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Systemic childcare change in Bulgaria – celebrating 15 years

Prevent Child Sexual Abuse Programme / Partner story

Photo: © Virginia Ruan / Oak Foundation

In 1999, when Bulgaria was in transition from a centralised to a market economy, there were more than 30,000 children in institutional care in the country. Families who could not look after their children, either due to poverty or for other reasons, often felt that they had no other option but to resort to the only social safety nets in place at that time – institutional care. As a consequence, many thousands of children were abandoned.

“Times were very difficult for the whole nation,” said Tanya Kovacheva, programme officer for Oak’s Prevent Child Sexual Abuse Programme. “But it was the children who bore the worst consequences of this transition.”

Institutional care has a tremendously negative impact on the development of children. According to Delia Pop, director of programmes and global advocacy at Hope and Homes for Children, “there is a wealth of evidence that shows that children suffer developmentally, cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally when they grow up in these soulless facilities.”

In addition, children and young people living in institutional care are more at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. It was this increased risk of abuse that pushed Oak to begin funding around this issue. The Bulgarian Government announced its decision to start closing child institutions in 2010. The European Commission provided the funding for this huge undertaking and Oak redirected its funding towards supporting coordination between the different ministries working to facilitate this transition.

“As part of the (Prevent) Child (Sexual) Abuse Programme strategy, we aim to protect children from violence,” said Tanya. “Children in institutions are very vulnerable to all forms of violence, including sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. Therefore we decided to support partners to facilitate the move of children to other forms of care such as a return to their own families or to foster care. In addition we supported our partners to better prepare older children for independent life, and for integration into the community once they leave public care.”

To this end, Oak supported the following work in Bulgaria:

  • the establishment of a new child rights network, the National Network for Children, which acted as a strong advocate for change;
  • the closing of institutions for infants through Hope and Homes for Children and For Our Children Foundation;
  • the creation of a Learning Action Partnership – a mechanism to promote and generate coordinated, evidence-based practice and policy to reduce child sexual exploitation in Bulgaria and to ensure safe transitions for children from public care to life in the community;
  • the setting up of the Know-How Centre on Alternative Care for Children within the New Bulgarian University to support the Bulgarian Government to take informed decisions for replacing institutional care for children with community-based services and families; and
  • first-of-its-kind research on the issue of violence in institutions in Eastern Europe and the impact of institutional care on children’s vulnerability to abuse, specifically sexual abuse.

The work of Oak’s partners in the deinstitutionalisation of Bulgaria has born rich fruit. By December 2016, there were only 1,059 children in institutional care. Many of the children have returned to their families or have been placed in foster care. It is hoped that by 2025, all child institutions will be closed. Although challenges remain, thousands of children will be prevented from entering state care in the future thanks to: the permanent closure of 118 institutions; new gate-keeping policies and regulations in place; and the government’s focus on family-based care.

“This transformation of the childcare system was made possible because a lot of people, organisations and donors like Oak joined forces and started working together,” said Dani Koleva, policy director at the National Network for Children. “They joined efforts and understood the importance of supporting systemic change to transform the childcare system in Bulgaria. That meant working on improving legislation and with governments to manage this systemic change. Deinstitutionalisation is not only about closing institutions but it’s about creating opportunities and looking at the best interests of children, supporting them to be part of the community – resilient, visible and able to enjoy a normal life and a happy childhood.”

While our partners have made great achievements, work still remains to be done. The work of organisations such as the National Network for Children is still needed to continue amplifying the voices of children and young people without parental care. Remaining challenges include the need to: promote the adoption of a new Children’s Act; increase the sustainability of services to avoid children being re-institutionalised; and increase understanding among the public of the damaging effects of institutionalisation.

Oak feels privileged to be working with partners who have achieved so much. We congratulate you all on your great work!

Watch the video above featuring our Prevent Child Sexual Abuse Programme Officer Tanya Kovacheva, and two of our grantees working on childcare issues in Bulgaria – Dani Koleva, policy director at the National Network for Children and Delia Pop, director of programmes and global advocacy at Hope and Homes for Children.

This grant falls under Oak’s Prevent Child Sexual Abuse (PCSA) programme, and within that our strategic opportunity funding, which allows us to invest in legacy projects in areas of interest to the Trustees. 

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