Child Begging in Bulgaria's Capital - a Thing of the Past?
Bulgaria's capital, like any other capital of the world, has suffered from the problem of child begging. Social workers, however, have vowed to render the illegal practice obsolete. Photo by Sofia Photo Agency
Do you give money to beggars? I don't. For some I feel totally no compassion because they simply need to start working and stop procreating at alarming ages and in alarming numbers. With others I just like to listen to the swear words and words of damnation trailing behind me. With still others, I feel paralyzed by fear and guilt regarding how I got to deserve what I have and they didn't.
If you follow other principles, however, you might be interested in recent statistics claiming that begging has turned into a hierarchically-structured business that can fetch up to BGN 3000 per month (compared to a minimum monthly salary of BGN 240 in the country).
"We have offered jobs that pay BGN 300-400 per month to such people, and they turn them down because they make that amount of money much faster," Sofia Deputy Mayor Albena Atanasova disclosed.
The controversial data, however, were instantly opposed by journalists who said that in order to earn the alleged BGN 50 per day, dumpster divers had to return for recycling an estimated 385-500 kg of paper or 250 kg of plastic bottles.
Whether you believe in the "beggar mafia" or not, whether you believe the above sums or not, whether you feel compassion, or you don't, you can't have avoided thoughts about a certain group of beggars, the most vulnerable one, children.
Statistics says that the light at the end of the tunnel is the significant reduction in the number of child beggars and mothers using their babies for begging.
A major contributor to this positive outcome is Sofia's mobile unit for combating child begging.
"Child begging in Sofia has become less of a problem over the past year. Our team was created to help street children and provide guidance for their parents. We put great efforts into the task on a daily basis", Tsvetomila Lozanova, a devoted member of the formation, told Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) in an interview.
What is Sofia's tool for combating child begging and how does it work?
The Mobile Support Unit Targeting Child Begging (MSUTCB) has been set up by the Bulgarian Agency for Social Assistance at the Mladost Regional Social Assistance Directorate in Sofia with a view to facilitate the work of the Child Protection Department (CPD) and to cooperate in tracking down child beggars, Lozanova says, presenting fresh statistics on the work of the team.
The unit, which became operational in September 2010, currently has a staff of 5 social workers who are on the job 24/7 under a two-shift working regime.
MSUTCB receives signals and makes daily rounds to trace begging children and take adequate steps to remove them from the streets and provide the appropriate protections. It also conducts weekly rounds in cooperation with Sofia Municipality and the Sofia Municipal Police.
Tip-offs to MSUTCB are redirected from the State Agency for Child Protection, which in turn receives calls of citizens or institutions on the 116 111 telephone hot line. Every signal is checked within 30 minutes, depending on the traffic congestions and the availability of a police patrol.
Apart from acting on a tip-off, MSUTCB can visit suspicious dwellings accompanied by police officers in pursuit of an order to inspect the premises for children victims of abuse or parental neglect. MSUTCB can also move to notify the Interior Ministry about such suspicions. However, the unit cannot enter private property on its own initiative.
The responsibilities of the social workers within MSUTCB include the preparation of an individual assessment of the child's needs in terms of access to education and medical care (the majority of the street children have never attended school or have dropped out within a short period of time and have no registration with a General Practitioner ). The evaluation also points out whether the child is duly taken care of, whether the clothing is appropriate for the season, as well as signs of drugs and alcohol use, traces of physical violence, degree of emotionality and attachment to the parents, etc. This is raw data which is fed to the CPDs to facilitate follow-up case management.
Is Sofia witnessing dwindling numbers of child beggars?
In the last three months of 2010, a total of 34 child beggars were identified on the streets of Sofia, most of them having a permanent residence in cities, towns and villages in the rest of the country. These children were often found to live in dilapidated, unsanitary, crowded conditions in illegal settlements.
14 of the total of 34 children were accommodated in specialized institutions or were referred to a residential social service, while the remaining 20 were reported to the local CPDs relevant to their current address. The CPDs opened child-protection cases on the basis of the submitted data. When necessary, the children were issued medical referrals to see a psychologist or their families were instructed about the social services available within the community.
"The children at risk using the so-called residential social service were accommodated in crisis centers according to their age (0-3 years; 3-7 years; 7-18 years) for a period of 3-6 months through an order issued by the head of the respective Regional Social Assistance Directorate", Lozanova explains.
Bulgaria's network of crisis centers provides accommodation for repatriated children and children who are victims of domestic violence or have been forced into begging or stealing.
In the first seven months of 2011, a total of 24 begging children were identified in Bulgaria's capital, with 9 of them accommodated in specialized institutions or referred to a residential social service, 15 reported to CPDs and another 5 received at Sofia Airport and escorted by MSUTCB staff to the social service considered appropriate for their case.
Who are Sofia street child beggars?
According to statistics of MSUTCB, the most typical cases of children in street situations involve children aged 07-13, chiefly of Roma ethnic origin, with incidence being higher among boys than girls.
The preferred locations for begging are tourist attractions, churches, big boulevards, crossroads, busy central streets, fast-food restaurants, the central railway station, the central bus station, etc.
The preferred time for begging is the daylight hours, and the peak season is the autumn.
"Summer and winter holidays, bank holidays and other festivities and celebrations have so far not resulted in an otherwise anticipated surge in child begging", Lozanova confirms.
In the course of the interviews with social workers, the children usually prove talkative, telling stories about their families, their living conditions, their needs and desires.
Some children say that they want to be removed from their family. However, they often change their mind within hours, rejecting their initial claims driven by their strong attachment to the parents and close relatives and by the fear of the unknown place they will be sent to. Despite that, some of the children placed at specialized institutions and crisis centers have managed to adjust very well to the new environment and have started going to school.
Who are the parents of a Sofia Street child beggar?
In most of the cases, the children have been talked/forced into begging because people are more willing to give money to youngsters instead of adults. They come from poor families, usually of Roma origin, the parents have no permanent job and have not registered with the labor offices, they lack a stable source of income and make a living by rummaging through garbage cans and dumpsters.
"The parents' knee-jerk reaction to the measures taken by the social workers are often hostile, which is understandable enough because their offspring are usually their major source of income. They have turned begging into a way of life and do not yield to pressure from state authorities or even to the threat of having their child benefits suspended (in the case of repeated child begging)," the social worker says.
MSUTCB has faced cases where the task of tracking down the parents of the child beggars has proved an impossible task even for police forces. Such instances are rare, Lozanova adds, but when they occur, the child is placed at a specialized institution or at a crisis center due to the failure to contact the patently unconcerned parents.
MSUTCB has filed information to the Prosecutor's Office that could lead to a termination of parental rights. However, it has received feedback about only one case, where the prosecuting authority failed to find clear and convincing evidence to terminate parental
In September 2010, when the MSUTCB was launched, there were many cases of women using their babies to beg. The infants were separated from their mothers and the case was referred to the Prosecutor's Office. As a result, the sight of women carrying a baby and begging for money has become a rarity in Sofia, with no such cases reported since the beginning of 2011.
What happens to a child beggar after it gets spotted in Bulgaria's capital?
When MSUTCB encounters a first-time child beggar on the streets of Bulgaria's capital, the social worker puts together a protocol and gets in touch with a unit of the Interior Ministry, asking for a police patrol to be dispatched to the location. The mobile unit member is not authorized to establish contact with the child or demand identity documents. When the police officers arrive, identification procedures get underway, a social worker escorts the child to the Regional Police Department relevant to the location of the case of begging, the parents are contacted and the case is reported to the CPD. The parents of the child are promptly informed of the matter and duly warned about the measures that will be taken in the case of a subsequent offense. They are also given contact information about their nearest Regional Social Assistance Directorate where they can visit the CPD and learn about the social services available within the community. Then CPD starts working with the child and the parents. These steps are aimed at making the parents aware that the exploitation of children for begging purposes is strictly illegal. Under current legislation in the sphere, the parents cannot be held financially responsible for sending their
children out on the streets to bring in money.
In the case of a second or subsequent offense, the aim is to remove the child from its immediate surroundings and provide the protections of a specialized institution or a crisis center. Accommodation at a specialized institution or a crisis center, a measure of last resort, is applied in cases of repeated begging, when the health and safety of the children are at risk, when they are begging among vehicles in heavy traffic, when they are exposed to harsh weather conditions, when they are persistently neglected by their parents, who are unaware of the children's whereabouts in the small hours of the night, etc.
According to Tsvetomila Lozanova, "We do not take the prescribed steps at any cost; we try to adjust to the concrete situation in order to preserve the child's health and safety."
There are cases which require day-long monitoring before the child is approached. In situations where the child is on the street, surrounded by passing vehicles, it may get scared and run off in the wrong direction. Such cases call for patience and caution both on the part of social workers and police officers. The aim is not to frighten the children, thereby exposing them to risk, but to build a connection based on trust so that they can share as much as possible information about their problems, their surroundings, their everyday life, etc.
What happens to Bulgarian child beggars spotted abroad?
MSUTCB members assist the repatriation of children in joint operations with Bulgaria's State Agency for Child Protection, the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Agency for Social Assistance, consular offices and international social services. When the child at risk enters Bulgaria, its safety is ensured through the steps envisaged in the Child Protection Act.
Social workers from the mobile unit are often dispatched to pick up children at Sofia Airport or at border checkpoints under the Coordination Mechanism for Referral, Care and Protection of Repatriated Bulgarian Unaccompanied Minors. These cases involve unaccompanied Bulgarian children abroad or children-victims of trafficking. In Bulgaria the child is escorted by a social worker to a specialized institution or to a crisis center and the CPD and other state bodies in charge are duly notified. The social workers try to get in touch with members of the family who are on the territory of the country and study the family and social environment of the child to make sure that the right steps are taken.
To sum up, child begging in Sofia has been recognized as a problem and is being tackled by a specialized unit. If you want to help, you are strongly advised not to give money but to help them with your call. You may not heal the world or make it a better place, but you will at least bring its irresponsible parents to justice, slightly low-key though it may be.
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