Paralympian escaped Bulgarian care home, but others not so lucky

·4-min read

Former Paralympian skier Elitsa Storey often wonders what her life would have been like had she not had the chance to escape from Bulgaria's much criticised care home system.

"I really believe in fate... and somehow my path was different," the 33-year-old -- who was adopted by an American family at the age of five -- told AFP in a video call.

More than three decades after the end of communism, the legacy of a practise to abandon disabled newborns in state care -- which has been widely condemned for its harsh conditions -- still endures in the EU's poorest nation.

According to UNICEF in 2012, 780 out of every 100,000 children under the age of three were left to the care of the state in Bulgaria, a higher rate than in any other country.

Bulgaria has moved to overhaul its care home system since 2010 after several damning reports about bad treatment and dismal conditions -- leading to the death of a number of children -- sparked criticism from UNICEF and the European Union.

- Paralympic dream -

Born with a shorter left leg without ankle and knee, as well as with missing fingers on one hand, Storey's 20-year-old parents abandoned her at birth after doctors said her chances of survival were slim.

She stayed in two care homes until she benefited from a campaign for international adoptions.

Her memories of the institutions are dim, but both she and her adoptive family say she was well cared for and suffered no mistreatment.

After several surgeries in Bulgaria and the US, Storey's leg was amputated, but her prothesis finally allowed her "to keep up with my brothers and sister... (and) everybody at school".

"I played many sports. I loved to be active," she said.

Her adoptive family's avid skiing and her own competitive spirit led her to participate in the Paralympics twice -- in 2006 and 2010 -- with the US alpine skiing team.

She met her husband, double Paralympic gold medallist Adam Hall, who still competes for New Zealand, through professional skiing.

Storey always knew she was adopted. In 2018, while pregnant herself, she managed to reunite with her biological father and also travelled to Bulgaria to meet her biological half-brother and grandmother, who had thought she was dead.

"I am still getting to know them... I am still trying to understand who they are. I am still trying to understand who I am. It will take time," she said.

The two care homes where she stayed as a child have been closed, but she also managed to meet some of those who took care of her.

- Smaller care homes -

Since 2010, Bulgaria has been shutting its dozens of large care homes for abandoned children, moving them to smaller family-like homes to provide them with better and more personalised care.

At one such smaller home in a neighbourhood of the capital Sofia, Galina Yotova takes care of seven youngsters with disabilities.

Three of them came from an institution in remote Mogilino village that featured in a devastating BBC documentary in 2007 about mistreatment there that sparked outrage and prompted the system's overhaul.

Among them is a 25-year-old, who is blind, suffers from cerebral palsy and had severe epileptic seizures that are now largely contained.

"When he was born, doctors told his parents that he will not live more than three or four months," Yotova told AFP, adding that she sees him and others under her care "making some physical and mental progress every day".

"They wouldn't have probably reached that age" in the other now-shut institutions, she said.

However not being able to reintegrate them in families means that they will remain in state care for life, Yotova added.

- 'Transfer of violence' -

The Sofia-based rights group Bulgarian Helsinki Committee slammed in 2019 a "transfer of the most inhumane and inacceptable forms of institutional violence" into a number of the new structures.

"Young people with physical disabilities are still often confused with those with mental disorders" because of a lack of qualified personnel, according to Sofia-based psychologist Vessela Banova.

A recent Council of Europe report also found no progress whatsoever in institutions for adults, where those under Yotova's care will most likely go when they reach the age of 35.

Insufficient, poorly trained and inadequately supervised staffing was a recurring problem, the report said, listing instances of verbal abuse from orderlies as well as slaps, punches, kicks and beatings with sticks.

In response, Bulgaria said it would shut the three most criticised establishments for adults by the end of this year, moving the people to smaller homes, and close dozens of others by 2035.

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