Dáil Éireann - Volume 641 - 20 November, 2007
Adjournment Debate. - Foreign Orphanages.
Deputy Michael Kennedy Deputy Michael Kennedy
Deputy Michael Kennedy:I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to speak on this topic concerning orphanages in Bulgaria. Although not immediately significant to this Parliament, this is an incredibly important and tragic issue which requires the greatest possible airing.
Some Deputies may have seen a BBC documentary on Sunday entitled “Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children”. It was made by film-maker Kate Blewett who last year visited the Mogilino social care home to investigate the conditions in which the children are kept. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the most disturbing programmes I have ever seen. The circumstances shown in the film appear to be replicated throughout Bulgaria and I understand  similar conditions obtain in at least 11 other orphanages.
I bring the issue to the attention of the House to ask what we can do. I cannot sit idly by without trying to publicise this issue. There are 75 children living at Mogilino, ranging from toddlers to teenagers approaching their 20s. Many have been abandoned to the orphanage because they have severe mental disabilities with which their parents simply could not cope. Others are affected by mild and treatable cases of cerebral palsy. Some were blind or deaf when they entered the orphanage. Many of the children at Mogilino cannot speak and they are neither taught nor spoken to. They cannot interact with each other or their carers whose job does not appear to extend beyond washing and feeding the children. It is clear that not much caring takes place.
The children are considered incapable of being educated and receive no treatment for their disabilities. While they are diagnosed on admission to the facility, their diagnoses are not re-evaluated at any point during their lengthy stay. Even the children with the mildest forms of disability degenerate quickly. They rock endlessly in chairs, bereft of any mental stimulation, and many are heavily sedated. They all appear to be malnourished and many sit on potties all day because it is easier for their carers to leave them in this position. Their limbs resemble those of children in famine-torn African countries.
One 18 year old girl who broke her leg was filmed lying curled up in a ball in bed. Her condition was not noticed until the television crew asked her what her problem was and only then did she received medical attention. Another child, a young boy, walked only when led by the hand by a carer. If the carer moved away from him, he stood motionless until the carer returned.
An 18 year old girl named Didi who has mild cerebral palsy initially wrote letters to her mother but these were never posted. She also interacted with the television crew in a typically lively teenage fashion. However, when the television crew returned eight months after initially meeting her, she had become a mute child who had adopted the rocking motion practised by all the other children. I was equally concerned by a scene in the programme where two male carers supervised a group of adolescent women, many of whom were fully developed physically, as they showered. This occurred in a home staffed almost entirely by females.
It is not an exaggeration to say that domestic animals are treated better than the unfortunate boys and girls in the Mogilino home who are condemned to rock silently while they slowly waste away in mind and body. Nothing on television this year has brought me closer to tears.
What can Ireland do about this case? How has Europe permitted this to happen while allowing Bulgaria to enter the European Union? Will we  turn away from this pain and suffering? I hope not. We all remember watching similar scenes from Romania 20 years ago. The scenes I describe are taking place in 2007 in Bulgaria, a member state of the European Union. I ask the Government to take action in this matter. It should contact Ms Kate Blewett who is setting up a charity known as Bulgaria’s abandoned children’s trust to campaign for immediate changes to address the plight of the children in the Mogilino orphanage. Bulgaria is a European country with a population of more than 8 million in which one in every 50 children is growing up in an institution. As Kate Blewett stated in the television programme, it is not a destitute, war-torn or famine-stricken country. Many of the large number of Irish people who visit Bulgaria as tourists buy apartments there. Our role must be to try to influence the Bulgarian authorities and, more important, the Bulgarian people. I sincerely hope action will be taken on this issue.
Deputy Seán Haughey Deputy Seán Haughey
Deputy Seán Haughey:On behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, I share the deep concern and disquiet provoked by the recent BBC documentary “Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children”. The large number of children resident in state-run institutions in Bulgaria is a difficult legacy of past policies and attitudes. This sad reality must now be addressed and further reforms must be made to protect a particularly vulnerable section of society.
The Bulgarian authorities have been working on the issue for some time. It was a topic of concern that formed part of discussions during Bulgaria’s negotiations for EU accession. While some progress was made before accession, concerns were expressed by the European Commission and member states regarding areas where further actions are required. In particular, concerns have been expressed regarding living and sanitary conditions in many institutions. The Deputy can be assured that the EU continues to support the process within Bulgaria to reform this sector. Next year, some €5 million of EU Structural Funds will be directed towards the development of alternative care arrangements for children such as those featured in the documentary.
We have been told that the Bulgarian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy is committed to closing the institution mentioned in the documentary and similar ones that still exist in Bulgaria. Since 2001, the number of children in them has decreased by over 30% to approximately 8,500. Of course, this figure is still too high. Ideally the type of care to be provided involves finding relatives or foster families to look after these children. Placing them within a safe, reliable and family oriented environment must be the goal. This need is recognised by the Bulgarian authorities.
 A group of non-governmental organisations, working together with UNICEF, the Bulgarian Association for the Protection of People with Disabilities, and the Bulgarian authorities, have drawn up an action plan to deal with the situation at the Mogilino institution. Medical evaluations of the children have been carried out and a group of specialists have provided some basic training to the staff. They plan to assess the needs of the children and provide an alternative form of care. The orphanage will be closed and specialist care provided by the creation of smaller group homes.
A special screening of the documentary took place in Sofia last week and was attended by a representative of our embassy. Attendance at the event also included representatives of the Bulgarian Government, members of civil society, academics, social workers, journalists and foreign diplomats. Children with disabilities and their families also attended. Following the screening of the film, there was wide-ranging debate on the issue. There was general recognition that a quick-fix to the problem is not realistic and that closing the particular institution in question immediately would simply shift the problem elsewhere.
The solution must be well thought out, lead to change across the system and have the interests of the children as the driving force behind it. I understand that contributions made by representatives of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, and the Ministry of the Interior, indicated their strong support for continuing to work with the NGO sector to bring about real change.
Our embassy in Sofia has regular contact with organisations working to improve the living conditions of the children and young adults in such institutions. A number of Irish citizens and organisations are also involved and the embassy supports them in their work where possible. Over the past five years, the Government has supported NGOs active in Bulgaria in the protection of children at risk and the rehabilitation of people with intellectual disabilities. Organisations supported include the Bulgarian Association for People with Intellectual Disabilities.
The Deputy can be assured that we will continue to remain engaged and to encourage the implementation of the important reform process. Our embassy has been instructed to seek a meeting at senior level with the Bulgarian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy to convey our concerns and to get an update on the situation. It will also inform the Bulgarian authorities of the strong public interest in Ireland, and across the EU, in seeing a dramatic improvement in the standards of care given to orphaned or abandoned children in Bulgaria.
Dáil Éireann 641 Adjournment Debate. Foreign Orphanages.