and showing the importance of connecting to others in contrast to rejecting them just because they are different and did not have the chance to grow up in a family.