RI-ing DI[1]– this is how the process of deinstitutionalization (DI) in Bulgaria could be briefly described despite the token consensus around the need to take children and young adults (including those with physical and mental disabilities) out of the large institutions and to place them in foster care, protected dwellings, small group homes (SMG) and residential family-type settings.

‘I felt better in the large institution. When they got me here, I couldn’t stop crying for a week’, says a young woman living for the last couple of years in a brand new SMG. Another client of the SMG ‘service’ shares: ‘I miss the social institution. If I could choose I would have stayed there and never moved here.’ Still another inhabitant wondered: ‘The furniture is new, everything is brand new and clean, but it was better before… I don’t know why, I had everything there… More people around.’ The young lady quickly finds an explanation: ‘…it was better in the previous place because each room had a bathroom. Here we have two toilets altogether, one of which is for the staff only. When someone gets into the other one, you must wait. We are ten people for God’s sake…’ Her room-mate disagrees: ‘…the building is OK but the relationships are lousy… I mean between us and the staff.’ This conversation goes on and on…[2] It seems though that developers benefit a lot from the DI policy as implemented: ‘Look, I’m not greedy – my net profit is about 40 to 50% of the project value. I know however – from friends in the business whom I know personally – that the net profit – after all costs and bribes are being paid – is somewhere around 70%…’, an entrepreneur confesses. ‘There is a lot of construction business in this, meaning there is a lot of money and interests… If there were no building projects nothing would have happened’, concludes the businessman. Observers are definite when saying that there are powerful vested interests in the process: ‘…business and charities are so much interwoven… a lot of purely commercial entities working for profit pretend to be charities or social service providers in order to avoid the market competition…’ Helping professionals admit honestly that ‘nothing is changed when children are moved from a large building to a smaller one’.

Politicians and policy makers demonstrate determination and strong will, which got translated into a new legal framework and allocation of substantial resources from three operational programmes – European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), European Social Fund (ESF) and Rural Development Programme. Nevertheless, the process of DI cannot take off and get detached from the powerful forces of the sustainably reproduced practices of institutionalisation. Thus, comfortably camouflaged as DI, behind the backs of the European observes and beyond the scope of media interest numerous clonings of re-institutionalisation (RI) models occur and melt the fragile chances of children and young adults from institutions to enjoy socialisation, fulfilling life in the community and participation as equal citizens. These trends however cannot remain unnoticed by public servants, experts and human rights advocates, some professional and academic circles, who are engaged with and committed to the subject. Their substantiated critique is often perceived by public at large as ‘betrayal of children’ or ‘protection of narrow corporate interests’. It seems that the DI policies of the moment bring most benefits to…. developers who have a chance to absorb BGN 100 mln for construction of ‘protected houses’, ‘transition houses’,  ‘family-type accommodation centres’ and other ‘services in the community’ regulated by the Social Welfare Act.

The whole process started in 2007 only after the BBC documentary Abandoned Children of Bulgaria. In 2008 the Parliament adopted a National Child Welfare Strategy for the period 2008-2018. One of its major goals is to ensure the right of every child to live and grow in family environment. Priority areas in the Strategy are defined as: ‘alleviation of child poverty’ and ‘social inclusion of the children’. In 2010 the Council of Ministers passed another, new strategy named ‘Vision for Deinstitutionalisation of Children in Republic of Bulgaria’. This policy document declares commitment to ‘policies in the best interest of the child’, ‘support for families’ and ‘creating conditions for the development of the child’ and ‘reaching his/her full potential’ (whatever it means!).

In operational terms DI policies are implemented through the provisions of the Social Welfare Act (SWA)[3] and its by-laws[4] which define the menu of social services in residential settings and in the community that Bulgarian citizen are eligible for after an assessment of their individual needs. The list of community-based services includes: personal assistant (never offered on regular basis), social assistant, home attendant, home service, day-care centre, centre for social rehabilitation and integration. Centres for temporary placement, transition house, protected house and monitored house are in the category of ‘residential services provided in the community’. It is like saying that a hospital is a ‘service’ and not a ‘health care institution’ offering many services. Management guidelines for these services are developed in a series of ‘methodologies’ – differences are hardly detectable, except for the name, number and qualification of the staff and the budget allocated for each ‘service’.[5] Similarities though are obvious: they offer institutional type of placements for people with impairments.

Resources from three operational programmes have been pulled into the process of DI with setting up Family-type Accommodation Centres (FAC) being a priority followed by protected, monitored and other type of houses, all being similar and representing the generic form of small group homes (SMG) defined as ‘facilities for community based services’. ESF funding under Social Services for Social Inclusion (BG051PO001-5.2.06) worth BGN 23 015 000 (€12 mln.) is meant for ‘soft measures’ in community-based services, which boil down to institutional care within the urban areas of the cities. The same happens under the call for proposals BG161PO001/1.1.12/2011, named ”Support for DI of Social Institutions for Children at Risk” worth BGN 32 211 376,85 (€16.5 mln) of which BGN 27 379 670 come from the European Regional Development Fund  (85%). Family-type Accommodation Centres (FAC) and protected houses – both institutional settings for ‘community based services’ – are set up under the Rural Development Programme which got opened for 19 specific municipalities with funding worth almost €9 mln. On the 2nd November 2012 another call for proposals was announced under the Human Resource Development Programme – BG051PO001-5.2.13 – Living in the Community with a total value of BGN 30 mln. (15 mln.) of which ESF contribution amounts to approximately €13 mln (85%). Beneficiaries of the funding are municipalities running residential services in the community such as monitored housing, protected housing, FAC, day-care centres, centres for social rehabilitation and integration.

„Community services are government delegated activities funded by the national budget: a client at FAC is paid to the service provider BGN 7 255 (€3.600) a year. This price at the monitored house is BGN 5.042 (€2.600) per year, a client placed in a protected house gives the provider BGN 5.896 (€2.900) per year, those who run a centre for social rehabilitation and integration receive BGN 2 328 (€1.100), whereas a day-care centre for disabled adults contributes to the service providers’ budgets BGN 5.244 (€ 2.600) per year. Individual users’ fees established by law depending on the monthly income[6] add up to the public funding. „Most of the money goes for salaries of the staff at the service”, a deputy mayor of a municipality running community services admits.

It would be fair to conclude that EVERYBODY IS HAPPY with the current DI policies because contractors make money, local authorities attract investments, former institutions’ staff keep their jobs and work in newer facilities with less residents, service providers are in the business, national government reports results in the process of DI and in the absorption of EU funds. EXCEPT FOR… THE DISABLED PEOPLE AND THE CHILDREN, WHOSE VOICES ARE NEVER HEARD.


[1]Reinstitutionalising Deinstitutionalisation
[2] The case study held in a SMG results included in-depth interviews with 4 young disabled adults from the SGH, the staff of the facility, 4 NGO experts, one developer, a private company consultant, a construction worker, deputy mayor and a social worker.