Bulgaria sees alarming rise in child-abandonment cases by young mothers

With teenage pregnancy on the rise in the Eastern European state of Bulgaria, orphanages say more children are being abandoned by young parents.

Thousands of children in Bulgaria are living either in state-run homes, or in facilities operated by private charities. And the country's strict adoption laws means the children may remain in the institutions for many years before they find new families. To add to their unfortunate experiences, the conditions they are forced to live in are often far from ideal.

The vast majority have at least one living parent. But the children end up in the care of orphanages after being abandoned by parents who can't cope with looking after a child. Many of the mothers are still children themselves.

”For 2006, ten thousand children were born to girls under the age of sixteen. And they were born in ghettos, born in very poor families,” said Slavka Kukova, a human rights activist. “Most of these children are sent to institutions because the people around would advise their mothers to do that in order for the children to survive.”

Because of Bulgaria's laborious adoption process, it can take a prospective parent up to 4 years to complete all the necessary paperwork.

Luckier children waiting to find a new family may end up at a privately-funded center like a children's village in the town of Dren, which is run by the charity 'SOS.'

Here the youngsters live in small family groups each with a house mother who takes on the role of foster mom. The charity is based in Austria, but draws donations from around the world. Andrea Kruse is a United States Peace Corps volunteer who works in Dren.

“They enjoy various activities, playing on the skateboard, bikes, computers,” she said. “They love discos, so we have disco nights once in a while.”

Less than a 30-minute walk away is a state-run orphanage. Locals said that the children there don't get anywhere near the levels of care, facilities, and interaction as the orphans at the SOS village.

But they do attend the same school – creating an uneasy atmosphere of the 'haves' and the 'have nots.'

For Bulgarian authorities, the illegal trade in babies, which mostly occurs in poor villages populated by Roman Gypsies, is another big problem.

Local journalist and documentary-maker Martin Karbovski explains how easy it is to exchange kids for cash.

”I was pretending to be a Greek lawyer and there was one Greek-speaking woman in my team. We wanted to buy a child from a pregnant woman in the village,” he said. “We knew, I might say, I was his father. We didn’t quite yet understand the procedure, but we knew how much it would cost. We knew she wanted to sell her child for 1000 euros.”

The United Nations says 4.1 percent of babies born in Bulgaria are to teenagers. But other groups put that figure at almost 10 percent. It's clear that when it comes to standards expected of a European Union country, this fledgling member has a long way to go in achieving social care for the poor and the young.