|© UNICEF 2012/Bulgaria|
|UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Martin Mogwanja and Tanja Radocaj, UNICEF Representative in Bulgaria, visit an institution for children with disabilities in Sladuk Kladenetz, Bulgaria.|
By Jacklin Tzocheva
SOFIA, Bulgaria, 8 May 2012 – UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Martin Mogwanja visited children in institutional and residential care in Bulgaria, learning more about the needs of the most vulnerable children, challenges to providing them with suitable care, and efforts to improve the systems that support them.
Alternatives to institutional care
In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, children – particularly those with disabilities – are institutionalized at the highest rates in the world.
But institutions are poor environments for children, lacking the personal attention required to help them develop properly. Institutions are particularly damaging to the health of infants and young children, who may even develop disabilities due to lack of social and intellectual stimulation. And without proper care, these children are vulnerable to neglect and abuse.
Recent reforms, encouraged by UNICEF, are promoting healthier alternatives for these children, including foster care, guardianship arrangements and small group homes with family-like environments. UNICEF also advocates for increased support for families living in poverty or struggling to care for disabled children, which would allow children to remain at home.
During his visit, Mr. Mogwanja met with children and staff members at an institution for children with disabilities in Sladuk Kladenetz, a village in Stara Zagora Region. With him were Ivanka Sotirova, Deputy Mayor of Stara Zagora City, and Ivaylo Milanov, an expert with the State Agency for Child Protection.
“Despite the fact the conditions were not so bad, there was a lack of emotional engagement, and the staff cannot do much more than what they do in this type of institution," Mr. Mogwanja said. “Children should live with a family or, in that situation, be placed in foster care or raised in small family-type homes, where they will have access to medical services.”
|© UNICEF 2012/Bulgaria|
|UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Martin Mogwanja visits a community in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria.|
Fortunately, the institution is scheduled to be closed as part of a government deinstitutionalization programme, funded in part by the European Union. The institution’s residents will be placed in healthier alternative care arrangements.
Mr. Mogwanja also met with foster parents at the Regional Foster Care Centre, which is managed by the Samaritans Association and supported by UNICEF. The Centre provides information, assessment and training to potential foster parents. It also assists the matching process and supports families post-placement. The parents spoke about the challenges and rewards of caring for vulnerable children. They also spoke of the mental and physical benefits foster children experience compared to institutionalized children.
The following day, Mr. Mogwanja visited one of 10 small group homes for children with disabilities. The homes were built in Mogilino Village in 2010 through a joint UNICEF–government partnership, following the closure of the Mogilino institution.
Mr. Moganja also visited a Roma community known as ‘Lozenec’ in Stara Zagora City. He spoke with residents and children, and also met representatives from the ‘World Without Borders’ Foundation, a local NGO that has supported families in the neighborhood for more than eight years.
During the meeting, they spoke of major concerns facing children, including poverty, discrimination and lack of access to basic services. They also said that many girls and young women are involved in prostitution and trafficking and that Stara Zagora is among the regions with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, with some pregnant girls as young as 12.
In Sophia, Mr. Mogwanja met Minister of Labour and Social Policy Totyu Mladenov to discuss UNICEF’s priorities in Bulgaria and the government’s commitment to child rights. The Minister highlighted the partnership between the Ministry and UNICEF, noting the difference it has made in the lives of children and women.
“Our mission is to focus on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, and in this part of the world those are often children deprived of parental care, children with disabilities and children from very poor families,” Mr. Mogwanja said. “I was happy to learn that Bulgaria is making big steps towards improving systems to protect children and fulfilling their rights.”