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Laura Parker, ARK

Laura Parker, country director for Absolute Return for Kids, Bulgaria, and ex EC employee:

‘Human rights are simply not an EU priority’

by Yana Buhrer Tavanier

According to you, why has the dreadful human rights situation in institutions not been recognized as an obstacle for accession in the case of Bulgaria and Romania, when we have very clear Copenhagen criteria, and there were and continue to be numerous reports about human rights abuses in these institutions?

It is clear that the decisions about enlarging the EU were primarily political ones, made well in advance of the actual formal accession process when countries’ progress began to be ‘measured’ more closely. By the time the more critical assessment of their state of readiness was made, the decision to allow Bulgaria and Romania to join the EU had already been taken. The almost total disregard for elements of the Copenhagen criteria also reflects the fact that human rights are simply not an EU priority. I am convinced that were the infringements of the rights of children and adults in institutions having an impact on business and economic interests, they would be taken much, much more seriously. For this, the EU – its Member States, the European Commission and the European Parliament – are to be blamed as much as those countries who were seeking to join the EU.

Looking back, how would you assess the pre-accession monitoring of the EC in terms of mental institutions? You worked in the EC delegation in Sofia and reported on the problems with institutions – do you feel that your position was usually taken seriously into consideration? Were you always happy with the final drafts of the monitoring reports? And do you think the EC had a realistic understanding of the situation in these institutions at the time of accession?

Those responsible for collating the information which was used to draft the Regular Reports tried to reflect the reality of the situation: I know that I, and other colleagues, certainly submitted information about the situation in institutions. And I know that senior EC officials were fully aware of what was going on as they personally visited some institutions. They may not have understood everything, because of course the Government and those running institutions were not keen to expose the truth, but they understood enough. But by the time they had been edited by various EC officials, the final official Regular Reports did not accurately represent the situation. This was a political decision. I remember quite clearly when a senior official from the EC in Brussels came on a monitoring exercise and he met with all of the ‘task managers’ in the EC Delegation except for me. As I was responsible for child welfare and social policy, I think this gives you a good idea of how seriously these issues were taken!

Do you think that the EU should require a better human-rights track-record from future Member States? Better than in the case of Bulgaria and Romania that is. When talking about institutions for children and adults, what human-rights standards should a country meet, according to you, in order to join?

Yes, the EU must require a better human-rights track record from future Member States. Otherwise, its claims to have a positive influence on human rights in the wider world, and all of its own policy on social inclusion and equality, will be completely undermined. And, the concept of EU ‘citizenship’, which the Lisbon Treaty wants to introduce, will become even more meaningless. The EU cannot claim that those who are locked away in institutions, given psychiatric drugs and medical treatment without consent, denied freedom of movement and unable to enjoy the other basic rights which the majority of EU Member States people do enjoy are ‘citizens’. Complying with international treaties – such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) –is what is required.

In the last monitoring report before accession of Bulgaria and Romania some remaining problems were identified. How, according to you, should the EC follow up on these  issues? What are the instruments available to the Commission in case it finds that these problems have not been addressed by Bulgaria and Romania? In other words – what should the EU do today, regarding institutions for children and adults in Bulgaria and Romania?

The EC should ensure that any future funding which is directed towards ‘de-institutionalisation’ or social policy more broadly is well spent. Plans are currently being developed for €20 mn EURO of European Regional Development Funding to be spent on de-institutionalisation. This money must not be wasted on unnecessary ‘mega-projects’ or disproportionately expensive buildings but should be directed towards providing the services which people really need. So, for example, instead of financing the refurbishment of existing institutions, the EC should require that investment is made in supporting new services like foster care and improving existing community based services – including schools, health and transport services – so that these can provide the support which children and families need. In this way, the old institutional system can gradually be closed down. This investment should be overseen by independent experts and those spending the money held accountable for results.

The problem of institutionalisation is not either just about ‘social policy’ or simply an ‘internal matter’ for Member States – it is about defending the fundamental human rights of all of those living in the EU which should be a concern for us all, wherever we live in the EU. The fact that all Member States have joined the EU ‘club’ should not mean that they turn a blind eye when some members are consistently breaking the club rules and acting in a way which goes against the very spirit of the EU which is supposed to embody social solidarity. The European Commission’s role as ‘guardian of the Treaties’ is precisely to speak out when core values are being breached. In addition to exerting political pressure, I think that it would be possible to take legal cases against those countries where there is such clear discrimination against people with disabilities.

How would you assess the policy of the latest Bulgarian government during the last 4 years, regarding institutions? What did it succeed to do, and where did it fail?

There has been policy on paper but not in practice. The 2008-18 National Strategy for Children has fine aims – including social inclusion – but there is little change on the ground. Investment in alternative care services for children and adults is slowly increasing but there is still little financial incentive for Municipalities to invest in new services. There is also an acute shortage of qualified social workers and other professionals throughout the country who are expected to deal with huge caseloads with very little resources. Far too limited support is given to families when they face difficulties as old attitudes still prevail and many still believe that some people are ‘better off’ in institutions. The Ministry of Health in particular has completely failed to engage in supporting policy on de-institutionalisation. Parents of disabled children, for example, are still often advised that their children should be placed in institutional care and there remains huge confusion about the difference between – and the different needs of – children and adults who have disabilities or health problems, including mental health.

Central Government should have shown leadership on this but actually appeared to want to simply wash its hands of the ‘problem’. The question of how the  institutional system could be transformed has been left almost entirely to individual Municipalities. This is totally ineffective as many Municipalities do not have the skills, expertise or finance to invest in changing the system. It is also very cynical: the Government knows that the vast majority of Mayors are going to be more interested in keeping jobs in institutions than closing them down. The Government should be both demanding these changes and helping Municipalities make them. Where there are examples of good practice, this is almost entirely down to local leadership – from enlightened Mayors, institution Directors and NGOs, with the work often financed by external Donors.

What should the new government focus upon? What, according to you, should be its first steps in the field?

The new Government should focus on doing something rather than seeking to defend the appalling track-record of the last two Governments or (as the last Government did) seeking to deny that there is a problem in the first place! It should:

agree to a long-term plan for closing down all institutions and set clear targets for this to happen: within 10 years all large-scale institutions for children could be closed and within 20 years, all of those for adults. This is ambitious but realistic. All relevant Ministries – including Health, Education, Justice and Finance, as well as Labour & Social Policy – should be involved in this plan the implementation of which should be overseen by a Deputy Prime Minister;

start now to conduct an analysis of all institutions in the country to determine how many people there are resident then systematically conduct an assessment of each and every individual, and their families, to determine what services are needed for them;

freeze all expenditure on institutional buildings unless this is absolutely critical to the well-being of residents – so, for example, heating systems should work, institutions should be clean and safe and residents must be given adequate medical care. But all other investment should be made in trying to reintegrate residents with their families or create alternative care services where this is not possible (such as foster care for children or protected homes for adults) and investing in the number and quality of the institutional care staff who can be subsequently employed in community based services. This includes any EU or other donor funds which are available.

agree to the introduction of a moratorium on the placement of infants and children under 3 years in institutions – this is the entrance way to the institutional care system and if this is not tackled, other efforts will be wasted. This moratorium can be agreed now, to come into force in three years time, during which investment should be made in creating alternative services for young children and increasing work on prevention of abandonment.

agree not to make any further cuts in the number of social workers – without properly staffed Directorates for Social Assistance and Child Protection Departments, it is not possible to conduct the assessment of the residents of institutions or to build up alternative care services.

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