Children’s rights are human rights.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
is the primary international agreement regulating children’s rights. International law requires that children be treated equally, with respect and dignity
. Children’s rights include the right to life, health, education, expression, personal and family life, play and rest, a decent standard of life, and protection from abuse. All children’s rights are based on four main principles: nondiscrimination, children’s participation, a safe and healthy environment, and the best interest of the child.
Over the last 10 years Bulgaria's level of child poverty remains one of the highest in the EU. Between 35 and 40% of children in Bulgaria live in "pockets of poverty", and for Roma children in Bulgaria the percentage is almost twice as high: 60% are raised in poor living conditions and 80% are at risk of finding themselves in abject poverty.
Deinstitutionalizing children’s homes in Bulgaria—that is, removing children from mass institutions and transferring them to family-style accommodations—is a project that is slated for completion by 2025, when all 137 children’s homes in the country are intended to close and be replaced with alternative services. The Social Services Act, which took effect on January 1, 2020, is the first law in Bulgaria to set deadlines for the closure of children’s institutions. As of early 2022, 215 young children continue to live in institutions. There is neither legislation nor practice that forbids babies and children under three years old to be placed in residential care.
Reform for the deinstitutionalization of childcare in Bulgaria has reduced the number of specialized children’s institutions by over 97%. By 2021, 133 specialized institutions were closed out of the 137 institutions operating in 2010. As of December 31, 2021, four HMSCCs are still operating, according to data from the Ministry of Health from January 10, 2022. The number of children in institutions has also been reduced by 97%--from 7,587 children in 2010 to 215 children as of October 31, 2021. From 2013 to 2020, a total of 6,144 children were reintegrated into their biological families, 8,380 are in foster families, 6,983 were taken in by close relatives, and 4,015 were adopted, according to data from the State Agency for Child Protection’s “White Book,” from June 2021. Nevertheless, the number of children that do not living with their biological families and instead reside in formal care has remained relatively high over the years. As of November 2021, they are above nine thousand, with 3,848 residing with service providers (3,633 in the community, 215 in institutions). Each year, approximately 2,000 children in Bulgaria are abandoned by their parents, according to data from Coalition “Childhood 2025.” The state has no monitoring system with a single database for child protection.
In 2019, after a public attack, the then government withdrew the Strategy for the Child
, and since then our country has not had a strategic document that sets the direction of development of children policies. The lack of political interest in children's rights has led to a worsening of the situation of children in Bulgaria, with particular gravity for children from vulnerable communities - with a high risk of poverty, ethnic minorities, refugees.
BHC places a special focus on protecting children’s rights, especially for children living outside their biological families—those placed in various institutions in the criminal justice system, the social care system and the system for combating antisocial behavior, specialized health care institutions, as well as institutions for those seeking asylum and protection. During its visits to children’s institutions and service providers, our organization investigations the following as part of its monitoring efforts: accommodation, judicial review and access to legal aid, abuse, living conditions, access to medical services, access to education, disciplinary practices, contact with the outside world, resocialization, and reintegration.
Deinstitutionalizing childcare in Bulgaria has been a focus of our efforts for more than ten years
, since the beginning of the childcare reform that was introduced as part of the national strategy “Vision for Deinstitutionalization of Children in Bulgaria”
and its respective Action Plan, adopted in 2010.
From 2000 to 2002, BHC conducted the country’s first comprehensive monitoring of Homes for Medical and Social Care for Children (HMSCC), homes for children with mental disabilities, homes for children deprived of parental care, social pedagogical boarding schools, and all auxiliary schools for children with intellectual impairments and various disabilities. BHC continues to periodically visit children’s institutions and service providers. In 2014, the Ministry of Health refused to sign an agreement with BHC and since then the organization cannot access homes for babies and children under seven years old.
In 2010, following a joint inspection with the prosecutor’s office, BHC uncovered 238 deaths in homes for children with intellectual disabilities that had occurred over the course of ten years
—from 2000 to 2010. All resulted from criminal negligence. Investigations into the deaths did not produce any results and not a single indictment has been brought to court.
The organization contributed significantly to the BBC's revelations about the inhumane conditions in one of the homes for children with disabilities in our country - the one in the village of Mogilino
. BHC continues to periodically visit services and institutions for children. In 2016, the Ministry of Health refused to conclude an agreement with the BHC, and since then the organization has not had access to the homes for babies and children up to 7 years old.
One of the highlights of the 2021 European Union Strategy for the Rights of the Child (2021-2024) is juvenile justice. Reform of the juvenile justice system is another domain that BHC prioritizes in its monitoring and analysis.
In 2015, BHC, the National Network for Children, and the Social Activities and Practice Institute launched the campaign “Childhood Without Bars,”
which aims to completely reform the juvenile justice system. The initiative emerged in response to frequent criticisms from international organizations that the justice system is ineffective in its protection of children’s rights. In Bulgaria, a sixty-year-old law known as the Law to Fight Against Antisocial Behaviors of Minors is still in effect. Although the Concept Framework for State Policy in the Realm of Juvenile Justice made a commitment back in 2011 to reform the juvenile justice system and received a road map from the state in 2013 for its implementation, juvenile justice is still not a priority in policies for children in Bulgaria.
As of December 31, 2021, there are nineteen minors, aged between 14 and 18, deprived of liberty under the Execution of Punishments and Pre-Trial Detention Act. Three correctional institutions for minors continue to operate in 2021. As of December 31, 2021, a total of 98 minors are residing in correctional boarding schools as a result of the Law to Fight Against Antisocial Behaviors of Minors.
BHC also advocates for the creation of a “children’s ombudsman” institution, compliance with child-friendly hearing procedures, consideration of the child’s opinion in every decision that concerns their interests or rights, the guarantee of equal access to a decent education, healthcare, and social assistance for all vulnerable groups of children.
BHC also leads strategic litigation with the goal of affirming and defending the rights of children in Bulgaria.
In the beginning of October 2012, BHC worked with the organization “DEBRA Bulgaria” and the Center for Protection of Rights in Healthcare to launch the campaign “Save the Butterfly Children”
and requested to have epidermolysis bullosa immediately added to the list of diseases whose home treatment is covered by the National Health Insurance Fund. In February 2013, the disease was added by the Ministry of Health with Ordinance 38.
In the middle of the same year, our organization launched the campaign “Our Children Are Not Biological Waste.”
The campaign was created in response to the fact that approximately 600 stillborn babies are born in Bulgaria every year. Before this campaign, parents did not have the right to bury their stillborn children, since these babies were treated as “biological waste.” BHC and the “Poppies for Mary” Foundation prepared and—with the support of twelve other organizations—submitted for review several changes to the ordinance that regulates the health requirements for cemeteries, burials, and the transportation of the deceased; these changes allowed parents to bury their children and took effect in 2015.