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Child protection - Bulgaria

Our enduring legacy in Bulgaria

Back in 2006, Bulgaria had the highest rate of child institutionalisation in Europe. 15,000 children lived in large-scale organisations, even though around 96% of them were estimated to have at least one living parent.

That year, we signed a partnership agreement with the Bulgarian government. We would start a deinstitutionalisation programme in Stara Zagora, home to the highest number of institutionalised children in the country - this would help children to find better, more appropriate homes, reuniting them with their families if possible. This was the first time the government had committed to closing an institution, and was a breakthrough for us and for the children of Bulgaria.

We had to change the system

We needed to change the culture of care. We had to:

  • Show that it was possible to close existing institutions, by arranging alternative care services for children
  • Strengthen prevention work, by coordinating child protection services so that fewer children were at risk of being institutionalised or abandoned
  • Find partners who could help us create lasting, meaningful change

The programme has transformed children’s lives

The programme has transformed the lives of children. It has allowed them to leave large, abusive institutions to live in families and high quality small group homes. The programme also stopped many children being abandoned, and showed - for the first time in Bulgaria - how to close institutions and modernise the child care system. 

We worked hard to create lasting change for children – we have:

  • Hosted closure events in the autumn of 2009 targeted at other NGOs, municipalities and government agencies
  • Prepared a series of guides – these cover foster care and small group home services, and how to stop children being abandoned. They also describe how to plan, monitor and evaluate deinstitutionalisation programmes
  • Prepared a series of short films about our work
  • Taken part in workshops jointly organised by the Bulgarian government and the European Commission to inform planned EC expenditure on deinstitutionalisation
  • Worked with the new government to help develop a strategic document on the importance of deinstitutionalisation
  • Provided input to a group developing guidance on how deinstitutionalisation should be managed at a national level.

Ark's model for foster care is now being rolled out by UNICEF across eight regions

In just three years, we:

  • Closed the Nadejda Home for Children Deprived of Parental Care, completing Bulgaria's first quality institution closure
  • Created a successful prevention of abandonment network, including ground-breaking work in Stara Zagora's Maternity Ward
  • Launched Bulgaria's first independent regional foster care service, together with local NGO Samariani
  • Provided a model for foster care which is now being rolled out by UNICEF across eight regions
  • Set up the first small group home service. This was handed over to the Municipality of Stara Zagora and being used as a model by the government

Although we wanted lasting change, we always intended to exit the project. Since we left:

  • A small group home service is managed by the municipality
  • A foster care team continues operating as part of a local NGO, and is helping to roll out the model nationally
  • The Child Protection Department is coordinating a prevention network