Are the interests of the Bulgarian children protected in the 2010 budget?

| Slavka Kukova,

On December 11, 2009 the government held a meeting with 23 non-governmental organizations working in the field of child protection. The purpose of the meeting was “to elaborate a vision on the deinstitutionalization of children in Bulgaria”. The “vision” was to serve as a basis for the formulation of a plan featuring specific steps towards taking children out of the institutions, starting with the institutions for children with disabilities and the institutions for children aged 0 to 3, who are most vulnerable and victims of social isolation. The vision and the plan are still under discussion and all this would have given grounds for optimism if we hadn’t looked into the financial parameters of the probable reform. We leave aside the funding sources listed in the “vision” – EU operational programs and funds. I was more interested in seeing whether some of the viewpoints embraced by the new government have been reflected in the budgets and the standards adopted by the same government.

A cursory look by a finance layperson into the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy’s 2010 budget reveals that the funding of direct payments under programs concerning the children in Bulgaria has been reduced by some BGN 54 400 000 compared to 2009.

In 2009, the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, through Program 6 “Child protection through a transition from institutional care towards alternative care in a family environment”, has paid BGN 6 000 000 as assistance and compensations under the Child Protection Act; for 2010, the amount is BGN 7 400 000. Under Program 9 “Assistance to families with children”, the total amount of the monthly allowances for children until high school graduation, as provided by the Family Allowances for Children Act, was BGN 411 461 600 in 2009. In 2010, it’s planned to amount to BGN 282 254 567 or approximately BGN 130 000 000 less. In 2009, the monthly allowances for families with children under one amounted to BGN 32 884 000; in 2010 they will total BGN 20 385 000, a reduction of about BGN 13 000 000. Under Program 10 “Integration of people with disabilities” the monthly allowances for children under the Integration of People with Disabilities Act totaled BGN 40 320 000; in 2010 they will amount to BGN 27 397 440, a reduction by some BGN 13 000 000. The fact that the funds under the latter two programs have been reduced by one-third seems most worrying to me. It is worrying because the children are most vulnerable before they are one year old. During that particular year both the children and their parents need greatest support. Also, the children with disabilities, many of whom are socially, educationally and civilly excluded, will be additionally deprived by the restrictions in the 2010 budget. So far we’re only talking about children who live with their parents and families and won’t be sufficiently supported by the state in the future.

On this financial background, however, in a decision of December 8, 2009 the Council of Ministers has established interesting and largely unjustified financial standards for the delegation of state activities funded by the municipal budgets. It’s well-known that the standards are set since 2003 in order to provide state funding for the functioning of certain social services and educational, health and cultural institutions through the municipal budgets. In 2008 and 2009, some standards for institutions for children, special schools and community social services for children were dramatically raised. The schools for children with impaired vision are a good example. There, the state used to pay BGN 5 608 per student per annum in 2008, BGN 7 242 in 2009, and will pay BGN 7 256 in 2010. The juvenile reformatory boarding schools are another example. In 2008, the state paid BGN 6 998, in 2009 - BGN 8 837 and in 2010 - BGN 9 220. It should be noted that the latter is the greatest amount ever allocated for a standard since the standards were introduced! For the special boarding schools for children with mental disabilities aged 7 to 18, the standard was BGN 4 137 in 2008, BGN 5 353 in 2009, and was increased to BGN 6 116 per child in 2010. For the institutions for children aged 7 to 18 and deprived of parental care, where most of the children live, the standard was BGN 3 947 in 2008, BGN 6 710 in 2009 and BGN 6 106 in 2010.

The first impression is that the financial standards for all institutions that provide a boarding house have been seriously increased. This is probably done in order to maintain the facilities or to provide an opportunity for more dignified remuneration of staff. Experience shows that this doesn’t change the quality of the care and the attitude to the children. Which is exactly why the idea to close, albeit gradually, the childcare institutions in the country and to redirect the funding towards the provision of family care, close to family care or at least community care for such children, was firmly embraced. Despite the dialogue between the government and the non-governmental organizations and the agreement that institutional care results in negative consequences only, we are once again witnessing financial incentives for the institutional model.

The second impression is that the financial standards have been increased the most for those institutions – boarding houses for children with antisocial behavior and schools for children with sensory disorders – in which there are generally less children. I really hope that this is an attempt to deinstitutionalize the children and reintegrate them in mainstream education. This would explain the greater needs of funding for more specialists, individual approach, and a solution for every child consistent with his best interests. However, so far the official policies that provide the foundation for these financial standards have not been made public, and there is no guarantee that the increase is due to an attempt at closing the institutions. This leaves the assumption that some institutions probably have a stronger lobby than others. And all this against the background of general talks about deinstitutionalization policy.

The last but most important impression is that once again there are no criteria justifying why a student with an impaired vision costs more that a student with a mental disability, why a child who has committed a crime is more expensive than a child living in a social institution, etc. I’m far from even thinking that there is room for comparison between children with different needs and equal rights with regard to the funding allocated for them. It’s just that I, like many other parents, specialists and administrators, am trying to understand the rules, the logic and the policies behind the funding. As well as why the funding is defined before the policies are announced. I assume that a political framework was adopted first and the funding for its implementation was defined later. I may be wrong. Despite our questions, since 2003 no government has been able to provide convincing calculations based on the rights and the capabilities of the children and on the efforts of the system to respect and develop them. It was obvious that since the very beginning the standards were being established arbitrarily and unprofessionally, and the inertia in this respect is gaining momentum. Momentum of discrimination, social isolation and purposeful invalidity.