What happens to the children once they enter the system?

In 2014, more than 2,000 children in Bulgaria went through closed-type institutions - correctional facilities, detention centers, police stations and border controls, homes for temporary accommodation of minors, boarding houses, and more than 10,000 children were affected by the outdated in terms of morrals and approach 60-Year-Old Law on Combating Anti-Social Behavior of Minors.

Children in conflict with the law fall within the scope of the criminal justice system and the fight against anti-social behavior system. The current legislative framework does not meet international standards set by UN bodies, the Council of Europe and the European Union and therefore does not guarantee full respect for the rights of the child, including:

  • The principle of necessity and proportionality of deprivation of liberty. There is a lack of a range of measures, social services and community support programs, including housing, financial assistance and educational and/or career guidance.
  • The right to adequate legal assistance, the right of the child to meet privately with his/her lawyer, as well as to be adequately heard.
  • Right to a reasoned court decision, right to speedy judicial control over the deprivation of liberty, right to appeal the measure in court.
  • Right to a regular review of the measure of deprivation of liberty and to ensuring access to education during the proceedings.

Proceedings involving children in conflict with the law often end in the most severe measure of deprivation of liberty. The closed-typed institutions where they are placed are designed to correct the behavior, as well as to prepare the child to return to society. The long stay in a closed-type institution does the exact opposite - it does not support, but instead, it isolates and exacerbates the already existing problems.

We must end the practice of treating child offenders as perpetrators of illegal or anti-social acts, as they are largely victims of their environment and living conditions. Comment of a supporter of the "Childhood Without Bars" campaign

What is the issue?

In Bulgaria, children are often deprived of their liberty illegally or arbitrarily and for long periods of time. The main problems in the institutions include the numerous data we have on violence and abuse of children, placement in unacceptable living conditions, no access to education or poor quality of education, lack of access to adequate medical care. There are rarely any external inspections carried out by independent authorities outside the administration.

What takes place in the boarding houses? Darina's story

These children are punished for acts considered anti-social behavior for which adults are not sanctioned in any way, and which are an expression of suffering - truancy or running away from home, conflict with classmates or teachers, vagrancy, begging. Real crimes such as theft or damage to property are almost always the result of deprivation and the fact that authorities do not work with the family and the community to achieve prevention and support. The children's court rulings show that they are sometimes punished with the most severe measure for a long period of time for petty theft of a small amount of money or items such as toys, groceries, mobile phones, glasses, etc. All this constitutes a serious violation of international human rights law, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to which deprivation of liberty should be imposed only as a last resort and for the shortest possible period. Children who end up in closed-type institutions are extremely vulnerable. Most of them have been abused or neglected. Their families often live in extreme poverty, without access to social services. In Bulgaria children who are actually victims are treated as criminals.

The stories of five children placed in closed-type institutions.

The stories of five children placed in closed-type institutions.

The stories of five children placed in closed-type institutions.

The stories of five children placed in closed-type institutions.

The stories of five children placed in closed-type institutions.

Why is an urgent reform needed?

Bulgarian children's present and future are at stake because there's no state vision and adequate policies. Every day without reform in juvenile justice is one day less childhood for them.

Bulgaria has been criticized repeatedly by various international and domestic organizations for its inadequate justice system when it comes to children's rights.

In its Final Recommendations to Bulgaria back in 2008, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) strongly recommended: the abolition of the comprehensive and arbitrary notion of “anti-social behavior”; establishment of juvenile courts or specialized juvenile panels at the existing courts; creating specialized departments in the police, prosecutors and barristers to work with children. The CRC also notes the high percentage of children placed in correctional facilities and urges the state to focus on crime prevention strategies so that children in conflict with the law are supported at an early stage.

In 2015, Bulgaria was also sharply criticized for the lack of progress on reform. At the end of January, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) published a critical report on the treatment of persons in detention facilities in Bulgaria. Emphasis was placed on the treatment of juveniles and conditions of detention in correctional facilities, as well as on violence against children in police stations and prisons.

The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe also calls for a reform of the juvenile justice system, and in particular for the repeal of the Law on Combating Anti-Social Behavior of Minors and the restriction of the use of deprivation of liberty, in a report of June 2015, a result of his visit to Bulgaria earlier that year.

The National Preventive Mechanism to the Ombudsman, the State Agency for Child Protection, the National Network for Children, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and other involved organizations have repeatedly alerted the public about the serious violations of children's rights in places of deprivation of freedom and the need to reform the system.

As an attempt to address some of the problems described above, in August 2011 the Concept for State Policy in the Field of Juvenile Justice (the Concept) was adopted. Two years later, the Roadmap for the implementation of the Concept for the period 2013-2014 (Roadmap) was adopted, which expired last year, without significant progress on the planned activities towards the necessary reform.

Although the commitments made by the government represent a positive attempt to change the juvenile justice system, there is still no comprehensive approach to children in conflict with the law and the reform of the current system remains partial.

The child, whether a victim or a perpetrator, must first and foremost be treated by law as a child. Moreover, deprivation of freedom is not only harmful to a child, but also does not help prevent recidivism, and is the most expensive and ineffective way to "deal" with children in conflict with the law. The introduction of new adequate legislation and prevention programs would contribute to significant and lasting benefits for society.

From the archive: Artivism (Art and Activism) demanding immediate reform of juvenile justice in Sofia

NGOs and citizens called for immediate reform of juvenile justice and full respect for the rights of children in Bulgaria as part of a protest action, part of the" Childhood Without Bars" campaign.

During the event, which took place in front of the Ivan Vazov National Theater in Sofia, an art installation with a teddy bear locked behind bars was presented, which remained in the square from the 11th until the 15th of October 2017. The authors of the provocative installation are Disctructive Creation.

Stuck between protection and punishment

Since 1958 in Bulgaria there has been a Law for Combating Anti-Social Behavior of Minors. It regulates the measures imposed on children who have committed "acts contrary to morality." What is the most severe measure imposed and what does the law actually consider an "anti-social behavior"? How does the law apply to the reality of the 21st century? Learn more from the first video in the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee "Stuck Between Protection and Punishment" series. It is part of the project "Children Deprived of Liberty in Central and Eastern Europe: Between Legacy and Reform" of the General Program "Fundamental Rights and Justice" of the Directorate-General for Justice of the European Commission. The videos were made by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. You can watch all the videos from the series "Between Protection and Punishment" on the BHC YouTube channel.

Data for 2014-2015

Data for 2014-2015

Data for 2014-2015

Data for 2014-2015

Data for 2014-2015

What have we done so far?

The campaign was organized by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Institute for Social Activities and Practices and the National Network for Children, all of which have many years of experience in the field of protection of children's rights. For more information about their activities see:

In 2013 – 2014, BHC researchers visited about 60 closed-type institutions for children and interviewed 150 children about life in the institution and their placement there. We examined how a child is placed there, what access s/he has to legal protection and education, living conditions, food, medical care, staff, disciplinary practice, inspections by the competent authorities, access to the outside world. You can download the report from this study here.*

In the last two years, on numerous occasions, the BHC team has warned the responsible institutions about specific cases of children deprived of their liberty in connection with their serious psychological and physical condition.

BHC lawyers are also prosecuting a number of pro-bono cases in Bulgarian courts and before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg regarding illegal placement without a court decision, as well as excessive stay in an institution, in order to improve not only the situation of the specific child but also the legislation in Bulgaria, and to stop such vicious practices.

The National Network for Children prepared an opinion on the inaction of the institutions in terms of serious violations of the rights of children in the socio-pedagogical boarding houses.

*The study is part of the larger project - "Children Deprived of Liberty in Central and Eastern Europe: Between Legacy and Reform", funded by the European Commission's General Fundamental Rights and Justice Program. Five organizations from Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Poland are participating in the project. The report presents a systematic overview of closed-type institutions in which children are deprived of their liberty. According to the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, “deprivation of liberty” is: any form of detention or imprisonment or placement of a person in a public or private specialized unit, which the person has no right to leave of his/her own free will, by order of any judicial, administrative or other body. Based on this definition, we studied institutions that are part of the criminal justice system, the system for combating anti-social behavior, and institutions intended for other purposes (educational supervision, medical treatment, deportation, etc.).