Despite government and public efforts, thousands of children continue to live in so-called "homes" across the region.
By Tzvetina Borisova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 11/02/13
Countries across the Balkans are making slow progress in the effort to close state-run homes and transition orphaned children into foster care. [AFP]
Countries across the Balkans have tried for years to close down institutions for children without parental care, known locally as "homes."
Despite widely promoted public and government support, however, the process has been slow and thousands of children remain stuck in the system.
Official statistics suggest there are more than 5,000 children deprived of parental care in Bulgaria and 9,000 in Romania. There is no official data for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), but estimates put the number between 2,000 and 4,000. In Serbia there are around 1,000.
In a bid to deal permanently with the problem, Bulgaria adopted a national strategy in 2010 to close all 137 of its specialised institutions within a 15-year period.
"As part of this project, a total of 17 specialised institutions have been closed down so far," the Social Support Agency told SETimes in a written statement. Romania has vowed to deal with the problem by 2020, and similar programmes exist in the other countries in the region.
All plans envision replacing institutionalised care, often associated with neglect and insufficient care, with smaller group houses or foster care.
Many experts attest to the benefits of foster care, and research suggests children from institutions, who are often developmentally delayed, catch up quickly with their counterparts when placed in a family environment.
"Foster care, when it is implemented appropriately and respectively subjected to adequate monitoring, allows much more individual and effective care for the children in an actual family environment," Lindsay Saltsgiver, programme manager of the Cedar Foundation, which works on closing down institutions in Bulgaria, told SETimes.
Alexander Milanov, member of the managing board of the Association of Foster Parents in Bulgaria, said transitioning children into foster care has proven challenging.
"Despite all efforts, we have noticed that the state is not diligent enough in its efforts to support foster parents," he said. "The main reason is that we are talking here about human relationships. They are not a matter of administrative regulations."
Foster parents in Bulgaria and across the region receive modest payment from the state. In most places it is recognised as a contracted job. The payments in Bulgaria are only marginally higher than the minimum wage.
"Most of the people become foster parents because of the experience to be parents," Milanov said. "We don't accept speculations that they are doing it for money. More and more people begin to care about the way institutions harm children and this impacts their decision to help."
Iglika Vasileva is one of those people. Her motive to take care of two children has to do with her past. She and her husband have spent time in state-operated homes and she knows from her own experience the consequences it has on a person's life.
"The process of approving our candidature was too long -- officially it is four months, but it took us eight to nine months. I think it could all be done in a month and this would benefit both the foster parents and the children," she told SETimes.
Statistics show there are 300 families waiting to become foster parents in the country, and hundreds of children waiting to leave the institutions.