'Amici dei Bambini' Coordinator Alessandra Villa: Situation in Bulgarian Orphanages Is Dramatic

Bulgaria-Italy Survey » SOCIETY | June 1, 2011, Wednesday // 09:28
Bulgaria: 'Amici dei Bambini' Coordinator Alessandra Villa: Situation in Bulgarian Orphanages Is Dramatic Photo by BGNES

An Interview with Alessandra Villa, National Coordinator of Ai.Bi. Amici dei Bambini ("Friends of the Children"), Branch Bulgaria, for the "International Survey: Bulgaria-Italy" of (Sofia News Agency).


How long has Ai.Bi. Amici dei Bambini been in Bulgaria?

The Ai.Bi. Amici dei Bambini Association is present in many of this country's towns (in the municipalities of Sofia, Plovdiv and Pordim) with offices, local staff, and an Italian expatriate from Italy.

Amici dei Bambini is legally recognized in Bulgaria as a subsidiary and has been registered by the Sofia City Court since 2003, pursuant to the Non-profit Organizations Act, but it has been operating in Bulgaria since 2002. Since 2004 it has been registered in the Central Register of Non-Profit Organizations at the Ministry of Justice.

The association is involved in activities for children deprived of parental care and placed in institutions. In Bulgaria the total number of children in such structures is about 9 600 (although according to unofficial information this number is bigger), including children with special needs and the so-called 'social orphans' whose families have lost parental rights, most often due to poverty.

The situation is dramatic in the institutions that take care of abandoned children. In this context, one of the growing problems, for the boys and girls who come of age and have to leave the institutions (the so-called care-leavers or children in the post-institutional period), is the lack of support or social inclusion programs.

On the one hand, these young people are completely vulnerable and unprepared for independent life outside the institution, devoid of any supportive family care, left to street life and facing the risk of exploitation: the girls - by international trafficking and sexual exploitation; the boys - by recruitment in organized criminal groups at local or international level, which in short time takes them to court.

On the other hand, psychologically speaking, these young people often show signs of shyness, instability, severe difficulties in interpersonal relations, deviant behavior and mental disorders.

What are the measures planned for these children?

In recent years Ai.Bi. Amici dei Bambini intensified its international cooperation activities with regard to the "care-leavers". In November 2009, in Plovdiv, a 14 month project financed by the European Social Fund (ESF) was launched for social and labor market integration of "care leaving" adolescents.

The activities concern minors and staff from two institutions for children from 7 to 18 years of age in the city – Olga Skobeleva and Maria-Louisa. A specialized center for offering services to children has been established with a team of experts and labor market mediators – something new in Bulgaria.

Moreover, training is planned in methods of handling individual cases, implementation of an instruction project, participation in the services network together with the local authorities and similar associations.

A similar project was launched in Sofia in 2010. After a detailed needs analysis we found that the largest city in the country more than any other needed specialized services and despite the large number of similar associations and organizations, very often the specialized institutions are excluded, as well as the minors living there.

Hence, we took a new challenge – to implement a project with activities similar to those in Plovdiv, with the same target groups, and to establish a center for provision of services to children leaving the institutions. The project duration is 12 months; it is implemented in the Assen Zlatarov Center and is funded by two Italian donors, namely the Foundations San Zeno and Ebitemp.

The main project objective is the social and professional inclusion of 30 children aged between 6 and 18 years and identification of appropriate organizations for establishing a social network and services for prevention of exclusion. Within this project a group of teenagers started a course in career advice with the assistance of a mediator. They were assisted in the choice of vocational training courses and practices.

And finally, as a result of our participation as partners in a project funded by ESF, in the town of Nova Zagora we implemented activities for developing a model for social inclusion and career paths for children from institutions. Staff training was also a focus of this project – an approach based on handling individual cases and participation in the services network.

What activities are currently carried out at the Center in Totleben?

The first institution in which we started our activities in Bulgaria was Mladen Antonov in the village of Totleben. This is a village with a population of about 600 and is 25 km from the town of Pleven. Elderly people are the greater part of the population. There are no enterprises or factories to offer jobs for young people. The only public structure is a primary school (up to the 8th grade) where the majority of the children from the home are studying.

Until a few years ago, the center in Totleben was a specialized speech therapy school. Then, due to overcrowding in other institutions, it was transformed into a home for children deprived of parental care from 7 to 18 years of age. Currently the home is taking care of 70 children. Part of them, aged from 3 to 6 years with speech problems are accommodated in a separate block of the complex.

Most of the staff is from the former speech therapy school. They have no special training to work with children from institutions. There are only 13 supervisors. The majority of children have never left the home, except to go to school. Although the home is only 25 km from Pleven, there is no money to take the children to the nearby town to discover a world that is different from the home and the village.

Most of the children have no personal belongings; sometimes even their clothes are shared. Some of them have parents or relatives whom they visit during the summer holidays, but most of them are all alone and the only news about the outside world they get from their peers who are committed to the care of the home for 9 months in the year because they come from disadvantaged families that cannot take care of them.

Amici dei Bambini is working in the institution both to stimulate activities and to maintain contacts between the children and their families, facilitating whenever possible the reintegration of the child in the family.

This activity is carried out thanks to the support of the International Women's Club in Sofia, which has been supporting a Center for Children and Families in Pleven for the provision of services to both biological and potential foster parents. Our operators are assisting them to walk the line cooperating on site with the social assistance office.

What is the situation with international adoptions in the country?

In 2010, there were 211 international adoptions of 246 children. Thanks to Amici dei Bambini 16 children regarded as 'special cases' were adopted. The deinstitutionalization process also covered 24 minors in the framework of projects for placement in foster families and reintegration in their own families.

Does the Italian community in Bulgaria cooperate with the Amici dei Bambini activities?

The Italian community provides strong support for our activities. The commitment of its members has allowed us over the years to realize some of the dreams of the children in institutions. We are taking this opportunity to offer our special gratitude to HE the Ambassador of Italy to Bulgaria, Mr. Stefano Benazzo, the Honorary Consul in Plovdiv Giuseppe de Francesco, Aurelio Donati, Cleofe Guardigli, Confindustria Bulgaria and the Italian enterprises that opened their doors to the children from the institutions of Olga Skobeleva and Maria-Louise in Plovdiv within the KID Project by organizing 'open house' visits for career development.

What are the spheres of action of Ai.Bi. Amici dei Bambini in other countries?

Ai.Bi. Amici dei Bambini was established in 1986. Its mission is to provide each abandoned child with a family and to ensure his/her right to have parents.

The specific objectives of Amici dei Bambini are as follows: to prevent abandonment of children through projects in support of the family of origin when there is a risk of default of the latter, in order to encourage it to comply; to stop abandonment, placing temporarily the children in foster families, so that they do not lose the ability to love and feel loved, to preserve confidence in themselves and in others; to overcome abandonment through an ultimate adoption in a family that will put an end to the painful period commencing on the date of abandonment; and finally, to monitor the integration in society of these children who have become teenagers and to help them build their lives after abandonment.

We intend to achieve these objectives through:

- Actions related to the stimulation of activities, support, psychosocial and educational assistance to allow children and teenagers to develop creative skills and to foster their self-esteem and independence.

- Developing a project for independent life and specific activities for its implementation.

- Encouraging reintegration in families (parents, if any, and searching for relatives) and reviving the family relationship.

- Group and individual activities for families, such as support groups, professional inclusion and income generation.

- Supply of essential goods (textbooks, payment of school fees, provision of food, water and medicines or other actions).

- Community awareness enhancement activities on the issue of child abandonment and the importance of family life.

At present, Amici dei Bambini has operational offices in 25 countries in Eastern Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia.

What are the future prospects of Ai.Bi. in Bulgaria?

Amici dei Bambini plans to continue its activities for children - care-leavers, working for their social inclusion and professional integration.

Moreover, Bulgaria has declared its commitment to deinstitutionalization of children, which we achieved in Italy in 2006. Amici dei Bambini cooperates with the Bulgarian institutions in order to assist them in seeking and implementing solutions that meet the needs of minors who are currently under the protection of the system such as promoting placement in foster families.

Furthermore, this year we intend to launch a project for the promotion of international adoption, which will involve the institutions of the European Union through activities for reducing the number of children in institutions and in the best interest of the child.

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