Severed roots: The abandoned children of Romania

Roma child living in a dump in Cluj, Romania
Roma child living in a garbage dump in Cluj, Romania (© Eric Beauchemin)

Children are being particularly hard hit by the collapse of communism in 1989. The number of children in institutions or foster families in eastern and central Europe has risen by 30% over the past decade. Child labour is increasing as families struggled to survive. And throughout the region, more and more children are being abandoned to their fate and wound up on the streets. The situation in Romania is particularly dire.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: February 4, 1998


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “Severed Roots – the children of Romania”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

In eastern Europe, the revolutions in 1989 which ended half a century of totalitarian rule have brought many things: freedom and hope, but also extreme poverty and growing social problems. Children throughout the region have been among the hardest hit. In the past eight years, the number of children being placed in institutions or foster families has risen by 30%. Child labour in the region is growing as families struggle to survive. And throughout eastern Europe, more and more children are being abandoned to their fate and are winding up on the streets.

In the Romanian capital Bucharest, children, some as young as four or five, spend their days and nights wandering the streets and the metro. They beg, steal, scrounge in garbage cans, sell their bodies and sniff glue. There are an estimated three to five thousand street children in Bucharest alone, and their numbers are growing. Most have run away from state-run institutions or orphanages or from abusive parents. David Gast is a Dutch volunteer working for one of the few groups trying to provide some assistance to these children. He took me along to a working neighbourhood in southern Bucharest. He had made an appointment with a few street children to see if they would be interested in coming to the day centre run by his group, the Open House Association or Casa Deschisa.

 I invited them, so I said if they want to come there, they have food. They can take a bath. They have new clothes there and they can start following music lessons. That’s what I said and they liked it, but they were afraid of the new territory. EB: What do you mean when you see “were afraid of the new territory”? They’re afraid about being beaten up by other children. I think they’re afraid of the newness in general. This is their home. The boxes are their apartment where they sleep. EB: Well actually I should describe what you say is a box. It’s actually a contained, a metal container. It’s around 1 metre high and a metre and a half long, and this is where they sleep and they live. They live on the street and there they sleep.

In the end, three children decided to come along with us to Casa Deschisa. One of them is 12-year-old Alexandru. He’s been living on the streets of Bucharest for the past six years.

12-year-old Alexandru (© Eric Beauchemin)

His father would beat him up every time he would see him, and also his mother didn’t protect him. So he left. He lived in the gutters all the time. EB: Did your brothers and sisters stay at home or did they also go on to the street with you? He has a little sister, and she says at home. But his parents are divorced. EB: How do you live on the street, Alexandru? It’s not too good there. Sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes it’s better, but what can I do? EB: How do you earn money? A little stealing, a little begging, searching in the garbage cans. That’s the way he survives. EB: Today when we found you, you were sniffing glue. Have you been sniffing glue for a long time? Four years ago he started. EB: Why do you do it? He’s used to it and he can’t stop. He started because an older boy has told him and now he can’t stop anymore. EB: You’ve been living on the street for six years. Do you get sick often? No. EB: What about during the winter? Winter is very cold and sometimes he gets ill.

Casa Deschisa offer for the street children food, clothes, school education, social assistance and emotional assistance or support. I have to tell you that these children need affection. They need a lot of affection. They need respect. We give them these things by talking with them, helping them find their family, helping them to go to school, helping them to provide their ID or whatever they need.

Claudia Luca is Casa Deschisa’s programme director.

We don’t agree with take out the child from the street and putting him in a residential centre. So first we try to provoke some important changes in child’s mind and att*itude, and after that, to offer him a place in a school, a job, a place to live. We work with these children while they still live in the street until they are committed to change their style of life. It has to be their option to change their life.  It has to be their decision.  

Florin Zamfir
Florin Zamfir (© Eric Beauchemin)

Florin Zamfir has made that choice. His mother died when he was 14, and he didn’t get along with his stepfather. He was sent to an institution but ran away because he says he was beaten regularly by the other children, the teachers and the rest of the staff. He lived on the streets for three years.

When he was 18 years old, he made the decision to work on his future, and he knew that in Casa Deschisa he had the possibility to work on his future, and now he is already going three years to school. He’s learning for bricklayer, and he’s doing well now. He has made this room. EB: How much longer do you plan to come to Casa Deschisa? Till he finishes school, he wants to stay here and after that till he found a job. EB: Why is it so important for you to finish school? It is very important for him because he doesn’t have parents, and it is the only way in which he can make a good future for himself. So he’s now finishing the last year and after that he hopes to be able to work as a labourer and make a good future. EB: Were you able to achieve all of this because of Casa Deschisa or was it because you really wanted to get off the street and start a new life for yourself? The first idea came from Casa Deschisa. They said you have to go to school and then he went away and made his thoughts for two days and came back and wanted it himself. He saw that it was  the best for him. It was not because of Casa Deschisa he does this but because he wants it.

Most children and teenagers on the streets of Bucharest and other Romanian cities have fled state-run institutions and orphanages. There are a variety of institutions in Romania for the 100,000 children and adolescents who’ve been abandoned temporarily or permanently. There are institutions for babies and toddlers, for school age children and for the physically and mentally disabled. According to Silvia Pasti of the United Nations Children’s Fund, institutions were an essential element in the policy of the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceasescu to increase his country’s population.

The state had a very aggressive, pro-natalist policy and tried to put in place a network that will help…not only help but push families to have more children with the guarantee that if the families can’t cope with looking after their children, the state will look after them. Both authorities and parents consider in a way very normal to raise the child in institutions if the family couldn’t cope with the child because either the child was sick, handicapped or it was something with the parents.

The first thing that you could see going into an institution is the daily schedule: 6:30 wake-up, 7 breakfast, 7:30 going to school and so on. So everything it’s very scheduled and each child is doing in the same time the same thing with the others in a manner that allows the child very little freedom to choose, to take decisions, to take responsibilities.

Former Romanian street children
Former Romanian street children (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: I’ve come to Orphanage Number 8, which is on the outskirts of Bucharest. This is a 200-year-old building which was recently renovated. It’s got 105 girls, they’re all girls, from the age of 8 to 18. There are also 23 girls who are teenagers, who are studying in a nearby high school. We’re in a very, very big room at the moment. There’s a television here. There are around 10 tables, and all 105 girls can come here and have activities together.

EB: We’ve come into one of the rooms where the child sleep. There are 12 kids who are between the ages of 8 and 11 in this room. They all have bunk beds. The room has four lights and is well illuminated. There are some nice windows, and there’s a big table in the middle of the room where the children are now doing their homework, except that there now standing in front of me, looking at me as I say this. All the beds have sheets and blankets, and it is very clean. It looks like a nursery school actually. Can you tell me what your name is? Alexandra. EB: And how old are you? 14. EB: And how long have you been here? Since three years. EB: Why did you come here Alexandra? I don’t know. Maybe my mother knows. EB: Do you still have a father? Yes. EB: Are your mother and father together? Yes. EB: Are they having economic problems? Yes. EB: Do you have brothers and sisters also? I have one sister here and two brothers home. EB: Do you often go and see your parents? Yes, every Saturday and Sunday. EB: What about during the school holidays or the school vacation? I’m going home. I’m not staying here. EB: Is it actually better living here than at home? The food might be better or clothing or school. I think it is. Maybe some other girls think it’s not. Some of them have big houses and family, but they don’t take them. EB: Will you stay here until you’re 18? Do you know? No. EB: Maybe you might go back home? Yes. EB: You hope so. Yes,.

About half of the children and adolescents in Romania’s institutions have a similar background to Alexandra’s. They’ve been abandoned by their parents for periods that can range from several months to several years. Some parents never come back to pick up their children. It’s one of the many inadequacies of the state-run child care system. The institutions receive funding based on the number of children in their care. So there’s little incentive to maintain contact with the children’s parents or to encourage parents to take their children back home. Institutionalised care also has a major impact on the children’s social and psychological development. But the biggest drawback, says Sylvia Pasti of UNICEF, is that it doesn’t prepare the children for an independent, adult life.

In the previous regime, enterprises were obliged to receive them, to offer them a job and to offer them a place to live. This system collapsed, so nobody at the age of 18 is in charge to support these kids to start a new life, plus they are not prepared. They don’t know how to manage. They don’t know how to manage their time, their money, to establish stable relations with the others. So it’s very important that the life in the institutions, the way the children are educated be changed.

The Romanian government recognises the need to restructure the institutions, but since the revolution it’s been focusing on bringing them up to standard. Until recently, the conditions in most orphanages were atrocious. More than half of the state’s tiny wards developed chronic medical problems because of a lack of a proper diet, stimulation and exposure to sunlight. This was particularly true of the state institutions for children with mental and physical disabilities.

In Romania, there were only big institutions for disabled children from the birth until 18 years. It was a house where they were taken and maybe they were cared for but not enough, and there was no rehabilitation treatment for them. Those children who were not given to these institutes remain in the family, and they were hidden from the eyes of the other persons because the mentality was that this is a punishment from God and this is a shame, and they are not able to do anything.

Dr. Ana Catona is the director of a medical day treatment centre in the northern Transylvanian town of Cluj, which provides therapy and rehabilitation for mentally and physically disabled children from the age of 2 to 7. The Bethania Centre was established five years ago with funding from a Dutch Protestant church.

What we want is to try as early as possible to try to recover the problems and to make them to be independent so they can help themselves in feeding, clothing, to be able to walk, to be able to speak, to communicate. What we wish and we succeed to do in these years is that all the children who are graduating from our institute, they are integrated in mainstream education or special schools or already in normal kindergartens.

Monica Liudavid says she’s astonished by the progress her paraplegic grandson has made since he began going to the Bethania Centre two years ago.

She observed a big change, physically and psychologically, but especially physically. EB: Often in Romania, children who have disabilities, they are considered inferior. What did you think of your grandson before he came here? It was surprising for us his sickness. We were not happy with it, but after we came here we saw hope.

Bethania (© Eric Beauchemin)

But treatment centres like Bethania continue to be the exception rather than the rule. Most disabled and chronically sick children are still treated in big institutions. The only other category of children which has seen real improvements are those with AIDS. Over 4000 or so children were infected with HIV virus, mostly in orphanages. 1500 have since died. Because the conditions in the institutions were so bad, doctors believed that giving sick or frail children whole blood would boost their immune system and make them healthier. It doesn’t. Media coverage of the AIDS epidemic and the horrible conditions in which many of the children were living caused such an outcry that international aid organisations and the Romanian authorities acted quickly to upgrade the conditions, as I heard from Dr. Mariana Mardarescu, who took me to visit the AIDS ward at one of the main hospitals in Bucharest.

Here’s a special place, a special ward for HIV, especially for children. This is a hospital and we are admitting here the children who are very, very ill or to test if they are carrying or not HIV. The majority of them are between 9, 10, 11, 12 years old. Some of them are staying here for many months or years because they were abandoned from the beginning by their families and after that by society in a way. But now they are very ill. In this moment, I have here in this pavilion about 50 children, some of them alone, some with their mother.

This is a special place for them, for playing, to look at the TV, and also we have a special team engaged only for them like trainers, educators because they must learn something, to write, to read, to play, to be normal human beings like all the children in Romania.

They are very, very friendly. EB: But these children are younger than 9, 10, 11 years old. No, no, no. Only a few of them are between 7 and 8. But they didn’t grow exactly like the other ones because they were infected in the years 1988, 89, 90, and that’s why they are not so tall like the others.

At the beginning of this situation, in 1990, 91, 92, we had many, many abandoned children with HIV. But after 1993, 1994, we are working in a day section. The majority of the children are coming here with their parents and they have a check-up every two weeks or one month or three months. It depends because they are treated in this way and because they are treated like human beings. The parents didn’t and don’t abandon their children in this moment, and this is very, very important. Here for example we only have children with their family, especially with their mother, some of them infected by vertical transmission. There is an up curve in vertical transmission. EB: In other words, from mother to child. Exactly.

Romanian orphan in the 1990s
Romanian orphan in the 1990’s (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: Do you speak English? Yes. EB: What is your name? Nicu. EB: How old are you Nicu? 9. EB: Have you been here for long Nicu? He’s abandoned and he’s one of the oldest in our hospital, but more than five years he’s admitted in a special house. NGO from the UK is taking care of 40 of our children in special places, in special houses, exactly like in their family. He’s staying more than 5 years out from the hospital, and he was admitted here because he is very, very ill. But generally he is speaking very well in English because the majority of the nurses are from England. EB: And do you like to speak English? Yes. He visited England some months ago. EB: When did you go to England?  He was in Rochester in Manchester about 6 months ago. EB: How long did you stay in England? Two weeks. EB: Did you like it? Yes. Thank you. Byebye.

Nicu is one of the many unlucky children to have been infected at the onset of the epidemic in Romania. Today, few parents abandon their infected children because the authorities and charities are offering better outpatient care as well as social and financial assistance. Until recently, these parents just like all other parents in Romania had been left to their own devices, says Sylvia Pasti of UNICEF.

In the past regime, each family with two parents had at least two incomes. It was a state obligation to provide a place to work for everybody. Of course, it was our obligation to work. But the first thing after the revolution was to have unemployment. So from the beginning, I would say, many families at least lost one income. Of course, this affected the level of well-being of the whole family and especially children.

By the early 1990’s, the number of institutionalised children had been halved after peaking at 90,000 in 1989. But now the figure is again rising dramatically, as Sylvia Pasti discovered in her research on the causes of institutionalisation.

I saw many situations where a family having for example already three kids. A new born came, and the mother went to the office which was in charge to deal with this kind of problems and saying I have only one salary. I have three kids at home. I have this new born. I can’t cope with. I want to place my child in an institution. This request plus a very brief, I would say, home study made the basis for the authorities to take the decision to place the child in an institution and that’s all.

Municipal dump outside of Cluj, Romania
Municipal dump outside of Cluj, Romania (© Eric Beauchemin)

Growing poverty has affected all segments of Romanian society, but particularly the country’s gypsy or Roma population, who suffer systematic discrimination. Outside the city of Cluj in northern Transylvania, a community of over 100 gypsies lives a few hundred metres from the municipal garbage dump. They eke out a living collecting bottles, plastic and paper in the dump. This 28-year-old had her fifth child last month.

So three of the kids are staying with her here, and the other two are institutionalised in a special institution for children who goes to school. EB: Why is that? Because the conditions are what you see. No condition for so many people. EB: So basically she’s abandoned these children or they are just in the institution until the living conditions here improve? She intends to keep them out, but only in the conditions in which she could live decently.

After being encouraged for decades to have children, many people, particularly the Roma, still expect families to be big, despite the economic situation. But for many couples, the problem is not lack of motivation, but lack of knowledge. Family planning is a new concept, says Roxana Popescu of the Marie Stopes Foundation, a British-based charity which opened one of the first family planning clinics in Romania.

This is a mentality which is inherited from another time because before revolution in our country, contraception was forbidden. Women didn’t know the method of contraception or very few women knows about contraception before revolution. Women were intoxicated with many false problems about contraception because there are doctors, there are other women, they told them contraception makes problems: cancer, makes fat. These are the problems here in Romania.

The government is now also setting up family planning clinics throughout the country. Until recently, Romania had been following the lead of foreign aid organisations, partly because of a lack of resources. But since 1996, and thanks in particular to the efforts of the Romanian president Emil Constantineșcu and his wife, the authorities have been making children one of their top priorities, according to Gabriela Coman of the Romanian government’s department for childhood protection, which was created last year.

Beginning with July, after the new legislation, at each country level, a new structure was created. This meant a new social public service for child protection. The county council can first of all prevent the situation when a child will be in risk or in difficulty, can prevent the abandon, can accompany pregnant women at risk and can find solution for the child who cannot go or stay in her or his family because of many reasons, can provide family alternatives like foster care, for example. Psychologists, social workers work near the family in order to prevent the abandon, counsel the family and help the family with money and food if it is necessary.

Teenage Roma at the Cluj municipal dump
Teenage Roma at the Cluj municipal dump (© Eric Beauchemin)

The government nowadays has more room for manoeuvre to assist  families at risk, thanks to additional funding from the international community, including the World Bank. The World Bank representative in Bucharest, François Hectori (sp?), says his organisation is also making more funds available for Romanian families, in particular poor ones to discourage them from abandoning their children.

We have observed in all countries in transition, children are the first victim of economic reconstructing and transition. So therefore they deserve to be protected as a group per se. But also we did not have and we still don’t have an instrument which would permit to target precisely the poor in Romania. But we found that given the composition of poor families, the child allowance was the second best instrument to protect the poor families from the hit of the social restructuring, and therefore it was natural to come up with this instrument as a means, one to protect the children, second to protect the poor families.

These measures will undoubtedly help reduce the number of children being abandoned by their parents. Given the government’s limited resources, many experts believe it’s the best that can be done at the moment, though non-government organisations argue that much more should be done to help these children with severed roots. Gabriela Coman of Romania’s department of childhood protection agrees.

Romania must learn again that child is the future, not only for Romania but for everywhere. We must think that every more day spent by a child in an institution will increase his or her handicap. Every child must live with his or her family.

“Severed roots” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Ronald Hofman. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.