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.
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.
The degree of declaration of adoptability did not increase at all one year after the revised law on adoption was implemented, keeping it below 6% of the number of children in the system.
In March 2016, there were 57,581 children who had been abandoned by their families and entered the child protection system.
This report is the result of an analysis of the situation of abandoned children in the child protection system, carried out by the Romania Without Orphans Alliance.
The report was made public at the start of the A.R.F.O Summit, held in Bucharest, November 2017.
The report shows that the declaration of adoption for children where there is no possibility of being reunited with their biological families, is hampered by over exaggerated legislation and poor implementation of legislation.
The very small number, only 1.5% of children being adopted, highlights a worrying practise to keep children in institutions.
Another aspect highlighted by the report is that, whilst private organisations are not allowed to provide services unless they are licensed, 83% of public services do not have a license and do not meet mandatory minimum standards.
“The Power of Love” is the title of the third episode of the National Geographic series “The Story of Us with Morgan Freeman”. The episode includes Izidor Ruckel’s life story. Izidor spent the first 11 years of his life without the love and support of a family. For 8 years, he survived horrific conditions in one of the most terrifying “child care” institutions during the Ceauşescu era, the Home-hospital for the irrecoverables in Sighet. In 1991, he was adopted by Danny and Marlys Ruckel and started a new life in America. However, all the attachment issues he developed due to the lack of love in the early childhood needed a long time to heal. And not just time.
Morgan Freeman interviewed Danny and Marlys on their efforts to reach such a broken boy with the power of love…
All you need is love!
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 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.
3,436 ADOPTABLE CHILDREN RECORDED IN ADOPTION REGISTER AT MARCH-END
3,436 adoptable children recorded in Adoption Register at March-endBY NINEOCLOCK
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.
This article talks about four key areas- The Physical Effects on the post-institutionalised child
The Effect on socio-emotional intelligence.
The Effects on Linguistic Development
The Legacy of Institutionalisation on Mental Health.
The Effects of Institutionalization on Children
Updated on July 17, 2012
Institutionalization of orphaned and unwanted children has been a long-standing Western tradition, and only in the last century has society begun to realize the damning ramifications of the practice on children. This form of care still remains common in a few former Soviet countries, tragically condemning children to a life of stunted development. This article, then, will tackle the effects of institutionalization of children in former Soviet countries in particular, starting first with the history of institutionalization practices the typical institutionalization experience is like in former Soviet orphanages, and then its profound effects on physical well-being, intelligence, and socio-emotional development.
The State of Orphanages in Eastern Europe
Historically, orphanages in Western cultures have followed the “medical model” approach to childcare—namely, that good caretaking consists of meeting a child’s basic physical needs, with little emphasis on caregiver affection and the attachment needs of children. Most developed Western countries moved away from this model in the 1950s, after the pioneering work of John Bowlby’s attachment theory and Harry Harlow’s work with monkeys showed that healthy attachment is essential for normal development. However, both institutionalization and the medical model approach remains prevalent in former Soviet countries, with several hundred Russian orphans still living in orphanages. Infants in these orphanages are fastidiously kept for, well-groomed and well-fed, but human interaction is minimal. Infant-to-staff range anywhere from 8:1 to 35:1, meaning that infants receive only a bare minimum of human interaction. Frequently, they are frequently left in cribs for a good majority of the day and only receive interaction with staff when their basic needs, like feeding and bathing, are met at predetermined times, and the rest of the time, they must lie in their own feces and urine. Staff members rarely hold or cuddle infants, and they routinely ignore crying, both due to policy and due to the sheer number of other children they must attend to. With so many children to manage, individual needs are ignored, prompting a report by Case Western Reserve University to call the orphanages “warehouses.”
The actual orphanage environment is no more stimulating. Groza, Ileana and Irwin described typical orphanages as “colorless, shockingly quiet and devoid of any of the usual visual or auditory stimulation,” and recalled one orphanage in which the 4-year-old children there had never once left the room assigned to them. Many orphanages lack proper schools and provide no educational or entertainment material for the children to peruse, meaning they must provide their own stimulation. Punished for being “hyperactive,” many children end up simply doing nothing at all. The sight of children staring blankly into space for lack of anything better to do is tragically common.
The Physical Effects of Institutionalization
The physical effects of such a deprived environment have been long noted. The noted nineteenth-century pediatrician Henry Dwight Chapin, for instance, discovered that there is a significantly higher infant mortality rate in institutions, even when infants were otherwise healthy, and this mortality rate was so high in 19th century orphanages that the term “hospitalism” was coined to describe the common plight of orphaned babies. At one Romanian orphanage, most children were below the 20th percentile for height and weight, rendering them more vulnerable to disease. Officials there estimated that mortality rates in the winter could be as high as 40%, and on any given year, about half of the children died within the first 24 months after arriving at the orphanage. Children who do manage to survive typically suffer stunted growth, generally at a rate of one month’s delay for every three months spent in an orphanage. Growth stunting for some children is so severe that they can be diagnosed with “psychological dwarfism,” a phenomenon in which emotional or abuse disrupts the secretion of growth hormones and stunts normal growth. It is not unheard of for such children to grow three to four inches in just a six-month time span after being adopted. While most health problems resolve within a year of adoption, children nonetheless remain smaller than their non-adopted peers throughout childhood. The longer the orphanage stay, the shorter the child tends to be for their age.
Complementing this physical stunting are motor skill development problems, like possessing low muscle tone and not demonstrating age-appropriate motor skills. One study found gross motor delays and fine motor delays in 70% and 82% of Russian children, respectively. Like the other physical effects mentioned above, these motor skill problems resolve themselves in more stimulating environments.
The Socio-Emotional Effects of Institutionalization
Of course, the effects of institutionalization do not limit themselves to merely physical development. Indeed, the greatest legacy that institutionalization leaves is on children’s socio-emotional development. Perhaps the most well-documented effect is on attachment. John Bowlby noted that all children need a stable, responsible caregiver to attach to; without one, a child is set up to have difficulty with relationships later in life. By definition of being institutionalized, however, children in orphanages do not have a caregiver to attach to, as staff members work on shifts, may switch jobs, and have other children to care for—there is no one dedicated long-term to an individual child.
Generally, children who are institutionalized after the age of two and have had quality care during their infancy are not terribly affected by this indifference, but children who enter institutions before the age of one tend to do quite poorly. These children realize early on that no one particularly cares about them. Infants in nurseries are eerily silent, a direct result of learning early on that their vocalized distress will never be rewarded with attention. They frequently fail to attach to anyone, and, unused to physical contact, are highly sensory and tactively defensive and recoil from human contact if it is given. Unlike normal children, they become even more upset when someone tries to console them and prefer to “cry it out” by themselves, as that is how they are accustomed to doing.
Infants who present ambivalent and avoidant attachment to caretakers often go on to present characteristic disordered attachment styles later in life. The most common relational style seen in institutions is known as “indiscriminative friendliness.” Starved for affection and used to an ever-changing rotation of caretakers, these children seek affection inappropriately from everyone and anyone, including complete strangers. However, other children completely give up on soliciting affection from unresponsive caregivers and cease to be social altogether, instead developing what is known as “institutional autism.” Although not actually autistic, these children develop stereotypically autistic behaviors, like rocking, head-banging, stereotyped behaviors, and bizarre rituals, seemingly as a way of providing some stimulation in their own, otherwise sensually barren lives. Unlike autistic children, they stop this sensory-seeking upon placement in a more enriched environment.
These disturbed attachment styles, unfortunately, frequently persist after adoption. A full third of adopted Romanian children demonstrated avoidant attachment to caregivers, and an even higher percentage had only ambivalent attachment. Often, the most indiscriminately friendly children violently unravel in a post-institutional environment and become aggressive and controlling, deregulated by the lack of structure and the constant showering of warmth and affection they were denied for so long. Many attachment disordered children do eventually recover, but a significant minority of cases is eventually diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder. The prognosis for reactive attachment disorder is generally fairly poor, especially for older children. After a certain critical point of development, it seems, children simply cannot develop the capacity for normal, warm human relationships.
Related to the problem of attachment is social skills development. According to John Bowlby, if children are institutionalized for too long, the child will lose the ability to interact with other humans in a normal way. In one study of Romanian children, it was reported that while most parents were concerned that their children were too withdrawn and avoidant within the first year after adoption, after a few years, children’s greatest social problems were externalized. Parents frequently complained of aggressive, manipulative behavior and difficulty getting along with peers. The longer children had lived in an orphanage, the greater parents reported their difficulties to be, and the worse the impairment in intelligence, the worse the child’s social skills tended to be. Another study on Romanian children found that an astounding 55% of preschool-aged children were unable to demonstrate developmentally appropriate social skills like meaningful eye contact. Some children are so profoundly deficient in social skills that they arguably lack any sort of conscience or feelings for others at all and instead present symptoms of sociopathy.
The Effects of Institutionalization on Intelligence
Yet another well-documented, deleterious socio-emotional effect of institutionalization is intellectual disability. By school-age, a majority of Russian children living in orphanages are diagnosed with “oligophrenia,” a vague descriptor in Russia for “general mental deficiency,” and a study of internationally adopted children showed that upwards to 50%-90% of preschool-aged children had developmental delays upon arriving in their new country. Many children had multiple delays, usually in motor and language skills. Similarly, in another study of Romanian children, every single child in the study was developmentally delayed upon arriving in Canada and frequently tested into the borderline mentally retarded range. The more time a child spends in an orphanage, the more profound the intellectual impairment; for every year that a child spends in an institution, his cognitive development will be delayed by about six months.
Some of this damage is observable at the biological level. Total brain volume is significantly negatively correlated with time spent in an institution. The hippocampus in particular shows markedly decreased volume, which research has demonstrated is due to overproduction of cortisol, a hormone released in stressful situations. Repeated release of cortisol in stressful situations, like that of neglect in orphanages, destroys the hippocampus, which is central in learning and memory. Damage is not limited to the hippocampus, however; FMRIs of formerly institutionalized children have revealed that the prefrontal cortex tends to be both immature and reduced in volume, which leads to problems with impulse control and decision making. Accordingly, then, children do particularly poorly on tests measuring visual memory and attention, learning visual information, and impulse control.
Fortunately, most children usually make rapid gains in intellectual development upon removal from the institution environment. However, the legacy of institutionalization often lingers, as the precipitous drop in intelligence institutionalized children experience is not entirely reversible even after being placed in an optimal adoptive family environment. Three years after adoption, children in one study had only very modest gains in intelligence, and most scored in the low average IQ range. The longer a given child lives in an institution, the worse his intelligence tends to be, especially if the child has lived there since infancy.
Linguistic Development in Institutionalized Children
With no one talking to them, it hardly comes as a surprise that linguistic development is severely retarded by institutionalization, too. Language delays, in fact, are the most commonly diagnosed problem in post-institutionalized children. Children learn from interacting, not from passively hearing others, but this is exactly the opposite of what institutionalized children doing. Glennen discovered in an observation of a Russian orphanage that when language was spoken in the presence of children, it was usually between caregivers, and on the seldom occasion a child was spoken to, it was typically in the form of simple commands. Most activities, like meals, were conducted in almost complete silence. Accordingly, with no opportunity for actual practice, about 60% of 2 1/2 institutionalized children in one study had no expressive language whatsoever, and at age 3 1/2, only an astounding 14% were capable of speaking two-word sentences. Nonverbal communication skills are often no better; children’s skills tend to be either minimal or negative in nature, like hitting. Deficient language development is one of the hardest effects of institutionalization to undo; after certain critical linguistic periods are missed, no amount of intervention will ever fully remediate a child’s language deficits. A child’s rate of acquisition, then, literally determines his capacity for language later in life.
The Legacy of Institutionalization on Mental Health
Finally, institutionalization leaves individuals with a significantly hiked risk of mental illness and disturbed behavior. So common is disordered development that a specific mental disorder has been suggested specifically for post-institutionalized children, known as Developmental Trauma Disorder. This disorder is hallmarked by what is known as “mixed maturity,” in which children demonstrate normal maturity in some areas, but act like a much younger child in other areas. Academic skills, depth and appropriateness of relationships, and social skills tend to be more representative of those of a younger child. Frequently, these symptoms will mimic those of ADHD and PTSD’s, with poor social skills and hyperactivity. The stress of repeated traumatic events, such as institutionalization, changes the make-up of the central nervous system in such a way that children are biologically conditioned for a heightened fear/stress response. Children are maladaptively hypervigilant as a result, and because they frequently misperceive totally innocuous events as threats, they present immature, aggressive, and socially inappropriate behavior. The inability to pay attention and the hyperactivity is directed related to the degree of neglect, and is unrelated to low birthweight, nutrition, or intellectual disability.
Unsurprisingly, the prospects for children who are not adopted from these institutions is often grim. Of the approximately 15,000 children who grow out of Russian orphanages every year, the Russian Interior Ministry University estimates only about 20% are successful post-institution—10% commit suicide, 30% end up in jail, and 40% end up homeless. The cycle of child institutionalization tends to repeat itself, with many orphanages reporting that they have children who are the third or even fourth generation to have been institutionalized.
Adoptees do better, but still struggle, as these problems follow them even after they leave the orphanage. In her landmark study on institutionalized Romanian children, for instance, Ames noted that children frequently try to apply maladaptive behavioral strategies learned while in the orphanage to their post-adoption lives. Many children, for instance, engage in behaviors like stealing, manipulating, fighting, and lying, because doing so earned them extra attention or food in orphanages. Similarly, as testament to their highly regimented, unstimulating lifestyle, children can be highly dependent on others telling them what to do, often for years after adoption. Many cannot determine for themselves when to stop eating, and one study recounts that some children will lie in bed quietly for hours until prompted to get up.
Although many of these behaviors disappear as children acclimate to a stable post-adoption life, many other behaviors persist. Even in the best of adoptive environments, adoptees suffer a rate of mental illness about 70% higher than the general population. Their difficulties are not necessarily due to poor genetics, either; adoptees from China and Korea, which eschew institutions in favor of foster care, experience mental illness at a rate three to seven times lower than adoptees from former Soviet countries, which use institutions. Indeed, 72% of parents in Ames’ study of Romanian children cited their biggest concern with their children not to be anything physical or intellectual, but socio-emotional. More than a third of the children in the study needed professional help for behavioral problems several years after adoption. Children who are older at the time of adoption, who experience abuse, and who have multiple changes in caregivers were more likely to have problems. The most common problems included conduct disorder, antisocial behavior, poor relationships, and affective disorders.
Clearly, as has been demonstrated, institutionalization has a profound impact on every aspect of a child’s functioning. The gross amount of neglect, both physical and emotional, causes severe damage that is not always possible to undo, and the longer the time spent in the institution, the worse the effects. The vast majority of children never get adopted, meaning they languish in stunted emotional, cognitive, physical and social development forever. While there is hope for those who do get adopted, the effects of institution more often than not leave a damning legacy.
Society for Research in Child Development (2010, February 5). Length of time in institutional care may influence children’s learning. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 27, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com
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.”