An interview with Alexandrina Dimitrova – Executive Director of the Cedar Foundation on how the social services managed by the organization cope with the state of emergency and the physical isolation.
How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your work and what is happening to the children and young people living in your centers?
In the family-type centers, we had to put in place serious measures to maintain hygiene, ensure continuous disinfection, and secure protective masks and gloves. We took these measures even before the state of emergency was introduced in the country.
Many of the children and young people we care for have intellectual and physical disabilities, which puts them in danger. A large number of the staff at the centers is also in the high risk group. That is why we have limited the contacts with people outside the social services, and the children and young people can only go out in the yard of the respective center.
We face difficulties explaining to the children and young adults why they do not go to school or a day-care center, and why they cannot go for a walk or to the grocery store. Staying home often leads to behavioral crises. But our social workers and social therapists are constantly planning and implementing interesting activities, so for now, we keep the situation under control.
The specialists from our Social Rehabilitation and Integration Center work remotely with young people with intellectual disabilities and their families. All services and materials have been adapted so that the work can be done online. The feedback from the youth and their close ones is positive. Some of them say that their progress is even greater as they are excited about the opportunity to use new technologies.
What are the difficulties that the teams face and how is the work in your centers organized?
For our employees the main challenge is explaining to the children and young people why they cannot go outside the center and the yard, as well as coping with the crises that some of the children have because of the isolation. We are also concerned about their own safety, especially since some of them are at risk. For this reason, we have reorganized the shifts at the centers to make it easier for the teams, and to give them peace of mind as much as possible in the current situation. We provide them with additional incentives to the best of our ability, as well as continuous methodological and psychological support.
The costs for our residential social services are increasing as we need more food (the children and young people generally have lunch at school or at the day-care center Monday to Friday, while now they are home throughout the day), disinfectants, protective equipment, and thermometers.
The teams at the family-type centers cannot work from home because they take care of 70 children and young people around the clock. They are professionals who deal with severe crises on a daily basis even besides the situation with COVID-19. Currently, all the difficulties have multiplied and now, more than ever, we need to find a way to support the people who work directly with the children. They are our heroes.
Are there measures that the state can take to ease your work and address specific problems?
The main problem we face is the lack of guidance on what to do in case of an infected child/youth or employee, in any of the residential services. The way the services are organized and operated, and the number of rooms do not allow for isolation and quarantine.
We believe that quarantining the whole family-type center would be inappropriate because of the vulnerability of the children and youth accommodated there, and the inability of an employee to care for them around the clock during the 14 to 28-day quarantine.
We believe that in such a doubt, the child/youth or employee concerned should have the right to immediate testing. In case of a positive test, the employee should be quarantined at home and the child/youth at a hospital or at a non-working social building in the community. Guidance from the Agency for Social Assistance is needed in this regard.
Another problem of which we have been giving a warning for years, and is now coming back with particular urgency, is the obligation for a companion from our team when a child/young adult is admitted to hospital. We already had a case during the state of emergency, and a member of our staff had to accompany a young person to the infectious ward. This is extremely risky and does not fall within the responsibilities of our employees. Besides, government funding is not covering the costs of such overtime.
What external support do the teams receive and are there any problems that hinder your work?
We have received help from some community based social services. Their staff supports the work of our teams at the centers. Our teams are in contact with the doctors of our children and young people who provide telephone assistance. We also have support from our long-term donors.
We are experiencing difficulties with some new donors, so we urge anyone who wishes to help to first contact the charity they have chosen. The givers need to understand what the organization needs the most right now, and how to best organize the delivery of the donation so that everyone is safe.
What are the worrying trends arising from the current state of emergency?
The care we provide in our centers is directly linked to our ability to raise at least BGN 600,000 a year. Unfortunately, despite the great efforts we are currently making, many fundraising projects and events have been cancelled.
We hope that everything will quickly go back to normal because the needs of the young people and children at risk are daily and continuous. We are aware of the difficulties that most sectors are experiencing, and that everyone is currently mobilized to invest in the fight against coronavirus. We are concerned that donations will be affected in the long run because people and businesses will be unstable or will suffer financial losses.
For years, we have been paying attention to the low salaries in the social sphere, especially given the workload of the professionals in this field and the responsibility they carry. In the current situation, they face even greater difficulties and still do not receive the salaries they deserve.