Shame of a Nation

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Izidor Ruckel outside the locked orphanage in 1990.

Izidor Ruckel was born in 1980. When he was six months old, he became ill and his parents took him to a hospital where he contracted polio from an infected syringe. Later, the hospital doctors encouraged his parents to drop him off at an orphanage. From 1983 until 1991, Izidor lived in the Sighetu Marmatiei orphanage.

No one knows how many children were in Romanian orphanages at end of communism. The number is estimated to have been somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000. What we do know is that child abandonment was actually encouraged by the Romanian government as a means of population growth by discarding children who could not be productive workers for the state.

Sighetu Marmatiei is located in Sighet, a small city in northern Romania. It is the hometown of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

The Sighetu Marmatiei institution is located on the western edge of town behind a 6-foot wall. The sign above the entry reads “Camin Spital Pentru Minori Deficient,” which translates to the “Hospital Home for Deficient Children.”

In 1990, shortly after communism fell, ABC News’ 20/20 producer Janice Tomlin visited Sighet and produced the awarding series “Shame of a Nation.” Tomlin’s photos and videos brought the world’s attention to Romania’s horrific child welfare practices.

Dan and Marlys Ruckel of San Diego watched the 20/20 broadcast and went to Romania with the intention of adopting a child. On October 29, 1991, Dan and Marlys adopted Izidor. He was one of many Sighet orphans to make San Diego their new home.

In 2016, Izidor moved back to Romania, where he has committed his life to children without families and finding the means to support the 60,000 orphans of his generation who were never adopted.

I recently met Izidor at the Cluj train station to talk about his life, why he moved back to Romania, and the current state of child welfare.

TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND

From 3 until 11, I was in a hospital for children, not an orphanage. But back then, and still today, there is no difference between how a kid is treated in a children’s hospital or a state orphanage. They are both institutions.

Two years after arriving in the US, I started to miss the institution in Sighet. Nobody in the US had the answers that I was looking for, and I took out my anger on the people that loved me most, my adopted family. I was a child from hell.

Then a Romanian family came to San Diego for Easter and I heard about Christ. I wrote down tons of questions and began to find the answers I was searching for. People ask me how I overcame this. It isn’t because of my parents or anything I did, it was because I allowed Christ to tell me who I really was.

As my anger subsided and family life improved, I was asked to write a book to help families who adopt abandoned children. The book, Abandoned for Life, was published in 2003 and sold over 30,000 copies.

For 17 years, since 2001, my primary life goal has been to tell people what happened in my institution and make sure it stops happening to other children in Romania. I have spoken hundreds of times, including on the BBC, in the Washington Post and recently in an interview with Morgan Freeman that will be aired this October in 176 countries on National Geographic.

DESCRIBE LIFE IN THE ORPHANAGE

We woke up at 5, stripped naked, since most kids wet themselves in bed, and went to another room for new clothes while the floor was cleaned. We ate breakfast, washed up and were put into a clean room where we just sat there rocking back and forth, hitting each other, sleeping or watching someone cry until they were drugged. After lunchtime, we went back into the clean room, repeating the same things as the morning. Then we were fed, bathed again, put into clean clothes and into bed for the night.

WHAT DO YOU WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE?

First, that the children suffered more than anyone knows. No reporter can capture the suffering. The abuse was worse than anything reported. If you were handicapped like me, you were hidden and never allowed outside the institution.

Secondly, despite all trauma and emotional wounds, no life is ever lost. If we give these kids, now adults, some opportunity, with love, nourishment and development, they can function in the world and develop independence. I stay in touch with the kids I grew up with and they can be helped. They still have dreams.

WHY DO YOU KEEP RETURNING TO SIGHET ?

There are many reasons. First off, it was my home for 11 years and believe it or not, there are memories I cherish. The few times I was allowed out of the institution, I was in awe of the natural beauty of Sighet. Romania to me was the beautiful land outside the institution, not the evil inside the institution.

I like to visit some of the nurses. I call them my seven angels. Their love and compassion was the only source of hope I had.

There is also a specific memory that reminds me that God was with me even though I did not know who He was. On one of my trips outside the institution, I saw a dead man hanging on a cross. The nurse said it was Jesus Christ, but without any explanation. I actually thought he was some poor guy from Sighet.

I kept feeling sorry for him when I got back to the institution. Now I take a picture of that cross every time I am back in Sighet.

I go back to reconnect with the kids I grew up with. In 2014, four of us went back to the institution. Dolls, furniture and clothes were lying around like it just closed. Crows were everywhere like in a haunted house. But it was remarkable that each of us remembered things that the others had forgotten. It felt really good for us to share our common experience. When I asked them if they missed this place, we all said ‘yes’. It was our only childhood home.

But the biggest reason is to find out what really happened there. Even though the place had been closed for 11 years, it is still filled with records and supplies. When I was seven, a kid named Duma was beaten so badly that I hid under the sheets, fearful that I might be next. In the morning, I saw Duma’s naked bruised body and by lunch he was dead. Last year I found his medical records. His official cause of death was “stopped breathing.”

There was another kid named Marian who was hyperactive and was often given medicine. His father visited him every weekend and I would jealously look out the window as they sat on a bench. In time, Marius stopped eating and lost the will to live. I remember looking out the window on the Sunday when he died in his Dad’s arms. His Dad was crying and praying to heaven.

In 1995, there was a media story that Romanian orphans were given rat poison. Three years ago, a nurse from institution confirmed that Marius and many other kids were given rat poison.

Many former orphans are returning to Romania for answers. For me, it is all about forgiveness and making sure Romania stops sweeping the child welfare issue under the carpet. Children’s rights and interests are still being ignored.

On June 1, 2017, the state-funded Investigation of Communist Crimes (ICCMER) submitted a criminal complaint to the Ministry of Justice for the deaths of 771 children in the Sighetu Marmatei, Cighid and Pastraveni orphanages between 1966 and 1990. Investigators say this is just the tip of the iceberg for a much wider investigation that is needed into Romania’s 26 orphanages.

ICCMER investigators and archivists say official records list pneumonia and brain disease as the main causes of deaths, but witnesses say the causes were exposure to the cold, poor hygiene, starvation, lack of healthcare, rat poison, and violent physical abuse.

Investigators say Communist records classified children into 3 categories: reversible, partially reversible and non- reversible. Children in the latter two categories were thrown into centers to die.

Radu Preda, director of ICCMER says “My plea as a father is to ensure that these things never happen again. Let us do something on the media level and at the institutional level in order to ensure that no child in this country who has a handicap, or illness, or has been abandoned will ever be slapped, starved, tied down or left to die in their own feces.

We need to acknowledge the utterly uncivilized society of our communist past and rid all traces of this sickness from our child protection system.”

TELL ME ABOUT THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION YOU ARE A PART OF?

I agreed to help bring attention to a criminal investigation led by the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes (ICCMER). This investigation focuses on the deaths of children in Sighet Marmatiei and two other institutions.

I asked the investigators if they were going after nurses and they said “No, only the people who dispensed medicine and managed the facilities.” Once I knew that, it was okay with me.

But I am less interested in putting people in jail than I am interested in getting financial resources from the State to support the 60,000 orphans of my generation that were never adopted. Most of them have no means to support themselves as adults and are homeless. My hope is that this investigation will lead to a much larger class action suit on behalf of these 60,000 citizens. There needs to be a cost for gross neglect or things will not change.

TELL ME ABOUT HOW THE ROMANIAN MEDIA COVERS CHILD ABUSE AND WELFARE

I could not believe all the Romanian media at the June 1st press conference announcing the criminal investigation. This was history! Romanians finally fighting for something that we failed to do all these years. I always challenge the Romanian media since all of the stories on orphans and child abuse come from international news organizations. Even today, all the footage of child neglect comes from international organizations.

For years people were embarrassed and scared about this issue. But now it seems young people are waking up to the fact that this is still going on.

IS THERE STILL ABUSE IN ROMANIA INSTITUTIONS

Yes there is. I do not know from firsthand experience, but I have heard so from people I know and trust. I am trying to get access to more institutions to help kids and social workers. I am not living in Romania to embarrass or destroy people. But the government officials in Parliament seem to have no clue what is really happening in their institutions.

DO YOU THINK ROMANIA SHOULD OPEN INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION?

I am fighting for international adoption for children with special needs or those that have no chance of being adopted in Romania. Most of the people in the government reject this idea on the basis that children will be damaged by losing their culture and identity if they get adopted outside of Romania.

That’s a horrible excuse. From the moment these children enter the institution they are stripped of everything. Their dignity, freedom and their brains become mush. Tell me, what culture are they losing by being adopted abroad?

The issue in Romania today is all about money and jobs for political patronage. The State pays institutions, residential homes and foster care a stipend for each child. If the State found adoptive families for 20,000 of the 60,000 children in State custody, they would lose 33% of their funding and the jobs they often give to family and friends.

In my generation, the government wanted to dispose of the children. Today, they want to profit from them.

WHAT BOTHERS YOU THE MOST ABOUT THE CHILDCARE SYSTEM TODAY?

I am actually impressed with how many good social workers want to change the system. I get lots of emails from social workers and was shocked to see how many social workers showed up at the Romania Without Orphans conference last November. It is a great joy to see all of the Romanian families that have adopted and want to adopt.

We all know that institutions are not the answer. But I am not in favor of just shutting down the institutions. Simply putting kids on the streets is even worse. At least institutions provide a bed, food, clothing and shelter. Our train stations are filled with homeless.

The biggest problem we have today is that the workers who worked in the institutions in the 1980’s through the mid-1990’s still work in the system. You can’t expect change by renovating buildings when you have the same people and same culture.

I visited 6 orphanages 2 years ago. Most of the kids saw my story on television and were comfortable talking to me. I asked each child, “Do you like living here?” They said “See that lady over there? She still beats us.” I asked “how long she has been working here?” They said “from day one, since this place opened.”

It is constantly the same response. And I thought “Wow, there is the problem.” These people need to be replaced.

I want to work with the system. I want to stay in Romania. I can see that people are really looking for answers. I am getting a powerful response when I speak to the new generation of Romanians. I believe the time is right to confront our past and create a system that works in the interests of children.

AUTHOR’S CONCLUSION

I was moved by Izidor. He travels around Romania on filthy trains. He carries his suitcase without complaint, despite a partially paralyzed leg. He does not have much money and is not motivated by fame or public attention. What he has is a passion and purpose.

Romania in 2017 reminds me of growing up in Germany in the 1970’s. I remember talking to my German teenage friends about Nazism and the Holocaust. They had no answers, no ability to comprehend the horror, just a deep passion to fight any legacy of Nazism. I feel the same sentiment among young Romanians today as they feel deep anger towards any abuse or injustice towards children.

It is cliché to say that our future is in our children. But in Romania the numbers speak for themselves.

Every decision made in our homes, communities and government, needs to be made in the context of “Is this a good place to raise healthy children and are we doing our best to find every child a loving family?”

 Izidor is in desperate need of a new leg-brace for his polio damaged leg. Please see the link and share or donate if you can.
Thank you for your support

The Romanian Federation of Non-governmental Organisations; 51% of Romania’s Children Lives in Poverty

Romania: Children’s Ombudsman institution must be established

Photography: Silviu Ghetie

Source: The Romanian Federation of Non-governmental Organizations (FONPC)

The Romanian Federation of Non-governmental Organizations writes an open letter to draw attention to the importance of the Children’s Ombudsman in Romania, an institution that would guarantee effective protection for the rights of the child.

Dear Mr. President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis,

Dear Mr. President of the Senate, Călin Popescu Tăriceanu,

Dear Mr. President of the Juristic Commission on appointmens, discipline, immunity and validations from the Senate of Romania, Cătălin Boboc

Dear Mrs. President of the Commission for human rights and minorities,

The number of children in Romania is drastically decreasing: on the 1st of January, 2016, the number of children was 3976,5, 23,4 thousand lower compared to the previous year. Amongst these children 51% live in poverty and only one in 3 disadvantaged children finish middle school, 57.279 children in the social protection system, over 44 thousand of primary school age and over 48 thousand children or middle school are found outside the education system, over 2.700 children with severe disabilities aged between 7 and 10 do not go to school, 2 children on average are victims of some form of abuse every hour by over 20.000 children, amongst who 15.000 have been condemned.

The Federation of Child Protection NGOs FONPC, a common voice of 87 active organisations in the domain of welfare and protection of children draws attention to the importance of the Children’s Ombudsman in Romania as an institution that would guarantee effective protection for the rights of the child.

The UN Convention for the Rights of the Child, an international convention signed and ratified by Romania back in 1990 which set the foundation for the country’s child protection reform starting in 1997 mentions in its Article 3, Al. 1: “The interests of the child will prevail in all actions that affect children, undertaken by the public or private social work institutions, by the judiciary bodies, administrative authorities or legislative organs”. Given the fact that we are referring to the future of our country and the rights of a vulnerable category of individuals, the rights of children must be prioritized in Romania.

In this context, we ask you to support the establishment of a Children’s Ombudsman institution in Romania, guaranteeing verification and monitoring mechanisms for the implementation of the UNCRC requirements regarding the rights of the child and that would protect the superior interest of the child, even from state abuse at times.

The legislative proposal to establish the Children’s Ombudsman institution as an autonomous public authority, independent from any other public authority, which governs the respect for children’s rights as defined in the Romanian Constitution, the UNCRC and other legal provisions, can be found in Romania’s Senate.

According to ENOC standards, the Children’s Ombudsman institution has attributions and missions that exceed the sphere of competence of the current People’s Ombudsman, which is why  Romania lacks other adequate structures that fully correspond to the function of monitoring the rights and protection of children against violence, neglect, abuse and exploitation, as well as against social exclusion and discrimination.

In support for this proceeding for the establishment of a Romanian Children’s Ombudsman we recall the recommendations of the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child addressed to Romania back in 2009, from which we quote the following:

13. […] The Committee expresses its concern regarding the fact that the People’s Lawyer does not meet the criteria established in the Paris Principles and notes that the existence of this institution is not very well known. Consequently, this receives a reduced number of complaints with regards to children, a number that has been declining compared to the total number of complaints made. The Committee notes with concern that the Parliament’s rejection of a normative act project through which the desire to establish the Children’s Lawyer institution was expressed.”

14. The Committee recommends that, keeping its general commentary nr.2 (2002) with regards to the role of independent national institutions for the protection of human rights from the domain of promoting and protecting children’s rights, but also its previous recommendations, the state party ought to revise the statute and efficiency of the People’s Lawyer institution in the domain of the promotion and protection of children’s rights, equally taking into consideration  the criteria retrieved in the Paris Principles. This body has to benefit from all human and financial resources necessary for fulfilling its mandate in an effective and significant manner, especially in terms of capacity to receive and examine complaints from/on behalf of children related to the violation of their rights.

The Committee recommends that, in accordance with the previous recommendations, the state party continues to invest effort into the creation of an independent Children’s Lawyer institution”.

In the report finalized following Romania’s visit back in 2015, UN Rapporteur Philip Alston claimed that there is a need for a Children’s Commissary-type institution, a body that would have a clear mandate and the power to protect the rights of children, whilst also benefiting from adequate resources to promote and protect the rights of the child, as well as independence. At the European level the Child’s Ombudsman or the Commissioner for the Rights of the Child are identical institutions, with names varying from country to country.

The Federation of Non-governmental Child Organizations has been advocating for the establishment of the Children’s Ombudsman institution in Romania for more than 10 years.

We strongly believe that you will support the Children’s Ombudsman and the creation of an independent mechanism for the monitoring of child’s rights which will guarantee respect for all children’s rights and will protect them from abuse of all kinds.

With kindest regards,

Bogdan Simion

FONPC President

Daniela Gheorghe

FONPC Executive Director

Romania Reborn; Hands of Hope

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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Corina Caba holding a malnourished abandoned baby.

She  grew up during the darkest days of Communism, the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. She remembers being mocked for her faith every day at school. She remembers peeking under her bedroom door at night, watching the boots of the soldiers who had come to take her father away for interrogation. She remembers what it was like when Communism finally fell, and she learned that the government had hidden hundreds of thousands of children away in terrible orphanages. And that was when Corina Caba knew what God wanted her to do with her life.

She founded her orphanage in a tiny apartment in 1996, taking abandoned babies from the hospital and caring for them until she could find adoptive families. Gradually, she added to her staff, paying their salaries however she could. After Romania Reborn was founded to support the work, she built a bigger facility, hired more workers, and took in more babies. As the years passed, Romania’s laws and child welfare system evolved, but God always made a way for Corina to help abandoned children.

Today, Corina is the adoptive mother of four children and a mother figure to hundreds more, whose lives she has forever changed. She is also an emerging national leader in the field of orphan care, traveling to speak at conferences, helping advise the government on policy, and (reluctantly) speaking to national media. And she’s still fighting for individual children every day. “When the pain is too much, God taught me to trust in Him,” she says. “One day, He will restore all that seems lost, redeem all that seems hopeless, repair all that seems destroyed. Our God owns the last reply!”

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Cursed Romania; Nearly Ten Thousand Children Abandoned in the Past year.

Cursed Romania! Nearly 10,000 children have been ABANDONED by their parents in the past year. The international bodies have identified the causes for a decision at the limit of cruelty

Nearly 10,000 children were abandoned by their parents in the last year, the number being lower compared to the previous year. The main cause of this phenomenon is poverty, according to statistics provided by the National Authority for the Protection of Child’s Rights and Adoption (ANPDCA).

According to the ANPDCA response at a MEDIAFAX request, data provided by the General Directorates for Social Assistance and Child Protection in the counties / sectors of Bucharest Municipality which have been centralized on a quarterly basis, show that between July 2016 and June 2017 a total of 9,614 children were separated from their families and entered into the special protection system (placement with relatives up to 4th grade, placement with other families / persons, placement in foster care and placement in residential services).

The same source shows that between July 2015 and June 2016, a total of 10,196 children entered the special protection system.

According to the study “Romania: Children within the Child Protection System” conducted by the World Bank, UNICEF and the ANPDCA, the three main causes – constantly identified – for the child being separated from the family and entering the child protection system, are poverty, abuse and neglect, and disability.”

According to data available at ANPDCA, most of the children in the special protection system come from poor or at-risk families living in precarious housing conditions.

Of the total number of children in the special protection system, about 36% had poverty as a structural risk factor as the main cause of child’s separation from the family of the child child.

The mentioned source states that about 32% of the children in the special protection system were abandoned by parents, and 10% of the children in the special protection system were taken over by the care system from their relatives.

According to the same source, “the counties with the highest number of children entering the special protection system were Iaşi, Vaslui, Timiş, Constanţa, Buzău”.

On the opposite side, says ANPDCA, are the counties of Ilfov, Gorj, and Sectors 3, 5 and 6 of Bucharest.

mediafax.ro  Sept.2017

The Tragedy of Babies Abandoned in Romanian Hospitals

 

Tragedy of children left in Romanian hospitals continues: 245 newborn babies were abandoned in the first three months of 2017

According to data published on the website of the National Authority for the Protection of Children’s Rights and Adoption (ANPDCA), 245 children were left in maternity wards and other health care facilities during the first quarter of 2017. According to the same data, last year about 1,000 children were abandoned in hospitals.

Out of the 245 children left in medical units, 164 were abandoned in maternity wards, 71 in pediatric wards, and 10 were left in other hospital departments.

Also, of the 231 children discharged from medical units between January and March 2017, 100 returned to their families, one was placed with the extended family, 7 were placed with other families/persons and 102 were placed in foster care.

At the same time, 6 children were placed in placement centers, 4 children were placed in emergency reception centers, and 11 children are in other situations, according to ANPDCA, quoted by Agerpres.

Almost 1,000 children (977 to be exact) were abandoned in Romanian hospitals last year. More than half of them have been left in maternity wards. This results from data centralized by the National Authority for the Protection of Children’s Rights and Adoption (ANPDCA).

Child Abuse in Romania; Behind the Iron Curtain

Home / SOCIETY & PEOPLE / SOCIAL / 771 children died during 1966-1990 in the Romanian foster homes, IICCMER says.
June 2; 2017.
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771 children died during 1966-1990 in the Romanian foster homes, IICCMER. in SOCIAL, SOCIETY & PEOPLE        The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of Romanian Exile (IICCMER) has filed a denunciation to the Prosecutor’s Office for inhuman maltreatment over children admitted to foster homes during the communist regime in Romania. The case mainly refers to the sick or disabled children who used to be admitted in the hospital foster homes in Cighid, Pastraveni and Sighetu Marmatiei.

According to IICCMER for Gândul online daily, a total of 771 children died in there during 1966-1990, most of them due to medical causes that could have been prevented or treated. The IICCMER experts and legists say the cases revealed that children were submitted to inhuman treatments and aggressions. Overall, there were over 10,000 such victims in the communist foster homes.

These children used to be considered irrecoverable from the medical point of view, suffering severe handicaps, but many of them were orphans or abandoned by their parents and reached those centers without having serious diseases, IICCMER says.

One of these children abandoned in the foster home in Sighetu Marmatiei was Izidor Ruckel, now aged 37. He escaped the center after he has been adopted by an American family, right after 1990. He told his tragic story to the IICCMER experts.

They used to beat me and another boy with a broomstick so badly that I thought I was going to die. They used to sedate us, they kept us isolated,” Izidor recounted, as quoted by Gândul.

Romania’s Institutions For Abandoned Children Caused Life-Long Damage; Dr. Victor Groza

Romania’s Institutions Caused Lifelong Damage

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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.

https://www.facebook.com/adoptionpartners/?fref=ts  – Website about Professor Groza’s post-adoption practice.

57,581 Children Abandoned in Romania.

3,436 adoptable children recorded in Adoption Register at March-endBY 

A total of 3,436 adoptable children were registered in the National Register for Adoption, at the end of March 2016, of whom 3,069 (89.32 percent) benefited from special protection measures in family type services and 367 (10.68 percent) benefited of special protection measures in residential type services, according to the statistics published by the Ministry of Labor, Family, Social Protection and Elderly People.

Also on 31 March 2016 there were 57,581 children in the adoption system with special protection, out of which 20,156 children (35 percent) benefited from special protection measures in residential type services (16,224 children in public residential type services, 3,932 children in private residential type services) and a number of 37,425 children (65 percent) benefited from special protection measures in family type services (18,815 children were in fostercare, 14,158 children were in the care of relatives up to grade IV included and 4,452 children were in the care of other families or persons.

The representatives of the Labor Ministry signals that, starting 1 January 2005, public services of social assistance created inside the city councils are the main in charge with the growth, which on 31 March 2016 offered services for 42.83 percent of the children that benefit from this sort of services, the accredited private bodies provide services for 19.65 percent and 37.52 percent are beneficiaries of prevention services provided by the Directorate General for Social Assistance and Child Protection.

On 31 March 2016 there were 1,135 public residential type services and 342 residential type services of accredited private bodies. These services include: classic or modular orphanages, apartments, family type houses, maternal centers, emergency reception centers, other services (the service for the development of independent life, day and night shelter).

From the total of 1,477 residential services, a number of 352 (public residential type services and and private residential services) were designed for children with disabilities. The number of children that benefited from a special protection measure in these services provided for children with disabilities was, at the end of March, 6,586 children, recording a decrease of 705 children compared to the same period of 2015.

On 31 March 2016, the Directorates for Social Assistance and Child Protection in every county/sector of Bucharest, the “Child Protection” departments counted 32,655 employees, 31 people more towards the end of the first quarter of last year, and 51 people more versus 31 December 2015.

In the total of 32,655 employees, 4,439 (13.59 percent) were hired in the DGASPC’s own structures, 12,016 (36.80 percent) were fostercare professionals, 12,398 (37.97 percent) were employed in residential type services and 3,802 (11.64 percent) were hired in daytime care services.

Unicef in Romania; Minimum Package of Social Services.

Social aid brings renewed hope to families in Romania.

By Roxana Grămadă

In the village of Horgești, Romania, a social worker visits families door-to-door to make sure they’re receiving the healthcare and education resources they need.

HORGESTI, Romania, 10 February 2017 – It rained all night in Horgești, Romania, and the village is muddied through. The road smells of wet grass, damp earth and blossomed apple trees.

Arabela Corciu rushes to the gate wearing a pink flowery scarf and some worn out galoshes. “Come in, do not take your shoes off, we’ll clean up…” she says. A cat sleeps near the doorway, undisturbed by all of the visitors.

Arabela and her husband Ionel live in a small house with their three children: Ciprian, 12, Luca, 6 and Ionuț, 4. Ionel used to do odd jobs, mostly in construction, until he was diagnosed with a hernia. Arabela takes care of the house and kids. She raises a few Muscovy ducks and even a lemon tree. “I planted the seed and it grew,” she says, matter-of-factly. The tree is over a meter high and has its own place by the door.

Today, their oldest son, Ciprian, is still at school. The two younger boys sit watching TV on a bed in the family’s main living space – a tiny room of about 8 square metres. Their bed is a multipurpose thing: a couch for guests, a pad to sleep on, a desk to write homework and sitting area for munching. There is no table in sight, but a pleasant fire is cracking in the clay stove where beans are cooking for dinner.

Arabela and Ionel built the house together, when they got married, on land gifted by their parents. They were making ends meet then. Now, since Ionel got sick, it got harder.

Although he is entitled to social aid, Ionel was unaware of this until he met with a social worker, Mr. Arvinte.

Mr. Arvinte is blue eyed and looks like Ion Creangă, a storyteller known to many generations of children in Romania. He is soft spoken and people say he’s kind.

While the family’s doctor only occasionally makes house visits, mostly for vaccinations, Mr. Arvinte visits more than 1,170 of the 1,200 homes in Horgești. He works at city hall on a programme financed by UNICEF that reaches 45 communities within the county of Bacău. The programme is called Minimum Package of services, and he does just that.

“I knew they were living there, getting by somehow. I did not know exactly how, but I found out at the census,” he says of the Corciu family. “They needed a medical certificate from the labour medicine department. When there is a virus or a hepatitis outbreak, about 40 people come for consultations at the general practitioner every day. When is he or she to go for field trips?”

Mr. Arvinte helped the Corcius get a medical certificate and put together their social aid file. That is how Ionel now gets his medication, “Not entirely free, but almost half.” With the social aid, the family also gets insurance. “We got him prescriptions before, but he is still hurting, and he’s too afraid of shots,” says Mr. Arvinte.

The social aid programme also helps families connect with other resources available to them. Mr. Arvinte tells Ionel which specialists to see for his condition, and he provides guidance on education grants for the children.

“Have you filed for the computer allowance?” he asks Arabela. “There’s a grant in school, you are given 200 euros for a computer. Let’s do it, let’s do it.”

Arabela completed 8 years in school, and is so happy that her children get to go. Luca loves to colour and “got many stars” – little circle, clover and heart shaped pieces of coloured paper that are now neatly pinned to the curtains, like trophies. He received the stars for reciting poems.

“Here comes spring, / All throughout the country…” Luca’s voice is warm, his cadence like a song, as he recites the words from memory.

There are many other children like Luca and his brothers in the county of Bacău. They all need the same things: to grow up healthy, to go to school and to see a doctor when they’re sick. The Minimum package of services is invaluable to these children and their families, who may not have the resources to seek help.

The Minimum Package of Services the Corciu family receives is available to all families, but was created for the most vulnerable children and their families in particular. The services include healthcare, social protection and education that could prevent, at a fraction of the cost, many of the issues that generally affect these families: separating children from their parents, lack of minimum welfare payments, violence, early pregnancies, illness, school dropout or absenteeism. For these services to reach all families like the Corcius, a social worker, a community nurse and a school counsellor must exist in every community in Romania.

UNICEF in Romania is currently testing this Minimum Package of Services model in 45 communities in the county of Bacău, with financial support from Norway Grants, UNICEF and the private sector. The pilot model is independently evaluated, and the results are shared with decision-makers to develop new legislation, norms and standards and to mobilize state and European funding for national implementation and scaling throughout the country. The pilot aims to ensure that all children in Romania will be more protected, healthy and educated.

Updated: 10 February 2017

Half a Million Abandoned Kids; Moving Forward From South East Europe’s History of Shame

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One baby is abandoned every six hours in Romania.

Report on Child Protection by Ioana Calinescu. Photos by Petrut Calinescu.

Looking at results in child protection can show an “X-ray of regional mentalities”, says Andy Guth. Child Pact.

“There is so much more to do for the children of Romania, but you need to know where we started from,”  Daniela Buzducea, World Vision.

“When the Police find a new child on the street, they call me first,”  Zini Kore, All Together Against Child Trafficking.

“These youngsters are so hungry they would eat the corner of the table,” Mariana Ianachevici, Child Protection NGOs Federation, Moldova

Hoping to increase the age that children in Romania are institutionalised, from three to six years old, Daniela Gheorghe, FONPC

Half a million children were left abandoned in eastern Europe following the collapse of Communism that began in the 1980s.

After more than 25 years of democracy, many of these countries’ record on child protection is now mixed. 

In 1997, while global concern focused on abandoned children in Romania, 1.66 per cent of the country’s kids were separated from their families.

By 2013, this had dropped to only 1.52 per cent.

This means 60,000 children have been recently cut off from their parents, according to the new Child Protection Index, a cross-border instrument launched this week in Brussels.

Most southeast European nations – including Romania – are fast to reform their laws, but changes are slow to improve the life of every child.

Belgrade, 2016. A tiny conference room, packed with civil society activists who have fought for children’s rights from the wider Black Sea and Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism.

Armenians, Georgians, Bulgarians, Serbians, Moldavians, Romanians, Albanians, Bosnians and Kosovars look at the findings of a comparative study as though they were the pass, dribble, tackle and assist of a football match.

A whisper rises up from the Bulgarian delegates.

“Romanian really undid us on this one,” comes a voice.

Despite the collegiate atmosphere among the members who all put the needs of children way above national interest, there is a still time to entertain rivalry between the EU’s two poorest countries.

The study has been developed in nine nations and shows how the lives of these “invisible” children changed over the last twenty-five years.

Romania was the country with the largest problem – with its abandoned kids running into the 100,000s.

The images of abandoned children after the fall of its Communist regime remain scars on the European collective conscience.

To stop the population decline in Romania in the 1950s, due to more working women and a fall in living standards, the Communist Party aimed to boost the numbers of Romanians from 23 million to 30 million.

In 1966, in a move to raise the birth rate, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu de facto declared abortion and contraception illegal.

This resulted in parents abandoning children in hospitals after birth. The state then placed the kids in overcrowded institutions.

With the break-up of communism in 1989, the doors opened to a humanitarian crisis.

Today ChildPact is the only regional alliance that includes more than 600 child rights organizations. For the ten national members, ChildPact is the friends they grew up with; with whom they shared the same playground and the same stories. They know the group dynamics, the pacts and rivalries, the sensitivities and small victories.

Romanian doctor Andy Guth pours over comparative charts showing which child protection reform models  worked in spite of the east European national systems, and which tend to be corrupt and underfinanced, with low levels of economic development, bad laws and zero methodology of implementation.

Child outside block in Ferentari, Bucharest (copyright: Petrut Calinescu)
“At the back of the institution: an image that still haunts me”

Spring, 1990, in Romania. Guth was a recent graduate from medical school and fledgling director of an orphanage in Onești. Here he was signing two of the first transfers to a hostel for ‘irrecoverable’ children, the official term for mentally or physically disabled minors.

These children were clinically healthy when they were admitted.

“Two weeks later, we received the first death certificate,” he says. “I immediately went to the hostel. The first thing I saw when I got out of the car was the graveyard behind the institution. They had their own graveyard!”

For Guth, this was ground zero – the initiation point for the child protection renaissance that would follow seven years later.

“It’s an image that will haunt me for the rest of my life,” says Guth.

Guth was one of the doctors on the frontline of humanitarian convoys in the nineties, facilitating the programs drawn up in offices abroad. They were known as ‘The White Guard’.

Many became civil society activists, who still play an active role in the reform of child protection.

Why did doctors take on such a role?

During Communism, medically-trained personnel were tasked with raising deserted children in unheated buildings that served as town hospitals. This abandonment was seen as a public health issue.

Twenty-five years later, Guth is presenting the results of the Child Protection Index, an international instrument whose development he dedicated four years to, coordinating the collaboration of 71 child protection experts from nine countries. He has worked on the project together with Jocelyn Penner Hall, World Vision’s Policy Director.

This has some disturbing information.

“One baby abandoned every six hours”

In Romania, the number of children separated from their families in 1997 was in the range of 100,000 for six million kids.

By the end of 2013, the number hovered around 60,000 for a total population of four million.

Taken together this amounts to a statistically insignificant change, from 1.66 per cent in 1997 to 1.52 per cent in 2013.

One reason for this is a gap between reforms on paper, and those on the ground.

For instance, between 1997 and 2007, Romania was pressured by the EU integration process to accelerate reforms. Now – according to the Index – Romania scores highest when it comes to public policies and legal framework, but still hosts the greatest number of institutionalised children in the region.

Armenia and Moldavia follow closely behind. At the other end of the spectrum, the Index results show that of all countries surveyed, Kosovo has parents who are least likely to abandon their children.

Meanwhile, in Romania today, a baby is abandoned in a maternity hospital every six hours.

What does the tiny decrease in infant abandonment say about child protection efforts over the last twenty-five years?

“This says that one cannot change the mentality of the public by responding to EU pressure alone,” says Penner-Hall.

“It’s been said that the year Romania joined the European Union marked the burial of [child protection] reform. With no external pressure, nothing remarkable happened. However, I believe that after 2007 smaller, more meaningful things occurred. The worst day ever was the first day of democracy in Romania; it was that day when the public conscience started to blossom.”

Guth also believes that the Index can also be seen as an X-ray of regional mentalities.

“For instance, the results prove that in Armenia 97 per cent of disabled children are taken care of by the state, while only three per cent grow in real families,” adds Guth.

“The Index also shows that in Georgia the exploitation of children through labour is not considered an issue. They think it is normal for some children not to go to school.”

Romania: number of kids in rural areas going hungry “doubled”

Back in the conference hall, Guth cautions that the results he is about to present are not part of a competition.

But he knows that the moment he opens the diagrams comparing the nine countries, the Romanians will look at where the Bulgarians stand, the Albanians will check Serbia’s scores and the Armenians will want to know if they have outrun the Georgians.

According to overall Index country scores, Romania is placed highest, followed by Bulgaria and Serbia. At a continental level, Romania has some of the most efficient child protection legislation. “The law is built upon the structure of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” says Guth. “In theory, Romania rocks.”

But in practice, the Eurostat data shows is that, as of 2013, the child poverty rate in Romania exceeded 48.5 per cent.

A 2014 World Vision report stated that eight from 100 children in Romania face extreme poverty, living on less than 3.5 Euro per day. The same study testifies that one out of eight children in rural areas go to bed hungry.

This percentage doubled between 2012 and 2014.

“There is so much more to do for the children of Romania,” says Daniela Buzducea, Executive Director of World Vision Romania. “Then again, to see how far you’ve come, you need to know where we started from.”

Daniela is part of the first “free” generation of social workers in Romania. Only in 1994 did Post-Communist Romania have its first graduate promotion in this field. Before this moment, this occupation did not exist.

In the 90s found Daniela in the homes of some of Romania’s most vulnerable children. She was trying, on her own, to prevent the separation of children from their families.

“To me, the Romania of those years is HIV positive children who got infected in hospitals,” she recounts.

In the late 1980s, thousands of children in Romanian institutions contracted HIV due to blood transfusions from syringes infected with the virus.

“The real moment the reform started is encompassed in a scene when I was visiting a young mum with an infected baby,” says Daniela. “She had no form of support whatsoever. She was going through hell. I also had a small baby at home, and apart from visiting this woman just to reassure her that she was not completely alone, there was not much else I could do.

“One day, she was diagnosed with cancer and lost her hair because of the treatment. When I went to see her, on the wall of her house was written the word: ‘AIDS’. She had locked herself inside. She could not even take her child to the hospital because people would throw stones at them. In reforming its social protection system, this is the point from which Romania started.”

“If I had not been there, the kid would have been lost”

Albanian Zini Kore represents the national child rights network “All Together Against Child Trafficking” (BKTF). For almost twenty years Zini earned respect on the streets of his country’s capital Tirana. Not just with the homeless kids, but also with the cops.

“When the Police find a new child on the street, they call me first, to pick him up and only after that do they contact the authorities,” says Zini.

Kids know they may not have much in this life, but at least there is someone fighting on their behalf until the end, no matter what kind of end that may be.

Zini never drives. No matter where duty calls, he always crosses town on foot, searching through the labyrinthine streets, scanning for homeless children.

There was a time when his phone rang incessantly – at day and night. The terrified voice of a street child on the line. No one knows the magical and subterranean paths his phone number travels to reach the kids in the city who need him most. He always grabbed his clothes and left.

“Had I not been there the exact moment the Police accosted a child,” he says, “the kid would have been lost in the inferno of the correctional institutions. From there, there is no way out.”

Today, his phone rings less often. Thanks in part to Zini and his organisation, who work hard to compensate for the state’s lack of involvement, the lives of street children have improved. But the underlying problems persist. The Child Protection Index shows that only Bosnia surpasses Albania when it comes to neglecting the situation of street children. It also demonstrates that the region has a major problem regarding the involvement of authorities in effective protection solutions.

When asked about his kids, Zini proudly mentions his boy, who is still not legally his son. He will soon turn 18 and then Zini will start the adoption procedures. It’s easier this way because at this age the young man can make his own decisions. He is one of those street children Zini fought for.

Child Protection “Mall” in Sofia

George “Joro” Bogdanov doesn’t talk much and when he does he fishes for the right words in English.

He is not a born public speaker. But he is a man of big ideas. He succeeded in putting child protection on the public agenda with an annual gala event where The National Network for Children in Bulgaria recognize citizens whose work improved Bulgarian children’s rights and prosperity and awarded them with the statue of a Golden Apple.

Now he has a new vision: The Children’s House in Sofia. This will be something like a child protection “mall” with conference and meeting rooms for child protection events and workshops; offices for the coalition’s NGOs; playgrounds for children and an educational centre for children with special needs; accommodation and a restaurant for international and local guests. Following a social enterprise model, he wants to hire disadvantaged young people to run the place.

Everybody has told him that he was crazy to even think he could raise the huge amount of money necessary to carry out his idea, but Joro went ahead and did it anyway.

He is now building the House.

“How am I supposed to feed a teenager with one Euro a day?”

Among the group gathered in Belgrade, Moldovan Mariana Ianachevici’s laughter is the loudest. It’s contagious, the kind of laughter you want to cling to in the midst of a large and unfamiliar gathering.

If one can still laugh like that after twenty-five years of helping victims of trafficking and abuse, and if one can still talk about taking home the last ten unwanted teenagers from a closed orphanage in Chisinau, there must be a parallel world better than the statistics suggest.

Mariana Ianachevici is a three-time President – she is President of ChildPact, the President of the Child Protection NGOs Federation in the Republic of Moldova, as well as the President of her own NGO, which has assisted more than 1,200 children over twenty years.

“The future President of the country,” she laughs, before relating stories about surviving the winter with canned vegetables and frozen fruits harvested from her NGO centre’s tiny orchard.

“How am I supposed to feed a teenager with one Euro a day? This is all the state gives me. When they sit down… these youngsters are so hungry they would even eat the corner of the table!”

And the story continues, about Valentina, the Centre’s long-time accountant, who never comes to work without a homemade cookie. Just to have something nice to give the kids.

About another lady, Rodica, an older employee of the center, diagnosed at infancy with polio and brain paralysis, of whom all the children are so fond, because she hands out gifts of pretzels, nuts and kind words.

“If only every child had an adult to protect them”

Daniela Gheorghe is executive director of the Federation of NGOs for the Child (FONPC). Blonde, tiny and delicate, Gheorghe wrote history by strengthening the role of civil society in Romania. Her eyes brighten when she adds that “in all these years, we mostly fought the Government.”

Her mission has been to forbid the institutionalisation of children under three years old, and she now hopes to increase this age to six.

The Index shows that institutions taking on children under two years old occurs most often in orphanages in Bulgaria, while the countries most protective of this age group are Kosovo, Georgia and Serbia.

Gheorghe earned her psychology degree in the nineties when the humanitarian convoys opened the doors of the Romanian orphanages.

She enrolled in salvation missions, and was part of the first teams to work with abused children in orphanages. At that time, she had no idea she was joining a battle that would change her life.

“After five years, I fell into a depression that would last for six months,” Gheorghe recalls. “I couldn’t distinguish colors anymore, I was seeing only black and white.”

She was representing abused children in lawsuits with the aggressors and, during her last trial, Gheorghe experienced a miscarriage. She was never able to have another child.

Nevertheless, she developed a bond with three of the girls whose own trauma of abuse she helped overcome, and today she considers them her daughters.

“I am not a mum, but I am some sort of a granny,” she says, as she flicks though pictures of the beautiful girls on her Facebook page.

One of them is a hairstylist and has two children of her own, another is studying physical therapy and the third is working with children diagnosed with autism.

Gheorghe has found joy in seeing the girls develop into independent women.

“It’s no big deal,” she says. “I just fought for them. If every child had an adult to protect him or her, we would change the world.