Celebrating 15 years of deinstitutionalisation in Bulgaria




Oak Foundation’s partner Roditeli  Association has been working in  collaboration with Bulgarian not-for-profit organisations to promote  positive models of male caregiving in parenting. This work is built on the MenCare campaign, which works to inspire men, their families and their communities to support men’s  caregiving in the protection of children against abuse, including sexual abuse.


Virginia Ruan, head of communications for Oak Foundation and David Kiuranov, project coordinator for the Roditeli  Association interviewed the children in the photos in this section of the Annual Report. The children and their fathers had participated in a Father’s Week Programme at their school, organised by the Roditeli Association. For the photo shoot, the children shared an object that represented what family meant to them. You can read about their objects in the photo slide show.

The Berlin wall fell in 1989. This historical moment marked the end of the Soviet Union and the communist era, and the beginning of a largescale move towards a capitalist system in Bulgaria and elsewhere. The transition to a market economy meant widespread disruption to daily life. Changes took place on all levels of society and they deeply affected everyone across the eastern bloc. People struggled to manage financially and poverty was commonplace.


 The ramifications of these changes are still felt to this day in various ways, and their impact will probably live on forever in people’s memories. For instance, many will recall harrowing images of children in institutional care in Eastern Europe during the 1990s and at the beginning of this century. Often, institutions were the only social safety net available for families who were struggling to provide for their children.


“Sadly, it was often the children who bore the worst consequences of the transition. Many were sent into those institutions – some were even abandoned by their parents.”

-Tanya Kovacheva, Programme Officer, Child Abuse Programme, Bulgaria


Studies have shown that institutional care has a negative impact on the wellbeing of children. “There is a wealth of evidence that shows that children suffer tremendously – developmentally, cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally growing up in these soulless facilities,” says Delia Pop, director of programmes and global advocacy for Hope and Homes for Children.


As awareness of what was happening to children in institutions grew, many people across Eastern and Western Europe tried to help. Parents reached out offering to adopt children into their own families to give them a better chance in life. In addition, donors began funding work, in particular in Romania, at first to improve the institutions and eventually to empty them and close them down.


At the end of 2001, there were 12,609 children living in 165 institutions in Bulgaria. Although work to support children in institutions was well underway in Romania and other parts of Eastern Europe, the problem had not yet been addressed in Bulgaria.

There were vested interests in keeping the institutions going – they were sources of employment at a time when jobs were scarce, and they provided some sort of a solution for families in difficult circumstances. There were also very few organisations with experience in transforming the child welfare system, including promoting familybased care over outdated institutions.


In short, they were seen as a way of life. For these and other reasons, there were few funders supporting deinstitutionalisation initiatives in Bulgaria.


In addition, it is well known in the child abuse sector that children living in and transitioning out of care are more at risk of child sexual abuse and exploitation. It was essentially this that pushed Oak to begin funding this issue. In 2001, Florence Bruce was the director of Oak’s Child Abuse Programme. “It used to be said that if you can work in Bulgaria, you can work anywhere,” she said. “It was really tough ground. So, Oak took up this challenge.”


The Child Abuse Programme team began investigating how Oak could best reach out and support as many children in institutions as possible. Florence and the team visited Bulgaria in 2001, looking to find people working in the child sector who Oak could partner with. “At first, we couldn’t get into the institutions of course,” said  Florence. “But some Bulgarian not-for-profit organisations finally managed to get us into one. Then, we saw it for ourselves – these large soulless institutions for children were indeed wastelands – there were no gardens, no beauty, no flowers, nothing. It was terrible for the children growing up in them.” That same year, Oak started supporting projects in Bulgaria. In 2002, grant- making developed to support small scale projects that included: child helplines at local levels; prevention work in schools and communities; and work with street children. At the time there was a state-wide dependency on institutions – it seemed impossible to close them down. Nevertheless, the work gained  momentum. People, organisations

and donors joined efforts.


Oak’s portfolio gradually grew to include:

  • the establishment of a new child rights network, the National Network for Children, which acted as an advocate for change;
  • the closing of institutions for infants through Hope and Homes for Children and For Our Children Foundation;
  • the creation of a Learning Action Partnership – which promoted and coordinated evidence-based practice and policy to reduce child sexual exploitation and ensure safe transitions for children from care to life in the community;
  • the setting up of the Know-How Centre on Alternative Care for Children within the New Bulgarian University to support the Bulgarian Government to take informed decisions for replacing institutional care with community-based services and families; and
  • research on violence in institutions and the impact of institutional care on children’s vulnerability to abuse, specifically sexual abuse.


The work of Oak’s partners in Bulgaria has born rich fruit. Perhaps the greatest reward for their various efforts came in 2010, when the Bulgarian Government announced it would close down all institutions by 2025. The Government is currently on track to achieving this goal – in December 2016, there were only 1,059 children in institutional care in the country, a huge drop from the figure of 12,609 some 15 years earlier.3 Many children have returned to their families or have been placed in foster care.


Today, Oak is celebrating more than 15 years of supporting partners in Bulgaria and the huge successes that have been achieved. Our partners have played an instrumental role in: transforming social work practice; strengthening support to children and families; preventing all forms of violence against children;  building and translating evidence into action; and building the capacity of  partners and networks.

“Every child deserves to grow up in a loving home,” says CAP director Brigette De Lay. “Fifteen years after our first grant in Bulgaria, we know that  thousands of children have been, and will be, spared the harm of institutional care. We know this is the result of the tireless leadership and determination of our partners. We feel privileged to have been part of their efforts through our grant-making.”


Photographs © Virginia Ruan / Oak Foundation





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