The Roots of Foster Care in Bulgaria
In its essence, foster care is a protection measure for children deprived of parental care that gives them the chance to grow up in a family environment and develop as a person. In more practical terms, foster care stands for the temporary placement of the child with a family other than his/her biological parent and can be implemented with or without the birth parents’ consent.
Usually the children who qualify for this program are such who do not have someone to provide adequate care for them. The latter can result from several reasons including parents’ death, their parental rights fully or partially taken, and domestic abuse.
In Bulgaria foster care is a social service, part of the Department of Child Protection and Social Assistance Agency (SAA), with the aim of keeping children in a safe, supportive and stimulating family environment.
According to the SAA, there are four objectives of foster care as a social service and a measure of protection. The first is to ensure, for a certain period of time, a safe family environment for a child at risk that contributes to its full development. The second objective is prevention of institutionalization (sending children in institutions such as orphanages). The next is provision of support to biological parents in crisis situations. The final objective is preparing children placed in specialized institutions for reintegration into their biological family or adoption.
The role of foster care in Child Protection
In 2010, the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Bulgaria adopted a protocol for National Strategy “Vision for Deinstitutionalization of Children in the Republic of Bulgaria”. The goal of the protocol is replacing institutional care for children with care in a family or close to the family environment in the community.
The aim of this strategy was to ensure the child’s best interest in supporting families and to create the best conditions for children to develop and realize their full potential. According to the protocol, institutionalization violates the children’s rights guaranteed by The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and leads to the establishment of discriminatory patterns in education and access to quality care and services. In Bulgaria the care for the children in institutions lacks quality, and does not meet the basic needs of children, therefore negatively influences their development and behavior.
Mariya Portarska, a social worker from the Department of Child Protection in Blagoevgrad, said that the foster care in Bulgaria has a positive impact on the children accommodated in foster families.
“The healthy development of the children as individuals is much better when they are in a foster family because they live in a family-like environment and are surrounded by loving and caring people,” said Portarska.
Since the implementation of the National Strategy, the number of children placed in institutions has decreased from 7,587 children in 2009 to 1,495 children at the beginning of 2016, according to The Opening Doors for Europe’s Children campaign.
The development of the social service Foster Care
As of March 31, 2017, the number of SAA-approved and registered foster families was 2540, and the number of children accommodated was 602. Back in the first half of 2010, 78 foster families were approved and registered, and 110 children were accommodated in these families.
The Department of Child Protection was responsible for investigating the candidates for foster parents, their training, and approval for the foster care service. According to Portarska, when the foster parents are assigned to a child, the social workers have to do monthly checks in order to confirm that the child is receiving the proper care.
“We make sure that the child is being fed and dressed properly, we take in consideration how the child is feeling and if it has the needed-for-the-age toys and books,” she said.
Portarska accentuated that at the center of the foster care system is the child and its needs. The main reason for such a social service to exist is to give the children a better life and to ensure their normal development as individuals.
“Our main goal is to find families for the children, not children for the families,” she said.
The process of becoming a foster parent
The process of joining the foster care initiative starts with the family itself. This means that the family should be certain in its decision to take this step and contact the Child Protection Department.
Once contacted, the department’s officers provide more information and simultaneously start an investigation on the family to ensure their actual willingness and ability to be part of the program. Apart from needing willingness and ability, the participants should not be convicted and be involved with alcohol and drugs, and should agree to take part in a mandatory training.
Following the completion of the training the family needs to get approved by the social assistance directorate and, and if they are approved, they sign a work contract. Finally, the procedure concludes with the assignment of a child to the family.
Foster care can be voluntary and professional. The difference between the two is that in the first case families take care of the children for free by receiving only monthly funds for raising and educating them. The professional foster care is when people take care of children and receive monetary compensation.
Foster family in action
Juliya Mladenova, 49, a professional foster parent from Rudozem, Bulgaria, joined the social service in 2013 and since then has taken care of seven children ranging in age from infants to 3 years old. Mladenova is an accountant by profession, but a mother by heart, who raised her two daughters Radoslava and Maya who are now 29 and 27 years old. She has always loved taking care of children and wanted to contribute to the social service agenda by putting in use her experience in raising children.
“Being around children and help them grow into an individual always brought me delight. There is no greater joy for me to see how a little baby grows into a healthy person,” she said.
Mladenova was working together with the Social Care Department in Rudozem on a project when the social service Foster Care was first introduced seven years ago and she has been supporting it from the beginning. She and her husband, Valentin Mladenov, first became professional foster parents to newborn twin girls.
“It was unexpected — I got not one, but two babies. As a mother whose daughters were already adults, this was a bit of a challenge. However, I loved those baby girls as mine; I love all of the foster children as mine,” Mladenova said.
By her account the decision her family made back in 2013 was the right one and her family never regretted joining the initiative. Mladenova feels strong in her belief of continuing with her service until retirement.
Marina Georgieva is a journalism student at the American University in Bulgaria. She is a foster sister to three little boys and a baby girl.