Romania’s institutions have a history of neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse which still continues to this day and causes emotional, physical, and mental scars.
Institutionalized care, according to Dr. Victor Groza, the Grace F. Brody Professor of Parent-Child Studies at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, causes problems with developmental, physical, psychological, social and brain health. Dr. Groza stated, “The regimentation and ritualization of institutional life do not provide children with the quality of life, or the experiences they need to be healthy, happy, fully functioning adults.” They are also unable to form strong and lasting relationships with adults, leading to severe problems with socialization, primarily building trust and lasting relationships amongst adults and children alike.
This article, kindly provided by Dr. Victor Groza, is an easy to follow guide to the risks inherent to children institutionalised at an early age. Dr. Groza has been developing social work education and promoting best practices in child welfare and domestic adoptions in Romania, since 1991.
Victor Groza; PhD,LISW-S Grace F. Brody Professor of Parent-Child Studies, Director; Child Welfare Fellows Program Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Sciences, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.http://msass.case.edu/faculty/vgroza/ – Faculty website for further reading.
This is Alex. He is adopted. He has a story to tell.
Alex bravely undertakes a search to find his Russian biological parents and to uncover the truth about his past. He makes several journeys to his place of birth, then writes and hosts his film; Reunited. Follow Alex’s journey.
Alex longs to find the answers to questions. Questions he has held hidden in his heart for many long years.
Global warming hasn’t reached Russia. Alex’s sunny disposition and bright smile are in stark contrast to the dreary skies and decaying buildings of Rybinsk, where his birth mother is now living. A six hour drive from Moscow. Alex does not harden his heart against his birth mother and father when he learns the truth about his past. He doesn’t judge them. His New Zealand adoptive parents would no doubt be very proud of their son. Alex is grateful for a better life in New Zealand. Sadly, very few abandoned children are so lucky and International adoptions from Russia are now banned. Conditions in Alex’s old orphanage in his birthplace of Arkhangelsk are harsh and hopeless. Alex wants to provide comfort and hope to the hundreds of abandoned children left behind.
He is the founder of ”I’m Adopted” which is a Registered Charitable Trust in New Zealand. You can find them on facebook helping adoptees around the world connect and find biological parents and siblings.
Please help Alex’s dream of a better life for abandoned children living in his old orphanage in Arkhangelsk. Visit the website; http://www.imadopted.org and donate.
Azota Popescu, Founder and Director of Asociatia Catharsis, has worked tirelessly over the last twenty years to provide day-respite services to the blind and visually impaired and to advocate for better services for the disabled people in her community. She has also worked tirelessly to advocate for the rights of Romania’s 60,000 abandoned, institutionalised children. In line with the governments recent policy changes to domestic adoptions and their campaign; ” A Family For Every Child” , which aims to have no children living in institutions in Romania by 2020, Asociatia Catharsis are now are Registered Adoption Agency and, in accordance with government legislation, are able to provide the following essential services.
Catharsis Association Brasov, Romania and private body public interest
Reautorizată is to carry out activities and services in the field of domestic adoption as follows:
Activities for families who want to adopt a baby:
– informing families / individuals expressing their intention to adopt, documentation required to, and the domestic adoption procedures;
– preparing for adopters informed parental role;
– information and counseling adopters on the necessary legal steps disclosure, under the law, natural identity baby’s parents and, where appropriate, necessary contact or biological relatives by child;
– family or adoptatorului assessment in order to obtain adoptatoare attestation / family person to adopt one or more children.
Activities for children who have been or will be adopted:
Specialist Nurse for that child has not been able to identify a suitable adoptatoare family, where the adoption of the child adoption failed or stopped;
– drawing material information addressed to children on procedures, and the effects of adoption;
– Adoptatului and preparation advice for achieving its contacts with parents and / or natural biological relatives;
Natural activities for parents and extended family of children who have been or will be adopted:
– insurance expert assistance the adoption termination;
– advising and training natural parents and / or biological relatives for achieving contacts with adopted.
Adoption: post activities
– information and advice for parents and children;
– organising courses for parental capacity development;
– formation of groups for parents and children;
– supporting adopters to inform the child about adoption;
– advice on revealing adoptatului parents identity / natural biological relatives;
– advice and preparation adoptatului / parents / natural biological relatives to contact.
Adoption services internal
– information and promote domestic adoption awareness in order to / beneficiaries and needs increased domestic adoption by organising meetings, conferences, communications, media campaigns, editing of publications.
Asociația Catharsis Braşov, organism privat român şi de utilitate publică,
este reautorizată pentru a desfăşura activități și servicii în domeniul adopției interne, după cum urmează:
Activităţi destinate familiilor care doresc să adopte un copil:
– informarea familiilor/persoanelor care își exprimă intenția de a adopta, cu privire la documentația necesară, la demersurile și la durata procedurilor adopției interne;
– pregătirea adoptatorilor pentru asumarea în cunoștință de cauză a rolului de părinte;
– informarea si consilierea adoptatorilor cu privire la demersurile legale necesare dezvăluirii, în condițiile legii, a identități părinților firești ai copilului și, după caz, necesare contactării acestora sau a rudelor biologice de către copil;
– evaluarea adoptatorului sau familiei adoptatoare în vederea obținerii Atestatului de persoană/familie aptă să adopte unul sau mai mulți copii.
Activități destinate copiilor care au fost sau urmează să fie adoptați:
-asistenta de specialitate a copilului pentru care nu s-a putut identifica o familie adoptatoare potrivita, în cazul în care demersurile de adopție ale copilului au eșuat sau adopția a încetat;
-întocmirea unor materiale de informare adresate copiilor cu privire la procedurile, demersurile și efectele adopției;
-consilierea și pregătirea adoptatului pentru realizarea contactelor acestuia cu părinții firești și/sau rudele biologice;
Activități destinate părinților firești și familiei extinse a copiilor care au fost sau urmează să fie adoptați:
– asigurarea de asistență de specialitate în situația încetării adopției;
– consilierea și pregătirea părinților firești și/sau a rudelor biologice pentru realizarea contactelor cu adoptatul.
Activități post adopție:
– informare și consiliere pentru părinți și copii;
-organizarea unor cursuri pentru dezvoltarea capacităților parentale;
– constituirea de grupuri de suport pentru părinți și copii;
– sprijinirea adoptatorilor în vederea informării copilului cu privire la adopția sa;
– consilierea adoptatului în vederea dezvăluirii identității părinților firești/rudelor biologice;
– consilierea și pregătirea adoptatului/părinților firești/rudelor biologice în vederea contactării.
Servicii în domeniul adopției interne
– informarea si promovarea adopției interne, în scopul conștientizării problematicii/nevoilor beneficiarilor și creșterii numărului adopțiilor interne, prin organizarea unor întâlniri, conferințe, comunicări, campanii de mediatizare, editare de publicații.
Azota Popescu; Founder and President of Association Catharsis, Brasov, Romania. http://www.catharsis.org.ro
Phone/Fax: 0040 268 324888
Address: Braşov, 16th Toamnei St.,
Romania, Postal code: 500223
the Catharsis Association of Brasov
is a Romanian legal person of private law, legally acknowledged under the status of public utility without any patrimonial mission. The association was founded on January 17, 1996, according to binding legislation, that is: Bill No. 21/1924, Decree No. 31/1954, Bill No. 77/1994. In addition, it had 26 co-founding members, all of whom were important local personalities, including six psychologists, four physicians, four teachers, two social workers, two lawyers, two electrical engineers, two students, an anthropologist, a sociologist, an artist and a priest.
Respecting and promoting children’s rights; Reducing the number of institutionalized children; Encouraging family-related alternatives by:
– reintegrating the child in his/her natural family or, where possible, in the families of immediate relatives;
– placement with professional foster parents;
– identifying suitable persons/families wishing to adopt children or to take minors into foster care;
Social integration of teenagers who, upon turning 18, must leave the protective institutional environment; Improving living standards for special needs children and families with precarious social and financial situations;
Alleviating the pain of terminally ill children and teenagers, and changing the evolution of the diseases where possible; Encouraging positive thinking and nurturing feelings of human solidarity;
Developing and extending a network of dedicated volunteers;
Initiating and developing local and foreign partnerships with the purpose of ensuring the financial support for and the implementation of our projects;
Collaborating with government institutions, public authorities, and local and foreign non-governmental organizations dedicated to protecting children’s rights and providing social services.
The principles that underpin our work are transparency, equal opportunity, nondiscrimination, honesty, and sincerity.
The Catharsis Association is accredited by local and central authorities, according to binding legislation, in order to provide the following social services:
Specialized social service consisting of support and assistance for families and children in dire social and financial needs;
“Urgent actions meant to alleviate the consequences of critical situations” Primary social service consisting of counseling for:
– individuals or families that adopt children or are accepting minors into foster care;
young women who are dealing with unwanted pregnancy;
children and teenagers with deviant behavior.
All the services are being provided free of charge by an interdisciplinary team of experts.
The expenses incurred by our projects have been covered by our partners from Italy, Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, the United States, Hungary, as well as by individual and corporate sponsors from Brasov and Bucharest.
“Vrem o Românie fără orfani” – Conferință Internațională
Palatul Parlamentului, Sala Avram Iancu
18 noiembrie 2015
orele 14:00 – 18:00
Current Concepts of Identity Outdated, by Alex Kuch
Adoption is a complex process and one of the most complex challenges around adoptions is the identity of an individual. Ideas around identity in adoptions have a variety of views, even international recognized institutions such a UNICEF and The United Nations have taken on views in which they suggest that especially identity is limited to the geographical place of birth of an individual, hence in the (Declaration of the Rights of the Child,1959). Hence those organizations as a whole chose to interpret all 10 articles, those children needing to stay in their country of birth. They view identity as a static concept, whereas identity is socially constructed and is formed by the individual and the interactions with others over time.
This socio – autobiography will analyse how concepts of identity especially the looking glass self, the Me and I and racializing and how social forces have shaped me to be the person I am now and it will investigate the sociological importance of the concepts.
Charles Horton came up in his paper (Cooley, 1902) with the concept of the self-looking glass. It contains three key concepts; one imagines how one appears to another person. I on a personal level can definitely relate to that, especially due to my Roma or informally known as Gypsy ethnicity, which gives me a darker skin tone. As a result of this I imagine that most people who see me the first time that due to my appearance will think that I am from one of the following countries, the Middle East, India, Mexico or Spain or other countries which are considered to be ofmy skin tone. This is supported in various latest researchers such as (Perkins, K, 2014) how first and second immigrants felt in the United States.
Also one imagines how others judge ones appearance. Everyone does this and especially people who are marginalised in society. This happens across cultures and times.
I personally have experienced how I imagined others would judge me, after having been on Romanian national TV and talking about my life’s story and forgiving my biological mother for abandoning me. I expected them to be shocked about my behaviour because I behaved in a way that was counter-culture. Studies (Tice, D, 1992) have shown that behaviour in public had greater- effect on how one imagines the self and the anticipation of further public encounters increased the internalization. This certainly was the case for me.
But I didn’t imagine that people would instead also find some form of comfort in my actions, especially those who had abandoned their children and given them to the orphanages, there were numerous instances where older people in the public expressed this to me. In research, it has been shown that how others are viewed and judged effects how they feel about that perceived judgment (Shrauger, J, 1979) & (Aken, M, 1996).
Also as a result of the perceived judgment it affects the way one feels about themselves, I certainly can say that I felt really overwhelmed at how the people of Romania judged me in such a positive way and to some degree even gave me celebrity/ saint status, such as people asking to speak to me in public and having a photograph taken with me. As mentioned above research confirms that the more public interaction and the anticipation of this increases the internalization hence it also increases the way one would feel about the perceived judgment (Tice, D, 1992)
These kinds of events don’t just happen to me as an individual but happen to other people as well that have been in similar situations, despite being influenced by different social forces and across different time periods.
The concept of the looking glass self-has enormous sociological importance, especially in my example how adoptees feel about themselves as a result of the perceived judgment of others, hence a very basic argument can be made that society should be informed about adoptions and how people especially should be spoken to for all parties involved and how it can affect and make the people feel. A very recent study (Eriksson, P, 2015) shows that adoptive parents are really satisfied with pre-adoption education and while adoption occurred and it is a very vital process.
George Herbert Mead in (Mead, G, 1982) came up with concepts of the Me and the I, The ‘I’ is a person’s independent part that operates before an individual is aware that there is the world outside of their own self. The ‘me’ is as a result of the influence of other people in society.
For me personally I started to be aware that there is the world outside my own self at the age of 4 years. Research (Bloch, H, 1990) shows that the age this happens at is 2 years but starts from the age the person is born until they are 5 years old. However (Cooley, 1902) argues that individuals imagine how their self-appearance is judged by others, but this clearly is not the case for children under the age of 2 but varys of course and they don’t imagine how their appearance is judged and hence don’t have a perceived feeling of this judgment. This can be clearly seen by young children because in general on their own they don’t judge one another and don’t feel judged. I personally can say that at the age before one is aware of the world outside their self. However after the age of 2 the Me in an individual as (Mead, G, 1982) states is a result of the influences of other people in society. I personally definitely can say that for myself I was more influenced by family and close friends the older I got. This is also confirmed by (Cooley, 1902) that, we imagine how others view, judge one’s appearance and, as a result have a perceived feeling about the judgment made on a person.
Racialization is a common practice and we all have experienced it and done it ourselves. (Matthewman, S, 2013) defines racialization as ‘The process through which ideas and beliefs about race, together with class and gender, shape social relationships; in other words the social construction of race.” Or (Matthewman, S, 2013) defines racialisation as, “A social process by which ‘a group is classified as a race and defined as a problem”
I have many times experienced racialization especially that people often judge where I am from on my physical appearance and people are really shocked when I tell them that I am from Europe and adopted from Romania by German parents. There are these differences in terms of race and ethnicity.
Inherited – Physical
Learned – Social
The above table shows some key differences between Race and Ethnicity.
An overall key feature is that ethnicity is fluid and dynamic; however a lot of international organisations argue that an international adoption (inter-country adoptions) damages the adoptee’s identity. However, a person’s identity doesn’t depend on the country of birth but one factor such as what he has learned growing up and a person’s identity keeps changing and developing during their life.
Even people can have multiple or even mix ethnicities hence I can call myself a Romanian, German, New Zealander (Kiwi) and until recently this year I wouldn’t consider Romania one of my ethnicities but dramatic events such as being confronted with my biological family but even more inspecting orphanages and mental institutions gave me greater insights into Romanian’s past and present and shaped my personal identity.
The concept of racializing has vast sociological importance because we all judge others on numerous factors, such as ethnicity, religious beliefs and appearance. As a result of this certain perceptions take prominence and give rise to power of people asserting themselves over others. An example of this for me was that when I was adopted, one uncle said “You are adopting Alex, how don’t you know that he will not become a thief/ criminal” that was racialization because I was from Romania and would be adopted, which had and still has a bad stigma in regards to crime. Despite having been myself to Romania numerous times in various parts, I have never experienced any crimes and been treated with the utmost respect.
Hence in summary identity is a complex concept especially in Adoptions. However the arguments from institutions like the United Nations and especially UNICEF that inter-country adoptions causes’ damage to identity due to a person leaving their country of birth is a very racially based point of view and views identity as fixed. However identity consist of so much more such as discussed earlier the Me and I, the individual self and the influence of the self by society. The looking glass self concept where the views, perception and judgments of others affects the ways an individual feels about him or herself.
Something that would be good to investigate would be for those organizations to do more qualitative and Quantitative research into how actually institutions in my case orphanages, effects children or to look at existing research because they are not permanent solutions for children in the long term.
As well that racialization is very critical and these institutions often argue that certain ethnicities are more problematic than others however it is not the ethnicities, but the way individuals were treated; hence their personal experiences which form their identity, which often were of a psychological and physical nature.
Hence overall for me my identity has been affected by adoption but it has expanded my personal experiences and actually allows me to interact better with people of different ethnicities, due to my range of experiences.
Word count: 1619
Aken, M., Lieshout, A., & Haselager, G. (1996). Adolescents’ competence and the mutuality of their self-descriptions and descriptions of them provided by others. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,25(3), 285-306.
Bloch, H., & Bertenthal, B. I. (1990). Sensory-Motor Organizations and Development in Infancy and Early Childhood Proceedings of the NATO Advanced Research Workshop on Sensory-Motor Organizations and Development in Infancy and Early Childhood Chateu de Rosey, France (NATO ASI series. Series D, Behavioural and social sciences; 56). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
Cooley, & Aut. (1922). Human Nature and the Social Order.
Eriksson, P., Elovainio, M., Mäkipää, S., Raaska, H., Sinkkonen, J., & Lapinleimu, H. (2015). The satisfaction of Finnish adoptive parents with statutory pre-adoption counselling in inter-country adoptions. European Journal of Social Work,18(3), 412-429.
Mead, G., & Miller, David L. (1982). The individual and the social self : Unpublished work of George Herbert Mead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Perkins, K., Wiley, S., Deaux, K., & Zárate, Michael A. (2014). Through Which Looking Glass? Distinct Sources of Public Regard and Self-Esteem Among First- and Second-Generation Immigrants of Color. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology,20(2), 213-219
Shrauger, J., Schoeneman, T., & Hernstein, R .j. (1979). Symbolic interactionist view of self-concept: Through the looking glass darkly. Psychological Bulletin,86(3), 549-573.
Tice, D., & Miller, Norman. (1992). Self-Concept Change and Self-Presentation: The Looking Glass Self Is Also a Magnifying Glass. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,63(3), 435-451.
This is an article about a remarkable young man, Visinel Balan, who led a tragic life of beatings and neglect. Somehow, he not only survived, but went on to complete a Law Degree, a Theatre Degree and a Psychology Degree. But Visinel believes that his greatest achievement was in 2013 when he co-founded the N.G.O- ”Drawing Your Own Future”. In Romania, where there are 60,000 abandoned children many of whom live in institutions, these children ”age-out” of the system and onto the streets or live in the underground sewers. They have no income, no life-skills and no family to support themselves.
Visinel has also created ” Institutionalised Youth Council”.
His Mission Statement is; Changing the Legislation on Child Protection.
The Abolition of Children’s Centre’s
Drafting A New Law On Adoption.
”Drawing Your Own Future” and ”Institutionalised Youth Council” engage young people in activities which encourage, motivate and inspire each other.
Visinel wants to show these children that they can build a life for themselves, despite the tragedy of their pasts.
When Vişinel Balan was two months old he was put in a state infant centre in Bacău, a town folded into the foothills of the Carpathian mountains in Romania. It was August 1987. At the entrance to the institution there was a poster of a mother bringing in her baby, then walking away with her child, now older, hand in hand. The message was: the state can take better care of your child than you can.
Vişinel’s earliest memories are of rocking himself backwards and forwards and of waking up warm, wet with pee. When he was three years old he was sent to a preschool institution in the nearby town of Comănești. Here they were beaten on the soles of their feet for wetting the bed. Once, in kindergarten class, Vişinel tried to write the letter R and he made it wrong. He went to the cupboard, took an eraser to rub it out and put the eraser in his pocket. One of the other kids told on him and the caretaker stripped his clothes off and held him over the desk and beat his bottom with a stick.
Still, Vişinel was lucky. He was cute, blond and blue-eyed, and often sick with bronchitis or pneumonia. He attracted the attention of the staff. One of the caretakers made a pet of him and brought him extra biscuits, which he hid under his pillow.
When he was eight years old, Vişinel was moved to Placement Centre Number 6 in Comănești. Now life got hard. The older kids beat the younger kids. Sometimes he was woken by another kid punching him in the head. He lived in a room with six other boys. They had to be ready and dressed every morning before school, standing beside their bed for inspection. For every minute they were late, they earned one whack across the palm. One of the caretakers, Celina, beat Vişinel a lot. A year after he arrived at the placement centre, Vişinel jumped from the second-storey balcony and ran away to live in the railway station.
“It’s important to remember,” grownup Vişinel told me, sitting in a brightly lit cafe in Bucharest, with a slice of cake in front of him, “that I didn’t know anything about my family until I was 11 years old.”
When I first met Vişinel he was wearing a checked shirt and green jeans and green trainers. His favourite colour is green. His face is handsome, open and boyish. Vişinel is now 27. He has a law degree and a theatre degree, and has just begun a master’s in psychology at the University of Bucharest. He has worked as a project coordinator for the Ministry of Youth and Sport, as a drama teacher at a school for gifted children and as a consultant for Saatchi & Saatchi in Romania. He has bought a car and a small apartment in a pretty village outside Bucharest. The thing he is most proud of, however, is the NGO he co-founded in 2013.Drawing Your Own Future works with children in Romania’s child-protection system. Vişinel said he wanted to show teenagers that they could master their own destinies, as he had.
“I am looking at you and I am thinking about this sickly, beaten nine-year-old begging on the streets and I can’t put the two together,” I said. “Were you a different person back then?”
Vişinel’s face went blank for a moment, his smile stopped. He raised his chin and looked up at the ceiling, and when he lowered it again I saw that his eyes were filled with tears. The tears spilled and ran silently down his cheeks. He said, almost in a whisper: “It is the same person.”
In the summer of 1990 I was 19, revolutions had recently swept the communists from eastern Europe, the world was new and everything was possible. They said it was the end of history. I took my secondhand Peugeot 205 and a boyfriend and headed east. We drove to Prague, where they were selling ironic Pink Floyd The Wall T-shirts on the Charles bridge, south to Zagreb, where we laughed at the ridiculous idea of Croatian nationalism, through a place called Kosovo which we had never heard of, to Sofia where we watched a man chisel off the hammer and sickle from the facade of the parliament building.
We spent all day stuck on the Bulgarian-Romanian border (there was a rumoured cholera epidemic) and when we finally arrived in Bucharest, it was dark and the street lamps weren’t working. Along the road were piles of smouldering rubbish. Of all the east European countries, with the exception of Albania, Romania had been the most closed off. It had no famous political dissidents; no Sakharovs or Wałęsas or Havels. Its 23 million citizens were sequestered under one of the 20th century’s most repressive dictators: Nicolae Ceauşescu.
When he came to power in 1966, Ceaușescu had grand plans for Romania. The country had industrialised late, after the second world war, and its birthrate was low. Ceaușescu borrowed the 1930s Stalinist dogma that population growth would fuel economic growth and fused this idea with the conservatism of his rural childhood. In the first year of his rule, his government issued Decree 770, which outlawed abortion for women under 40 with fewer than four children. “The foetus is the property of the entire society,” Ceaușescu announced. “Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity.”
The birth rate soon doubled, but then the rate of increase slowed as Romanian women resorted to homemade illegal abortions, often with catastrophic results. In 1977 all childless persons, regardless of sex or martial status, were made to pay an additional monthly tax. In the 1980s condoms and the pill, although prohibitively expensive, began to become available in Romania – so they were banned altogether. Motherhood became a state duty. The system was ruthlessly enforced by the secret police, the securitate. Doctors who performed abortions were imprisoned, women were examined every three months in their workplaces for signs of pregnancy. If they were found to be pregnant and didn’t subsequently give birth, they could face prosecution. Fertility had become an instrument of state control.
This policy, coupled with Romania’s poverty, meant that more and more unwanted children were abandoned to state care. No one knows how many. Estimates for the number of children in orphanages in 1989 start at 100,000 and go up from there. Since the second world war, there had been a system of state institutions for children. But after 1982, when Ceaușescu redirected most of the budget to paying off the national debt, the economy tanked and conditions in the orphanages suffered. Electricity and heat were often intermittent, there were not enough staff, there was not enough food. Physical needs were assessed, emotional needs were ignored. Doctors and professionals were denied access to foreign periodicals and research, nurses were woefully undertrained (many orphans contracted HIV because hypodermic needles were seldom sterilised) and developmental delays were routinely diagnosed as mental disability. Institutional abuse flourished unchecked. While some caretakers did their best, others stole food from the orphanage kitchens and drugged their charges into docility.
When the revolution was over, the world’s press discovered Ceaușescu’s archipelago of orphanages and the appalling images went around the world: disabled children with bone-stick limbs tied to their beds, cross-eyed toddlers who couldn’t walk, malnourished babies left unattended in cribs with metal bars, little corpses stacked in basements. The pictures shocked Romanians as much as they did the rest of the world; institutionalised children were generally kept away from the general population.
When I arrived in my little Peugeot that summer, eight months after Europe’s only violent revolution, there were still bullet holes around the national TV station building. On Christmas Day 1989, Ceauşescu and his wife Elena had been tried in an empty school house and shot the same day. Ion Iliescu, a communist opponent of Ceaușescu’s, had been elected president in May.
One night we bribed a guard with a packet of cigarettes for a tour of Ceaușescu’s palace, nominally the House of the People. Ceaușescu never lived to see it completed, but its monstrous proportions were clear: huge vaulted rooms, marble staircases big enough for giants, chandeliers the size of small cars. One day we went to an orphanage. There were 15 or more babies lying in cribs in one room. I picked one up. He was small and thin and had big, satellite-wide blue eyes in a head that seemed too heavy for him to hold up. The nurse told me he was a year old.
This autumn I went back to Bucharest for the first time. Ceaușescu’s palace has been turned into the national parliament which only manages to fill a part of the edifice. The facade is neoclassical bland-grand, from a distance it looks like a squat toad sitting on a hill. The new government never built the roof that they had planned, so the last story ends in an abrupt flat line. Its sheer size is still overwhelming – it is the largest civil administration building in the world – but the palace has weathered over the past 25 years. I remembered a sparkling white behemoth of ego in the middle of a benighted country, now it just seems part of the landscape, subsumed to democracy.
After running away from his placement centre in Comănești, Vişinel grew up to spend his teenage years in one of the smaller homes that, during the 1990s, began to replace the giant placement centres. Since the fall of Ceauşescu, Romania has come a long way in overhauling its child protection system. As Sandie Blanchet, the Unicef representative in Romania, told me: “The ideology under Ceaușescu’s regime was that the state was better than the family. Nobody is saying that now.” Today only a third of Romania’s children in the state system are housed in residential homes maintained by the state. Half of these are in what are known as “family-type” homes with five or six kids growing up together. The other half are in placement centres, larger institutional buildings that usually house between 30 and 100 kids. However, the majority of Romanian children in the state system are in foster care – Romanian foster parents are paid a salary from the state, rather than being subsidised volunteers as they are in western European countries – or placed with extended family. The government has made a public commitment to close all the remaining placement centres – roughly 170 – by 2020.
But this progress conceals an ongoing problem; just as in Ceauşescu’s time, most of these children are not orphans, they are in fact “separated from their parents”. The number of Romanian children separated from their parents has fallen from an estimated 100,000 in 1990 to some 60,000 today. But the birth rate has also steeply declined, which means that the proportion of Romania’s children in state care has remained stubbornly high. Things have improved little since the 1990s. And parents are still abandoning their children, largely it turns out, for the same reason as in previous decades: poverty.
Romania is the poorest country per capita in the European Union and spends among the least on social welfare. When it joined the EU in 2007, many citizens thought the country would quickly become as rich as France or Germany. Instead the global economic crisis hit Romania late, in 2010, but hard. Budgets were slashed, wages cut. In 2011, for the first time in 15 years, the number of children in state care actually increased. A caregiver in the child protection system now earns between €200 and €250 a month, less than they did five years ago.
Bucharest looks bustling and prosperous; a new metro extension is being built. But half of Romanians live in the countryside, in villages that often lack basic services. Schools operate in shifts, morning for the primary schools pupils, afternoons for secondary school. “There is a huge problem with poverty,” said Mirela Oprea, the secretary general of Childpact, a regional coalition of child protection NGOs. “In rural Romania girls don’t have enough information about contraception, education is very limited, they drop out of school very early.” Under the communist authorities police would visit parents of truants, now “no one comes to enforce the law”. The government gives a regular stipend to parents of children under two, but when this ends, children are often abandoned.
In the early 1990s western charities and NGOs rushed in to Romania with supplies of blankets, powdered milk and toys. Many children were scooped up by western parents in a rescue-adoption frenzy. Orphanages got basic necessities, but the culture remained unchanged. The importance of play, of interaction and communication, of care, was not yet understood.
Along with western money came psychologists and behavioural scientists. Romania’s neglected children represented a tragic experiment in what happens to institutionalised children denied the stimulation of normal human relationships. Michael Rutter, the UK’s first professor of child psychology, discovered that the time it took for the children to catch up to their peer group in terms of development, was relative to the amount of time spent in an institution.
Today, nothing about Vişinel’s demeanour suggests an institutional childhood. In the time I spent with him, he was open, gregarious and optimistic. He told me that often when he talked to teenagers in the system they didn’t believe he had grown up like them. His NGO has 35 volunteers, who work on various programmes, from taking kids on outings to playing laser tag to organising seminars to teach teenagers life skills. I visited him at the apartment in Bucharest which he shares with his older brother Virgil. Virgil, like Vişinel, had grown up in institutions and managed to go on to university, where he had studied psychology. He and Vişinel had founded the NGO together and on their apartment wall was the logo, a stylised pair of open arms linked to a heart, surrounded by hundreds of multicoloured children’s handprints. “We used to have lots of kids come over,” said Vişinel, “but the neighbours complained about the noise.”
Most of Vişinel’s work with his NGO focuses on teenagers in placement centres and family-type apartments. Some districts of Bucharest were more receptive than others. He has good relations with some administrators and educators, as caregivers are known; others see him as a troublemaker, giving the kids false hope.
Vişinel took me with him when he went to visit caregivers to discuss how his NGO could help. We visited a family-type apartment, which was like most that I saw: an ordinary flat in a housing block, three children to a room in which the beds take up almost all the floor space. The educators, usually women, rotate in shifts, cooking Romanian staples such as stuffed cabbage and soup, taking kids to school, helping with homework. The children were warm and fed and cared for. But, as Vişinel explained, they often grow up without possessions and without a sense of ownership. They have little agency in their lives and they suffer from a crippling lack of self-esteem.
At a conference we attended in Bucharest about how to help young people who are leaving the system, Vişinel and I listened as two speakers complained that teenagers often had unrealistically high expectations; they received the very best the Romanian state could give them and they should be doing much better, the problem was that they did not have any sense of responsibility because they were used to having everything done for them. Vişinel was angry at their attitude; these were the people who should be encouraging the kids in their care, he told me, not disparaging them.
One afternoon we went to an emergency placement centre in a poor Roma area of Bucharest; car repair shops, crumbling housing blocks and garbage drifts. The centre was housed in an old school, set back from the road behind a 10ft solid metal fence. A three-legged dog hopped around the entrance. Inside, Vişinel talked to the director, a jolly, square-shaped woman, who talked volubly about all the things the 40 or so children in her charge centre had: a chess club, folk dancing lessons and plans for a new football pitch. But, she lamented, everything they had came from donations. The government money was not enough even to buy clothes for the children.
The director took us on a tour. The facility had recently been refurbished. It was clean and functional, but empty and depressing. A wide corridor led off to small rooms with bunk beds. A teenage girl tapped into a mobile phone at a desk. (Vişinel told me later that girls in placement centres were sometimes given mobile phones by pimp boyfriends so they could earn money doing sex chats online.) The director proudly unlocked a room full of donated computers. Once a week the children had a lesson on computers, but no, the rest of the time they were not allowed to use them.
Vişinel shook his head as we left. It had snowed the day before and the wind was cold and raw. “I promise you it was even worse when I saw it a year ago,” he said.
* * *
Vişinel’s teenage years were rescued by the chance discovery when he was 11 that two of the cadet soldiers billeted in his placement centre for the summer had the same surname as him. They were, in fact, his brothers. They told him that he had other brothers and sisters and that he had parents too. That summer they took him to meet them. Vişinel learned that he was the last of 13 children. His mother was mad and his father beat her. Four of their children died. The rest had gone into the system. He met his mother for the first time that summer. The first time he saw her she was walking down a hill throwing stones at dogs. His father was asleep in the yard in front of a collapsed hut, and couldn’t remember anyone called Vişinel and then tried to make a joke about it. Vişinel didn’t know what to say or what to feel. There was a donkey braying in the adjacent field and he went over and petted it.
He found a better reception with his brother Virgil. Virgil was 10 years older than Vişinel. When Vişinel first met him Virgil was 21 and living with an old Armenian professor, who had unofficially adopted him, in the forest spa town of Targu Ocna. Virgil had grown up there during the 1980s in one of the worst orphanages. “We were 1,100 kids,” he told me when I met him. “We were like ants.” Virgil was small, with a thin, concave frame. He said there had been a lot of violence between the older kids and the younger ones. I asked him for an example. He was silent for a moment.
“Emotionally, it’s very difficult,” he said. He held one thin arm across his chest, clinging on to his wrist. Like Vişinel he preferred to talk in generalities. It was painful to retrace specific episodes. “The principle was [that] the strongest were the leaders. If you tried to ask for help from a caretaker, the caretaker would punish the boy who had hit you and then he would just come back and abuse you worse. So the second time you wouldn’t tell. You repressed everything you felt.”
* * *
As much as the revolution against Ceauşescu was a popular uprising, it was also a palace coup. There was an overlap between the old regime and the new government – securitate members got rich, functionaries in ministries continued to be self-serving and incompetent. “Romania lost a decade,” a prominent magazine editor in Bucharest told me. Things began to change in 1997, when Emil Constantinescu replaced Iliescu (although Iliescu would be elected again, serving from 2000-2004). Constantinescu ushered in a period of greater reform. His government established a new Child Protection Authority, promoted the “family-type” apartments and introduced foster care, which had never existed in Romania. The EU made reform one of the explicit conditions of Romania joining, and spent money on training foster parents and renovating accommodation for children in care. Mirela Oprea remembered the impact of the EU’s declaration that membership would be tied to the way Romania treated its abandoned children. “You cannot imagine the huge pressure created by such a statement,” she told me. “It became a political issue. There was something amazing about this that still gives me goosebumps.”
Professionals working in Romanian child protection who I spoke to often stressed that the next step would be to implement a comprehensive welfare system that would prevent many children from falling into the state system. Sandie Blanchet told me that Unicef is now working with the government to test run a programme that would put social workers in villages. They would try to reach vulnerable families, helping them with medical care, administrative tasks such as getting birth certificates, and issues such as violence and alcoholism. “This is what we have in western Europe and we don’t even notice,” said Blanchet. Funds for the scheme were coming from the EU.
In many ways Romania is a poster child for EU expansion. More than once Romanians I talked to shuddered at the example of neighbouring Ukraine, corrupt and suffering civil war, caught in the Russian sphere of influence. Despite the nation’s poverty, things look a little better in Romania. Corruption, once endemic, is now being checked. Over the past few years more than 1,000 officials have been indicted; a former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, is in jail. Romania now has a lower rate of children separated from their parents in state care than Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
* * *
One blustery blue-grey afternoon we drove out of Bucharest, five hours along a single-carriage highway through a flat plain, north towards the Carpathians. Vişinel wanted to take me back to the sites of his childhood. Horse-drawn carts, piled with silage and chopped wood, slowed the traffic. Peasants gleaned corn in black furrowed fields. We passed through villages in which half the houses were collapsing under carved gingerbread eaves and the other half had new polyurethane roofs, often paid for by remittances of Romanians working abroad.
In the centre of the small town of Comănești, where Vişinel spent much of his childhood, was the hulk of a closed down factory. An oil pipeline ran alongside the road, propped up on crumbling concrete supports and wrapped in tar paper bandages. We drove into the town and through quiet streets.
In Comănești, Vişinel and I found the train station where he had lived when he was on the streets when he was 11, a handsome building with Ottoman yellow and blue tiles around the windowsills. In the forecourt had been a ramshackle bar where Vişinel cleaned up for money. Other times he washed cars at a garage a few blocks away or worked for tips as a porter at the market.
“This is the fountain where I washed,” said Vişinel, tour guide for his own past, “here is the waiting room where I slept …” Cold stone floor; missing window panes. “This was my corner,” he said and pointed to a metal baggage cart. “I liked to sleep on that exact baggage cart. I can’t believe its still here. Many of my colleagues were raped or killed at the train station. These things happened. I remember the cemetery where we buried one of the girls. We used to train-hop together and a man tried to rape her and she resisted and he killed her. I was 10 and she was only a little older.” Vişinel spoke in an understated rush, as if he was constantly testing the limits of what he wanted to remember. I didn’t feel I could push him for more details.
Vişinel spent several months going back and forth between the train station and Placement Centre Number 6. He finally ran away again, this time taking refuge in a monastery in the woods a few kilometres from Comănești. He lied about where he’d come from and how he got the bruises on his back. The priest let him stay if he worked for his board by chopping wood. Although he says that the nuns chopped the wood for him – “the axe was as big as I was!” – and let him take the credit. When he made contact again with the authorities, Vişinel was placed with a foster family who had a farm in the area. The husband beat the wife and the wife beat Vişinel. He lived there for two years. He complained to the authorities and was told to stop making trouble. He kept complaining until they took him out of the foster home and put him in a family-type apartment in Bacău. He kept complaining until the foster couple were taken off the foster register.
He had gained confidence by getting to know his older brothers, elder boys who could protect him and help him. He now saw that he had some control over his own destiny.
* * *
This autumn, Vişinel was in the process of organising a conference for teenagers and had invited other success stories from the system, including a fighter pilot and a civil servant, to talk about their experiences. His conference was titled My Story but Vişinel was not going to tell his. I tried to tease him about this paradox. He shook his head. “I like to listen to other people’s stories, not necessarily to speak myself.”
Vişinel is an unusual success story. He went to university and remained legally under state care until last year, when he was 26 years old, the maximum age the state will support a young person if they are in higher education. But his success was his own.
He was intelligent and engaging and cute. From a young age he understood that these were tools for survival, attributes that would attract adults who could help him. In his teens Vişinel became active in local politics, joining the local youth wing of a liberal political party in Bacău. A local councillor called Codrin Lungu befriended him and helped to get him into a better high school so that he could take his university entrance exams. Near his school lived Constantin Prihoancă and his wife, a retired childless couple who had become foster parents to several children. Their cosy apartment became a place of respite on winter evenings. Here Vişinel found a home.
He took me to see them in their apartment in Bacău, a town of grey blocks and collapsing villas. Constantin was now retired but had been, in Ceauşescu’s time, “an ordinary worker”, as he put it. He thought life was better under communism because back then everyone was equal, everyone had a job and an apartment. He was for the socialist party; Vişinel was for the liberals and they discussed the upcoming presidential election as we sat in the little kitchen and ate the hot soup his wife had made. The mayor of Bacău was under house arrest for corruption and Vişinel’s old friend Codrin Lungu, now a deputy in parliament, had suggested that Vişinel run for mayor in his place. “Will you vote for me if I am the liberal candidate?” he asked Constantin and both of them laughed.
When I talked to Vişinel’s brother Virgil about his work with children, about their difficulties with personal relationships and self-esteem, I asked him what the personal consequences of his time in the system had been. He said he noticed he was reticent. “And probably the fact that I have not managed to have a wife and a family is also a consequence.” Neither Vişinel, nor any of his brothers, have married.
As I was listening to Virgil, I remembered a man I had seen in the foyer of the child protection offices in Bucharest a few days earlier. He was drunk, hobbling with a stiff, dragged-along gait. He was holding a cup of McDonald’s coffee and cadging a cigarette from the security guard. His head seemed too large for his small body. The security guard knew him: he had been in the placement centre, now closed, just across the street, as a child. He was 35; although he looked 50. Another member of this ghost generation, one of the uncounted children that didn’t make it.
When I asked Vişinel what were the things that upset him the most, he told me that it was other people’s distress. It was also clear that his pain and trauma hovered very close to the surface. More than once his expression went rigid, his throat closed and he stopped talking and left the room so as not to cry in front of me. He told me that part of the reason he had studied acting was to learn “how to control emotions, how to understand yourself better and other people around you, relationships. Acting helps you to discover yourself. I realised through theatre how sensitive I am and it’s how I started building my mask.”
“What is your mask?” I asked him.
“To protect myself, to avoid getting wounded.”
He had played many parts, including Hamlet.
“Hamlet is a difficult role!” I said.
“Yes, very,” said Vişinel. “Especially to understand the character and his drama and his relationship to his real father and mother.”
* * *
His father died a few years ago but Vişinel and I went to the village of Petreshte to see his mother. We stopped at the village shop and Vişinel bought rice, oil, tins of meat, two loaves of bread and a kilo of biscuits to give to her. As we drove on, the road turned into a rocky track, wound up the slope of a pretty, wooded valley, thin streams of smoke rising from stove pipes, ducks in puddles. It was close to dusk. We stopped in front of the shack where Vişinel had first met his father. It was impossible to imagine anyone had ever lived there, it was a ruin. A couple of years ago Vişinel had convinced the mayor to build his mother a new house, next door. It was a single room made of breeze blocks, with a tin roof and no running water or electricity.
Vişinel walked up the sloped yard, overgrown with weeds and strewn with rubbish, and called out her name: “Ileana! Ileana!” He has never been able to bring himself to call her Mum. An old woman appeared, wearing a shapeless skirt and a heavy men’s suit jacket. A blue headscarf was tied under her chin but wisps of wild white hair escaped it. She was barefoot. She talked in a torrent of disconnected thoughts. She was afraid to light the stove in case the house caught fire; they had taken all her animals and the donkey and she had to bar her door against the thieves.
“Are you Vişinel? Where are you living? Is that your car?”
Vişinel told me that once he had given her a ride in his car and she had been thrilled and said: “I am pleased the state has made you a chauffeur!”
She wanted to take us to see one of Vişinel’s brothers, Dumitru. She set out, still barefoot, carrying a large stick, overflowing with gossip and complaint. “The state has five of my boys, the state built my house, the state did a good thing.”
We scrambled up a steep mud bank and came to a hut that was even smaller than his mother’s house. Dumitru had built it himself from wood plastered with mud, and Vişinel had sometimes stayed there during his teenage summers. “There were fleas,” he told me, half smiling. Inside, it smelled sour and dank, the floor was tramped earth. Two beds facing each other took up almost all of the floor space. Heaps of clothes made mattresses. “Come in! Come in!” Dumitru looked just like Vişinel, but older and weather-worn, with jug ears and a pink flushed face. (“I am surprised he was sober,” Vişinel said afterwards.) Dumitru fumbled for a candle and found a broken taper and stuck it into the bowl of cauliflower as a candlestick. He asked after Virgil and other brothers.
“And how is Vişinel?”
“I am Vişinel!” said Vişinel. Dumitru was embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I get you mixed up.”
When we left Dumitru’s hut, he hugged Vişinel very tightly and said: “No matter where we grew up we are all human beings.”