Bulgaria’s Health Ministry has announced it is starting to gradually close orphanages for children below three years of age.
According to the ministry, all the children from the orphanages have to be returned to their biological parents or given for foster care in the next 15 years.
The first nine orphanages for children below three years of age will be closed in the next five years. The financing, which is expected to be more than BGN 26 M, will be provided under the operation programs “Regional Development” and “Human Resources Development.”
The process of shutting down such institutions is part of the “Vision for deinstitutionalization of children in Bulgaria.”
The number of institutions for children below three years of age is 32. They have accommodated 2,334 children and only 0,7% of them are orphans.
According to the Health Ministry, the most common reasons why parent abandon their children are social-economic problems, lack of skills or capacity for raising children, health problems, family violence, unwanted or premature birth.
Analyses, however, show that appropriate policy could allow children to be returned to their families or could prevent their abandonment in the first place.
However, the opportunities for every child depend on the specific circumstances.
Data from the ministry shows that a total of 1,260 children from the 32 orphanages are not disabled and at least half of them could be returned to their biological families. The rest could be adopted or accommodated with foster parents.
At present, there are more than 475 foster families in Bulgaria, which have accommodated more than 417 children. Last year, 800 children were adopted. The rest 1,074 children that are left in the institutions have disabilities or chronic illnesses.
Without question, this initiative is a promising start to child welfare reform in Bulgaria, but the proof will be in the execution. I've posted before about the appalling conditions for vulnerable children in Bulgaria. Three years ago, documentary filmmaker Kate Blewett took her cameras inside a Bulgarian orphanage for the disabled. The resulting film, Bulgaria's Abandoned Children, sparked an international outcry that echoed the dramatic response to Blewett's best known work, The Dying Rooms, the award-winning expose about shocking conditions inside China's neglectful institutions for children. Ultimately, the Bulgarian government was shamed into improving conditions inside its orphanages for disabled and mentally challenged children. It's likely that international pressure is prompting this latest development as well. Though this new plan promises support to help keep original families of healthy children intact, the plan doesn't extend to support for families of disabled children, so clearly, the marginalization of these children continues.
Bulgaria's new plan favors foster care, and while quality foster care offers children a better start than orphanage life, high quality foster care is rare. As Suffolk Law Professor Sara Dillon has pointed out on her blog:
In the US, statistics indicate that 70-80% of prison inmates are former foster children….The problem of uneven quality, rotating placements, vulnerability to further abuse and neglect–these are endemic to foster care systems….
It is foster care that should be used sparingly, selectively and only as an alternative to institutions….There is simply no comparison between adoption, domestic or international, and foster care….
I can only hope that the Bulgarian government will fully commit itself to promoting family support and reunification, then adoption, and then, quality foster care. Maybe officials there should check out this video for the Be the One child rights campaign here in the US, which features the adult perspectives of former foster children.