Faced with the urgent problem of some 8,000 abandoned children, Bulgaria is desperately trying to modernise its network of dilapidated orphanages amid revelations of paedophilia and cruelty.
Deliberately built in isolated settings by the previous communist regime, its 144 state "homes for children deprived of parental care" have an odd formal purpose, given orphans account for just two percent of their population.
AdvertisementSocial affairs minister Emilia Maslarova explains that many are readily given up by their parents, but that these parents refuse to sign away parental rights which prevents the children from entering adoption programmes.
The depth of the sector's problems hit home earlier this month when an adolescent girl in an orphanage in the western town of Tran was killed, with another boy and girl injured by a man who subsequently committed suicide.
The killer, a 67-year-old paedophile with a rape conviction already on his record, apparently succumbed to jealous rage over special attention paid to the injured gypsy girl by a member of the orphanage's staff.
Meanwhile, in northwestern Bulgaria, three young girls at an orphanage in Berkovitsa told New Television station that three men paid them "to undress" and "to play doctors."
The centre's director acknowledged that "paedophiles have shown interest in the children."
At Plovdiv, in the south, several children were able to eat rat poison held within their dormitories, which they thought was candy.
And in Sofia, another young girl was injured when she fell from a window while trying to hang herself with an improvised cord made out of bed sheets.
According to the management of one orphanage, these incidents can be explained due to poor supervision as it is difficult to attract qualified staff with salaries of 170 euros (265 dollars) per month.
Prosecutors have launched investigations into the conditions at state orphanages in the country of 7.7 million inhabitants, still struggling to cope with the transition from a communist to a capitalist economy.
"Homes right across the country are in a deplorable state and incidents such as these can happen anywhere," Zoia Sokolova, director of Sofia orphanage 'Assen Zlatarov' told AFP.
This centre, held up as a model for the system, "barely keeps (its) head above water" and is also toiling with a dearth of qualified personnel.
Centralised efforts to move away from the cruel practice of isolating mentally handicapped or delinquent children have created a strain on resources which is proving very difficult to manage.
"Twenty percent of our children come from families with serious problems, 14 percent have been convicted of crimes and another eight percent have suffered from sexual violence," Sokolova added.
"People expect that our homes can produce miracles.... Without (proper) support from the authorities, it's an absurd expectation."
On the grounds of poor care, the government agency charged with protecting children's rights has recommended the closure of sites such as the one at Tran and a home for mentally handicapped children at Mogilinio, in the north.
But these orphanages continue to operate because their staff have jobs which cannot be given up.
"The homes produce marginals, outsiders," says Slavka Koukova of Bulgaria's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, part of an international network of independent, not-for-profit watchdogs which has been monitoring these homes for years.
"The problems within these homes stem from incompetence at every level," she underlined.
Efforts at reform have been underway since 2001, with the very worst orphanages closed and families, usually Roma (gypsy), given encouragement to take their children back.
Some adoptions, however, have been snarled up in red tape for as long as three or four years, whereas the very fact of living in these establishments hinders a child's development, Sokolova said.
In 2003, Bulgaria began reforming its adoption system to bring it into line with international norms and in an effort to stamp out corruption and child trafficking.
But the net result has been a sharp fall in the numbers finding new families: just 708 children were adopted in 2007, against 1,600 per year prior to the changes.
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