Delay in reforms leads to systematic abuse of children’s rights in Bulgaria

Opening Doors National Coordinator in Bulgaria National Network for Children (NNC) is calling on the European Commission to take action as evidence has emerged to demonstrate that a delay in the process to reform the juvenile justice system is allowing for systematic abuse of children’s rights within the institutions which are part of this system in Bulgaria.

“The delay of the child justice reform in Bulgaria is allowing for systemic abuse and neglect of children placed in social pedagogical institutions”, NNC Executive Director George Bogdanov says.

Under Bulgarian law, children in conflict with the law are placed in institution-like detention centres called Social-Pedagogical Schools (SPS).

In September 2013, a group of volunteers from France reported instances of systematic abuse in one such centre in the South East of the country. The subsequent inspection by the State Agency for Child Protection (SACP) found that the children resident there had been systematically abused by staff members who have applied extremely violent forms of physical punishment. As a result, four employees were suspended pending an investigation, and the director was replaced. Four months later, despite clear evidence of abuse established by the SACP, the National Network for Children has learnt that the director and two of the removed employees have been restored back to their jobs.

Alarmingly, the authorities were prevented from taking any substantive action because of outdated legislation and conflicting statutory norms. The Child Protection Act, which would normally be activated in a situation of abuse, does not cover children within the juvenile justice system because it is superseded by an earlier law, the Law on Combating Antisocial Behaviour of Minors and Adolescents, dating back to 1958. According to international norms and standards, children in conflict with the law should be recognised as needing special protection and offered rehabilitation that involves families and communities as a safer, more appropriate and effective approach to rehabilitation. However, in the Bulgarian case, the law prioritises punitive measures and offers no special protection to children. As a result, the court dealing with this case rejected protection measures proposed with respect to one of the children who was a victim of violence in the centre in question, because the child was placed in there under this law.

For the same reason the Child Protection Department (CPD) took no protection measures for a child that was proven to be sexually abused. This child still lives in the same centre while the perpetrators have allegedly been transferred to another facility. In practice, in cases of violence among children, the measures taken are limited to moving the perpetrators or the victim to another place of the same type.

“First, it is necessary to make urgent changes in the legislative framework that would regulate the coordination and ensure issuing of protection measures in cases of abuse for children placed in SPS and similar facilities”, Mr Bogdanov says. “Second, we insist on launching a comprehensive reform of the juvenile justice system. Third there is need to ensure a new set of specialised psycho-social, social health and legal-social services for children at high risk of abuse’’.

Despite the Bulgarian Government having committed in 2011 to reforming the juvenile justice system and closing these centres, they have so far been left out of the wider deinstitutionalisation process happening in the country.

NNC is calling on the Commission to hold the Government of Bulgaria to account in delivering the urgent reform promised and addressing the legal loopholes that are allowing for the systematic abuse of children’s rights.