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Page last updated at 12:56 GMT, Thursday, 15 October 2009 13:56 UK

New lives for Bulgaria's abandoned children

Kate with Milen (right) and Misho (left)
Bulgaria has the highest number of disabled children in institutes in the EU

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Kate Blewett recently returned to Bulgaria to see how things have changed after the international outcry in response to her film Bulgaria's Abandoned Children.

In the original film, which I made two years ago, I focused on a handful of the 75 disabled children living in the Mogilino institute and watched their lives over a nine-month period. I witnessed their dreadful deterioration.

My first impressions of Mogilino were strangely misleading because the actual building was clean, bleached and painted.

It was not until I pulled back the bed covers to witness the children's wasted bodies that I realised there was a very serious problem.

To witness such human deterioration and to know the only way to truly effect change was to carry on filming... was an incredibly difficult process

Vasky is blind and suffers with cerebral palsy. She was abandoned in a baby unit and then sent to Mogilino at the age of four, where she grew up. We learnt that when she arrived she loved music, and used to dance and sing.

Sadly what I witnessed, 14 years after her arrival, was a deeply unhappy girl, who had simply shut down, who sat on her bed day in and day out - saying nothing, her head bent down between her knees.

Brutalised

Milen, a gentle teenager with a cleft palate and the mentality of a young child, is mute and spent each day helping out around the home. Now 21, he does not speak because no-one has bothered to talk to him.

Milen and Misho now live in a small home with other young people of mixed abilities

During filming, Milen was brutalised and beaten by a member of the staff. I captured this on camera and confronted the director of Mogilino.

The offending staff member was fired and Milen was moved to a protected home far away.

Didi, now 20, arrived at Mogilino just before filming began. Her mother could no longer cope with her teenage daughter's autism at home, so she abandoned her to the institute.

Sadly for Didi, she was thrown into an environment where she could not make any friends or continue with her education, because Mogilino is a place for the uneducable and those living here do not speak.

Didi deteriorated rapidly and would rock back and forth relentlessly. She shut down - just like all the others around her.

Extraordinary impact

To witness such human deterioration and to know the only way to truly effect change was to carry on filming and bring the documentary film to a wider audience - was an incredibly difficult process.

However the impact my film had has been extraordinary. Viewers wrote to me by the thousands, donating money, and forming petitions demanding change from their MPs and MEPs.

Some gave up their jobs and went to Bulgaria to help, taking supplies, food, clothing and medical aid.

Didi
Didi now goes to school every day and is top of her maths class

The Bulgarian government put Unicef in charge of finding new placements for all the children of Mogilino, with the plan that the institute will shut once every child has been re-housed.

Slavka Kukova, co-ordinator of the Protection of the Institutionalised Children's Human Rights Program, says that the film meant that disabled children's "rights and problems are now on the agenda for the Bulgaria media''.

''A slow process of raising awareness about the potential reform of the children care system has now started,'' she adds.

This year I returned to Bulgaria to find out exactly what has happened to some of the key characters from the original film. Once again I was shocked by what I found.

I witnessed the miraculous improvements that can happen in badly-damaged children when decent care is finally given to them.

Milen now lives in a glorious home with seven other young people and good carers. He is a new person - happy, outgoing and communicative through sign language.

He works every day putting handles onto bags and is paid for the amount he completes. He attends a day-care centre where he creates art and plays games with the other young people.

Genuine care

There needs to be a well-organised campaign that seeks to close down all institutions and set up proper alternative care services
Mark O'Sullivan
The Cedar Foundation

Didi lives in a special boarding school for those with behavioural and learning difficulties. She has wonderful carers and has made good friends.

She goes to school every day and is top of her maths class.

She makes her own clothes, goes to the shops to buy things she likes and visits museums and art galleries.

Vasky has been moved to an institute for the blind, which though large has excellent care and she has been transformed into a happy, active, smiling young lady.

She eats well and demands two courses at meal times, giggling cheekily with her carer as she asks if she can go out in her car with her.

A report from Unicef also recognised that the children from Mogilino have made great improvements since leaving the home.

"Their cognitive development has changed at all levels (perception, attention, memory, and thinking)... they have become part of particular groups and spend more time playing."

Vasky
Vasky was suffering from malnutrition and neglect but is now much happier

I feel overwhelmed with the dramatic changes in the lives of these young people. I feel the film lifted the lid on a desperate situation that had been hidden away.

I look forward to the day this year when Mogilino is finally shut.

The problems were not all about poverty or money, but rather about having a good level of genuine care that transformed a miserable existence into a fulfilling one.

Bulgaria does have good carers and decent homes but what it now needs to do is to get rid of its large, isolated institutes that are warehouses to a further 8,000 disabled children, and to create small group homes.

"There can be no more remodelling or restructuring of institutions. There needs to be a well-organised campaign that seeks to close down all institutions and set up proper alternative care services," says Mark O'Sullivan of the Bulgarian-based Cedar Foundation.

"The government needs to carry on what it is doing well but it also needs to radically overhaul the parts of its system which are not working," he adds.

All members of the EU should draw Bulgaria in as a new family member and help turn around the care system for the abandoned disabled children, to deinstitutionalise a country that has a new receptive government in place - and is ready for change.

Bulgaria's Abandoned Children Revisited is on BBC Four on Thursday 15 October at 2100 BST.



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