United Nations Human Rights – Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
This extract is from the End of Mission Statement on Romania by Australian Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Human Rights Council Special Reporter on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.
The situation of Romanian children, especially those in rural areas, warrants serious attention, for the levels of poverty, social exclusion and material deprivations to which they are exposed are simply unjustifiable in an upper middle income country like Romania. Among the Romanian population at risk of poverty, children are the hardest hit group. According to the Eurostat, 48.5 percent of children are at-risk-of poverty or social exclusion, which is the second worst score in the EU, and 34.1 percent reportedly suffer from severe material deprivation. The situation of children in rural areas is dire and the risk of poverty for those children is three times higher than those in urban areas. I have personally witnessed the conditions in which children in rural areas live in and the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.
What I believe is crucial in reversing this trend is access to education, which is not only a fundamental right of the child, but also a crucial premise on which other related human rights, such as the right to work and the right to participate in public life, may be realized. However, the percentage of Romania’s GDP spent on education is revealing. The low level of expenditure on education has ripple effects. While the authorities maintain that compulsory education is provided to all children for free, there are consistent reports on “hidden costs” of education, which effectively hinders access to education by families with limited financial resources. Such costs may include, for instance, supplementary tuitions, school supplies such as textbooks, notebooks and pencils, and school uniforms. The burden is particularly onerous on families living in rural areas, given the large disparity between rural and urban areas in terms of budgets allocated and spent on education.
Children living in poverty have much less chance of remaining in the school system and acquiring quality education. According to the highly-respected National Authority for the Protection of Children’s Rights and Adoption, the drop-out rate for children in compulsory education is 2 per cent year, but this figure does not provide an accurate picture as it is based on an analysis of the number of children at the beginning and the end of compulsory education. I received reports suggesting the early school leaving rate is as high as 17.3 per cent and the rate is particularly high for Roma children. Even worse, I have met children in the heart of Bucharest who have never been to school for a variety of reasons, including the lack of a birth certificate or an identity card, poverty and illness. From the State’s perspectives, those without birth certificates are “invisible” children who do not exist. They have never had a birth certificate or identification document in their lives, never been to school or never been offered support from the State. The legal procedures to obtain a birth certificate are extremely cumbersome, time-consuming and costly, often requiring a lawyer and a range of documentation including forensic evidence to prove the age of the child.
What is paradoxical is that while there are a large number of children who fall through the cracks of the education and social welfare system, institutionalization of children seems to play a significant role in filling the gaps. The families that I spoke to in Bucharest often spoke of the fear that the local council may take away their children and I have also received information indicating that poor families are often persuaded to send their children to residential institutions so they are adequately fed and taken care of. According to the official figures, there are 37,126 children in family-care settings, 20,887 children in public residential institutions, and 4,043 children in private residential institutions. Strikingly, 40 per cent of those children enter the institutions because of poverty. Furthermore, although Law No. 272/2004 prohibits institutionalization of children under the age of three except those with a “severe” degree of disability, the information that I gathered suggests that the definition of “severe” disability is often discretionary in practice and many small children with minor or no disabilities are often institutionalized. The children in the institutions often end up staying there until they become adults, at which point they may be transferred to residential institutions for adults. There is a critical need to prevent children from entering into the institutions in the first place or to at least ensure that institutionalization is a temporary measure of a last resort.
a) In view of the fiscal space available, the Government should increase its spending on education to reflect both EU standards and domestic law. Increased spending should be allocated to local authorities, particularly focusing on those with limited resources with a view to reducing the regional disparity.
b) The process of issuing a birth certificate should be simplified, so that it is a straightforward administrative procedure that can be undertaken on a free-of-charge basis.
c) The local authorities should provide services and support to the families at the community level in order to prevent the institutionalization of children. The central Government should allocate more resources to the local authorities for the purpose of enhancing the capacity of social workers and providing professional training so they could provide effective early intervention services.
d) The Government should consider the establishment of a Children’s Commissioner, who is tasked with a broad mandate and power to protect children’s rights and equipped with adequate resources and capacity to maintain his/her independence.
5. Fiscal policy and poverty
It would be reasonable to assume that the inability of the Romanian Government to deal adequately with these challenges is a result of budgetary constraints. But the fiscal reality actually tells a very different story. With a flat rate income tax of 16%, Romania has the most regressive tax system in Europe. In other words, a political decision has been taken not to increase the net effective tax rate for individuals with higher incomes relative to those with lower incomes. Thus the opportunity to increase tax revenue to support increased spending on anti-poverty measures has been foregone. In addition, effective tax collection rates are low and widespread tax evasion and corruption further reduce revenue intakes. Even in successful anti-corruption contexts, the amount recovered from the proceeds of corrupt conduct is estimated at only 5-15% of the assets subject to a court order. This undermines the impact of sanctions and does not generate the appropriate revenues for the state. Moreover, Romania has only been able to make use of available European structural funds at a relatively low level, thus leaving much funding untapped.
Despite all of these missed opportunities, Romania could have had even greater fiscal space to fund social reforms. Instead, it has adopted inadequately evaluated and questionable policies of reducing VAT from 25% to 19%, and doubling the child allowance, which have eliminated much of the space for broader, more progressively targeted, reforms. In other words, the dismal state of social inclusion is a result of deliberate policies that reduce funding that could otherwise be available, while channeling what is available to the better off in the society.
The paradox is that Romania has, on the one hand, under the influence of external funders, adopted a plethora of strategies designed to put in place the building blocks for a social democracy, or welfare state. Some of these strategies are excellent and almost all are necessary. But on the other hand, the state’s macro-economic policies seem to signal a rather different orientation. Some of my interlocutors spoke of neo-liberal assumptions aimed at minimizing both taxation rates and social protection, while facilitating wealth generation without regard to redistribution. Instead of social or citizenship rights, the dominant discourse was one of equality of opportunity, as opposed to affirmative action.
The New Zealander who went through post-communism hell twenty-five years ago to adopt a Romanian baby.
Adele wrote in her memoir, ”The Promise I Kept”; You wake up one morning to the sound of history knocking loudly, impatiently, persistently at your door. To answer it is to take a leap of faith into your future.
Adele Rickerby went through the hell of early post-communism to adopt a girl from Romania.
As the plane was flying over Brisbane, an Australian city set on a wide, beautiful river, one of the mothers gathered at the playgroup pointed out to the plane and told her little daughter: “We came on a plane like this one when we returned from Romania.”
The woman was one of Australians who adopted a kid from Romania in the early 90s. Several people living in Brisbane, whose kids were born in Romania, started a playgroup, so that the children would get together regularly. They’ve never kept it a secret from them that they were adopted.
Adele Rickerby, a New Zealander who moved to Australia after she got married, would also bring her daughter to these playgroups. She felt like she had a special bond with the couples that went through the same experience. They were an extended family for each other. For Adele, adopting a child from Romania was not an event from the past that simply went forgotten as years went by. Instead she would think every single day about her six weeks in Bucharest in the early spring of 1991, as she was struggling to adopt a baby girl. After she semi-retired, due to a surgery on her back, she found the peace and time to sit at a table and write down her thoughts. This is how “The Promise I Kept”, her book on adopting a baby girl from Romania, was born.
Romania allowed international adoptions until 2001, when it placed a moratorium on the practice. It officially banned these adoptions four years later. But even domestic adoptions go through only with great difficulty. Last year, only 840 children were adopted in Romania, despite that fact that the country had over 58,100 children in the special protection system at the end of March this year. The big problem lies in the complicated laws which define when a child is “adoptable.”
Adele Rickerby herself had to overcome a number of limitations to adopt the baby, she tells me during our first Skype discussion. Her voice is very warm and a bit nervous. It is the end of summer here in Bucharest, but the beginning of spring in Australia. Her Romanian-born daughter, who is now in her 20s, helped her install Skype. Adele laughed about it. “I have a reputation for being bad with technology.”
When Adele came to Romania to adopt the baby, after she had seen the terrible images of Romanians kids in orphanages, it was late winter. Bucharest, which had just come out of the Communism era, was gray and felt unsafe. Many kids were sold illegally in those early days of freedom, and the rumours about a moratorium were everywhere. Adele was afraid that she would not be able to get through with the adoption. But spring was slowly making its way.
April 1991: The winter train ride between Budapest and Bucharest
In April 1991, Adele Rickerby took the plane from Australia to Frankfurt. She had a luggage full of documents, which were necessary for the adoption. Back in Brisbane, she left her 6-year old daughter, which she hugely missed, and her husband. Their marriage was kind of falling apart. She was planning to take the plane from Frankfurt to Romania, but when she arrived in Germany, there were no free seats for that weekend. Instead of waiting a few days for the next flight, she booked a train from Germany, which passed through Austria, Hungary and then reached Romania. She had this strong sense of urgency, that she needed to get faster to Bucharest.
Everything went well through Germany and Austria. However, soon after the border with Hungary, Hungarian soldiers got on the train and asked for her passport. Then they ordered her off the train and threw her luggage out of the window. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and she didn’t wasn’t sure where she was.
Adele had no choice but to get off the train, and the train left without her. “I was just standing there in the afternoon, not knowing what was going on.” She went to the wooden train station and waited. Then a man who spoke English and was well-dressed approached her and told her that he was the local taxi driver. He could help her get a visa for Hungary, then take her to the train station in Budapest so she’d catch the same train. “We will get to the border and we will get a visa for you. The same train leaves Hungary at nine o’clock at night. I will make sure you are there on time,” the man told her. She then paid 350 dollars to this stranger to drive her across Hungary. She had the feeling that the man and the soldiers which got her off the train knew each other and were part of a scheme. But what could she do about it?
“I got in the taxi. It was getting dark and we started to drive through the back streets of this village. Where are we going, I asked him. I need to get petrol, he replied, which was fair enough. I had no choice but to trust him.” She sat in the back of the car. The man started talking about his wife and family, while Adele was looking out of the window. The Hungarian villages and town they were driving through looked particularly disheartening in the dim winter light. After she finished her nursing training in Australia, Adele did a lot of travelling around the continent with her husband. “I was like, I’ve done a lot of travelling, I can cope, but nothing could prepare me for the shock of Hungary and Romania.”
It was just getting darker and colder, but they made it and arrived at the railway station at Budapest. They found an empty carriage, the man threw her suitcases and her sleeping bag, and then he left. Within 15 minutes the train left too.
She spent all night just travelling the rest of the way into Bucharest. It was very dark, and every time the train passed through a little town, officials would get on the train, come to her carriage, look at her passport, at her visa, then go through her luggage, searching for contraband.
“We’d go through villages that were very poor; a light bulb in this village, a soldier with a rifle just walking on the platform. It was still a lot of snow on the ground, the end of winter; a peasant man’s jacket made out of of sheep’s skin.”
At about 8 o’clock, when the train was getting closer to Bucharest and Adele was tidying up her belongings, taking her sleeping bag off, three well-dressed man came into her carriage. One of them was an engineer for the railway station and was on his way to a meeting. He could speak English and asked her was what she doing there. “I said I was adopting a baby girl.”
She remembers the main saying: “Our country is poor, but our hearts are rich.” Then the train finally arrived at the Gara de Nord railway station. It was early in the morning.
May 1991: The promise
The only person Adele knew in Bucharest was a Catholic woman called Mihaela, who had hosted other couples from the US, New Zealand and Australia willing to adopt babies from Romania. Adele knew that going through the whole process would take about six weeks. The law gave the adoptive mother the opportunity to change her mind within this period. She was planning to do the adoption as a New Zealander, because the Australian Department of Immigration had rejected her request to adopt from Romania.
She phoned Mihaela, who was in holiday, but luckily hadn’t left Bucharest, so she picked Adele up from the railway station. After so many hours of uncertainty and fear, Adele felt desperate for a shower, a hot meal and conversation with English-speaking people. She found another couple from Australia in Mihaela’s house. Adele wrote in a diary during her six-week stay in Bucharest, describing her experiences. It later became the source of her book “The Promise I Kept.”
In those speculative days after the fall of communism, Romania had several people who worked as intermediaries between foreigners wanting to adopt kids and state institutions. Some were willing to intermediate sales of children. With 20,000 dollars one could buy a baby on the black market. Some were decent people, who spoke English and grabbed the opportunity to make some money. The man who helped Adele get through all the process was a doctor, who was well-educated and spoke English. She paid him a small fee. But these go-between persons weren’t the only ones asking for cash. Sometimes even the birth mothers would demand money, even if they had given up their children. However, Adele didn’t go through that. The mother of the girl she adopted was a very young girl herself, living in a small apartment in Ramnicu Valcea, with her parents, a brother and a sister. They had no money and no way of supporting the newly-born kid. It was also the stigma attached to being a single mother. Poverty and the blame passed on to single mothers forced many women to abandon their children during communism and afterwards.
Adele met the mother and her family in their apartment, where they had a meal. It was very emotional for both parts. Adele thinks that maybe the grandparents were even more distressed about the whole thing, because they understood the enormity of it, while the mother was still very young. But the girl did tell Adele that she wanted her daughter to have a future, so Adele promised her she’d give her daughter a future. “And that’s the promise I kept,” she said. “25 years later, the daughter is very beautiful, has a wonderful partner. She is a pharmacy assistant, and she has a lovely family and home.”
Then she met her future daughter, who was in an orphanage. A nurse held the baby up to the window. “She was four-month old and she was really cute,” Adele said. The judge, who had the final word on the adoption, said yes, and Adele finally had the little girl in her arms.
One year after returning to Australia, Adele divorced and had to raise her two daughters by herself. “I had whole sentences that I wanted to write down, but I was really busy and I didn’t have the opportunity.” But two years ago, she had to give up work, due to a surgery on her back. She rented a little unit and went away by herself for several months to write her book. It was really difficult revisiting the whole experience, she said. “It was one stage where I couldn’t finish it. And I had to leave it for about 6 weeks before I ended it.”
After she finished the book, Adele was approached during book launches by Romanian adoptees, who didn’t understand why they were left and abandoned.
Several Romanian kids who were given for adoption are now trying to find their families. There are even Facebook groups, where they share their experiences. The media has immediately picked up the topic, searching for emotional stories. But for some of the adoptees, this can be a traumatic experience. They discover all sorts of terrible situations and they are tormented by the question of why they were given up for adoption. “They are trying to pull their lives together but in the meantime they also feel this burden of responsibility towards their birth families,” Adele said. Her own daughter was once approached by a newspaper interested in her experience. But she said no. “I’m not gonna do that so that they’re gonna have a story.”
Adele lives with her Romanian-born daughter, so she still gets to hear “Mom, can you do my washing?” or “What’s for dinner tonight, mom?”. The girl works a lot, but she has Fridays off and they go out and have coffee together. Her older daughter now lives in another city, but not too far away.
Adele shares a very close bond with the other adoptive couples from Brisbane. They’ve organized trainings about adoption, they’ve set up this playgroups for kids, they’ve spent Christmas together over the years. Adele was once talking with a couple from England, who also lived in Brisbane. “When do you get over Romania?” they asked themselves. “But you can’t get over Romania. You can’t have an experience like that and not change your life. You can’t live superficially,” Adele said.
Adele has now been living in Australia for 30 years. She is not very close to her family in New Zealand. “My mother died when I was not even 13. I don’t think we were close when we were growing up. I like to say that mothers have a glue that bind us together and when my mother died, the family fell apart. I think that’s the truth,” Adele says. Then she pauses for a while, and adds: “Maybe that’s why it meant so much to me to adopt a child. I know what it’s like not to have a mother.
Also available as a paperback from the Book Depository. https://www.bookdepository.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.”