More than 250 experts from universities, institutions and non-governmental organizations from Europe, Australia, Central Asia and the US discussed childcare reform at the International Conference on ‘Deinstitutionalization of Childcare: Investing in Change’. The event was held 6–8 November at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria. Representatives from the European Commission, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy and other national and international institutions as well as local non-governmental organizations, social service providers and policy-makers for children participated at the event. Conference participants shared scientific data and experience, as well as good practices and challenges in the field of deinstitutionalization.
The conference was opened by Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev. He stressed the huge role of non-governmental organizations in carrying out the reform, which, in addition to being an assisting factor, was also a necessary corrective measure. According to Donchev, Bulgaria's experience with the reform is unique and should be used as an example for other reforms.
‘The key to [this] successful deinstitutionalization is that we all looked in the same direction and worked together - government, non-governmental sector, and academia’, said Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policy Zornitsa Rusinova. She recalled that over the past 10 years, 94% of specialized institutions for children were closed. Prior to the start of the reform, some 7,600 children were accommodated in 137 Homes for Disabled Children, Homes for Deprived Parents and Homes for Medico-Social Welfare.
The conference initiator, Dr. Galina Markova from the NBU Know-How Center for the Alternative Care for Children at NBU, also emphasized the harm caused by institutions:
We know a lot about child development. We know a lot about harm from institutions. We know a great deal about the programs that lead to the good development of children. We know what professional training should be. The question before the conference is how to apply this knowledge, because it is the application where the problem usually lies. And there seem to be new questions about what prevents us from applying good practices. Because the number of foster parents is diminishing, there are barriers to the quality training of professionals and the culture of society as a whole which hinders the acceptance of the "different". What are we doing to ameliorate this situation?
According to Markova, the people around a child with difficult to understand behaviour should make an effort to understand the roots of that behaviour and how to create a culture of empathy. ‘This empathy and support must also exist with regard to the people surrounding the child, because they themselves also experience many difficulties’, she added.