In 1990 the horror of Romania’s orphanages was revealed to the world. So why, after millions of EU funds have been poured into the country to eradicate such institutions, do thousands of vulnerable youngsters remain incarcerated?
It is not often that you get a glimpse of hell but a version of it exists down an unmade road in Bistrita, northern Romania. There stands a place that would be unfit for animals, let alone humans, but it is the only home known to 35 inmates, ranging in age from a few weeks to early adulthood. All have some degree of physical or mental disability. The building has a small room where 10 so-called “babies” – including a pallid five-year-old and a malnourished and blind seven-year-old – sleep and spend every waking hour. It was lunchtime when we visited and the empty-eyed children were either being given a bottle or fed mashed potato in watery milk by elderly female carers.
I asked Anne Marie, the director of the orphanage, where the seven-year-old slept as the room only had small cots.
In another room, on an upper floor, there were about 10 shrunken forms in their beds; it was hard to tell their ages, but Anne Marie said they ranged from nine to 26 years old. It was 2pm on a gloriously sunny autumn day, but they were lying inert under grubby blankets, some tied to the bedstead with filthy tape. There were no wheelchairs or a lift; none of them had ever been outside; and the stench of urine and faeces was overwhelming.
How can such a place still exist more than 20 years after the horror of Romania’s orphanages and institutions was exposed to the world? They were supposed to have been closed down long ago. Stefan Darabus, country director of the charity Hope and Homes for Children (HHC), who accompanied on my visit last month and acted as translator, was as shocked and angry as I was.
“It will be the next one I close,” he promised. HHC is a charity founded in 1994 by Colonel Mark Cook, former commander of the British UN contingent in Croatia, and his wife Caroline, with the aim of removing children from institutional care and into family life. Stefan and colleagues are working their way around the country shutting these unspeakable places, but it is a slow process, not least because where do you put such betrayed and damaged children?
It is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions for so many that, during President Nicolae Ceausescu’s 25-year reign of terror, poverty-stricken parents were encouraged to hand over their children to the care of the state. He wanted to boost the population, with the aim of creating a “Citizen’s Army”. Contraception and abortion were banned, and women were told that having a large family was a patriotic duty. The result was that parents had more children than they could afford to feed. There was no real alternative than to place these unwanted babies in an institution.
Ceausescu’s regime fell following a bloody uprising in December 1989, and he and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas Day after a two-hour trial. It was only in the months following the revolution that appalling institutions, such as the one in Bistrita – run by untrained staff and short of food, medicine, heating fuel and compassion – were discovered and provoked outrage internationally. About 170,000 babies and children, most of them healthy but including the physically and mentally handicapped whose existence Ceausescu denied, had been crammed into around 700 “orphanages” – although the majority of children had parents who were alive.
When Romania began discussions to join the EU in the early Nineties, a key requirement was that these institutions be closed down, and the Romanian government agreed to do so.
In 2000, I visited Romania to report on what progress had been made. It was a traumatic trip and deeply disturbing to see the numbers of neglected, malnourished children with illnesses, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and Aids. But I believed the assurances of the Romanian government that it aimed to have all state children’s homes closed within 10 years. By the time Romania joined the EU in 2007, I assumed that it was close to achieving this goal. What I found last month was that although some progress has been made – 450 institutions containing about 160,000 inmates have been shut down – Romania has still not eradicated its shameful past. The institution in Bistrita is one of 256 in which more than 10,800 children still languish.
The harsh reality is that shutting down an institution costs about £100,000. The EU has contributed around £36 million so far. Today, about 20 per cent of the cost is born by local councils and 80 per cent by the charity, HHC. It is also a lengthy process, taking a minimum of 18 months for suitable homes to be found for each child, with access to trained social workers and psychologists to help them work towards some sort of normal life.
In addition, efforts are made to trace the birth family of each child to see if they want to be involved; some families still have no idea where their children were taken or if they are still alive. About 35 per cent of children return to the parental home permanently. Children may also be placed in “small family homes” – a halfway house between an institution and foster care. Others, with support, are taken in by families. Adoption is a complex legal process, but there are about 14,500 foster carers currently looking after about 26,500 children. International adoptions were halted in 2007 for fear it was leading to trafficking and abuse (Between 600 and 700 children found homes in the UK).
There is also the challenging task of re-educating Romanians about the care of children and the value of family life. During my visit, I met Viorica, a neatly dressed mother of two teenage children in her early fifties, who was director of a Dickensian-type institution in Sighet for 120 babies until 2003. She was desperate to show me that change is possible although it wasn’t easy for her to talk about the past.
“I ran the institution like a hospital even though the babies weren’t necessarily ill,” she said. “They were fed and they slept. They never went outside. They had no toys, no opportunity to socialise or play. By the time they were three and ready to move to another institution, they couldn’t walk, talk or eat solid food. I had no interest in their psychological development and, for reasons I still don’t understand, I somehow totally disassociated the children in the institution from my own or others I knew outside.
“I was so convinced I was right that initially I fought against its closure because I genuinely couldn’t see an alternative. But the people from HHC argued with me over a two-year period about how children need families and love, and I gradually came to realise what a terrible place I had been running.”
For the past seven years, Viorica has been in charge of a mother-and-baby unit that helps mothers look after their children, an emergency centre for children who have been abused, a day-care centre for children whose mothers work, and four small family homes.
”All the time I try to make amends for what went before. I cuddle and love the children. I am so happy that the babies in my care now develop in the way they should.
“But I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself,” she added quietly, her face full of pain. “I constantly feel sad as well as guilty that I didn’t try to change the system much earlier.”
As for changing the attitude of the 21 million population at large, HHC has so far helped 1,500 “at risk” families, with between two and seven children, to stay together, offering support and help with childcare. It is an important but small inroad and an impossible task for any single charity to do on its own. The Romanian government should be ashamed that it is not, as it promised, making childcare a priority.
Andreea, a young mother whom the charity is currently supporting, lives in a tiny, concrete hut in the countryside with her two sons Petru, two, and four-month-old Stefan. Just 19, she is beautiful and perhaps, in another life she could have been a model. Instead, abandoned by her boyfriend, she lives in poverty. Her rented hut has no running water – she has to rely on a neighbour for supplies– and an outside lavatory. Inside, the ceiling is covered with cardboard and the bare concrete walls with strips of carpet that add colour but little insulation. There is a small log fire for warmth and basic cooking and one bed which she shares with her sons. The little boys were clean, bright-eyed and obviously loved. “I want my sons to stay with me,” she whispered, as she cuddled them close, “but I need help.”
“We will make sure she has enough wood for the winter and food for herself and her sons,” Stefan told me. “But we are worried she is too isolated. Her mother wants nothing to do with her because she had children out of wedlock, so we are trying to find other family members she could move closer to. The point is even if they are very poor, they are all together as a family.”
I looked at the sweet, smiling faces of Andreea’s sons and thought of the sad, dead-eyed youngsters I had seen in Bistrita and knew that no one could doubt what he said was true.
*Some names have been changed
Tragic case of mistaken identity
Many of the children I saw during my stay had a heart-rending story; but fate seems to have treated 28-year-old Sergio, a gentle, handsome, young man, desperately unfairly.
His mother abandoned him at birth because she couldn’t afford to feed him. He languished in hospital uncared for and unloved for two years until his parents unexpectedly turned up to claim him. But because of staff negligence and the lack of proper records, they were given another baby with the same first name. Sergio stayed in the hospital until he was four and was then moved to an institution of about 200 children. “It was grim,” he says. “But I wanted to be educated and worked hard at school.”
His birth mother brought up the other child along with her five children but, over the years, felt increasingly that he didn’t belong to her. She became so distraught about her relationship with her “son” that she hanged herself. The child grew up to be a criminal and is now in jail.
Despite his difficult upbringing, Sergio has always been positive and wanted something out of life. Statistically, about 40 per cent of children who leave institutions when they are 18 end up begging or turning to prostitution, but Sergio took a four-year degree in Catholic theology at a local university, funded by a full scholarship.
In his second year, he managed to trace his birth father who, he smiles, “looks just like me”.
“He told me about my mother, and I am so sorry I never met her.” The young man remains in touch with his father and siblings. His story does not yet have a happy ending as after his degree, fate struck again.
“Unfortunately,” he explains, “my ID has the same number as the child who was given to my parents by mistake. I couldn’t get work as employers thought I was a criminal.” Two years on, lawyers are still trying to sort out his case.
His personal life, however, is more stable. “I have a girlfriend who was in the institution with me and after four years together we have decided to get married sometime next year.
“But,” he sighs, “social and professional integration are very difficult when you’ve spent your life in an institution, and the risk of being a total failure is high. I have no money and live in a hostel but my girlfriend, who is studying to be a psychologist and also works in McDonald’s, is helping me financially.”
Learning to be part of the family
On my last visit to Romania in 2000, I came across Carmilia, a dark-eyed, five-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother, Ion, in a small family unit with eight other children. They had come from an institution and, when they arrived two years earlier, neither could speak or walk. Carmilia wasn’t toilet-trained, couldn’t hold a spoon or sit in a chair and was terrified of grass and running water. She would sit rocking back and forth in the way that seriously disturbed children do and was violent to anyone who approached her. She was utterly unaware of Ion, then an underdeveloped sickly baby. It took months of patient therapy to explain what a “family” was and that they were brother and sister. By the time I first met her, she had just began to hug him and proudly did so in front of me. She was such a sweet child that I had often wondered what had happened to her. Luckily, Carmilia could be traced and I went to see her.
She and Ion, now 15 and 14, currently live in another family unit in a quiet village an hour away from the northern town of Baia Mare. Both teenagers were waiting in the front garden when I arrived. “Good afternoon,” Carmilia smiled. “I have learnt a little English. Please come in.” She is small for her age, but there was an effervescent quality about her that was still captivating, while Ion remained more withdrawn.
The care worker in charge told me that Carmilia works hard at school and it is hoped she will be able to find a job and cope with a family of her own.