Thousands of children in Bulgaria continue to live in large-scale institutions and transition to family-based care remains one of the key social challenges in the country.

Social policy reform in Bulgaria dates back to 1998 with the adoption of the Social Assistance Act and linked the process of decentralisation to deinstitutionalisation. A national Agency for Child Protection was established and a network of regional authorities created. However, between 2000 and 2009 Bulgaria witnessed a process of re-institutionalisation after which the Ministry for Social Affairs changed their approach.

The Ministry undertook an analysis of the closure of specialist institutions and developed alternatives to support families and prevent them from abandoning their children. It created an expert group at the national level made up of representatives from national agencies, the ministry and local authorities.

A national strategy was also designed with the following 5 main pillars:

  1. Children with disabilities: 1797 cases have been evaluated and various community services to replace them identified. A main objective has been re-integration – to overcome the myth that parents do not want to be in touch with their children. Over 100 families have expressed interest.
  2. Development of foster care: the main aim of this pillar has been to overcome the idea that parents could not care for children who were not their own. The Ministry has 81 partner regions across the country and in only one month (May 2012) 152 new applications have been received.
  3. Regional planning: an analysis of whether local authorities are prepared for change and how to help them.
  4. Homes for medical and social care for children: 8 pilot projects to reform these homes, 3 institutions for children under 3 years have been closed.
  5. Improve child’s protection: improve the administrative capacity of the child protection agency to coordinate the various pillars.

Since 2009, the number of institutionalised children has been reduced by 2000, but there are still more than 100 institutions across the country. A particular challenge is the placement of children under the age of 3 into residential care. To address this problem, the Bulgarian government with the support of UNICEF recently organised a ministerial conference as part of the follow up to the UNICEF/OHCHR campaign 'End placing children under three years in institutions', which was launched in the European Parliament in June 2011. Other challenges that have been identified are: a sufficient number of children social workers, having a decent pay, integrating the child rights approach, the assessment of the situation of children with disabilities, and a larger focus on prevention and integrative services.

As part of our work on children and families, the European Social Network (ESN) has emphasised that governments should make an explicit commitment to prevent institutionalisation and develop alternatives for children currently living in institutions, such as foster families and alternative home-like environments. In their set of indicators, they ought to incorporate the situation of these children who have been notably invisible to statistics.