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The new Romanian orphans
by Tony Jenkins, UNICA Portugal

(original version here)

To stay warm on chill spring nights Nico and Alin sleep on steam manhole covers in the Piatza Romana, a small park near Bucharest 's Garad de Nord train station, which is where we found them. Nico is 13, Alin just 10. Both are small for their age and always hungry. They negotiate like veteran diplomats, quickly agreeing to speak to us in return for food and ice cream, which they devoured as we spoke.

Neither is an orphan. Both live on the streets for the same reason: their parents beat them. "I'd like to stay home if Mum didn't hit me," Alin says with a resigned shrug, "But I have one sister and four brothers and there's never enough to eat, so Mum says I have to beg. I have to bring home money every day. If I don't, she hits me. About two years ago it got too bad and I left."

Nico's story is identical. "My parents told me to beg half a million Lei (about 14 Euros) every day. If I didn't manage it, they'd beat me."

So the two friends joined the band of children who roam the streets of Bucharest . No one knows for sure how many they number: dozens certainly, hundreds possibly: one of the last vestiges of the appalling child care record of the Ceausescu dictatorship.

The boys express little self-pity. They have a world-weary, street-wise attitude. "In winter we're in God's hands," says Alin, "but we survive." He smiles and gulps down some ice cream. "We take rides on the tram where it's warmer, till midnight . Or we go down to the metro. We find a warm place and curl up."

Their ambitions are modest. Alin wants to be a street sweeper. "It's good: you work and you get paid." Nico wants to learn to read and write and, even though he hasn't reached puberty, he dreams of marriage, "I'd like a house and a wife to take care of it."

What they don't ask for is an alternative place to live. No government shelter for them. They prefer the streets to an orphanage.

That might seem to make sense to those who recall the terrible TV images after the December '89 Romanian revolution and the execution of the Ceausescus. We saw ghoulish institutions with starving, freezing, semi-naked and handicapped children, their heads shaven to prevent lice, living in conditions so spartan they almost recalled concentration camps.

Ceausescu had dreamt of a great socialist state, young and populous. He decreed that, "The fetus is the property of the entire society. Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity."

Celibacy was taxed, contraceptives banned and abortion outlawed. Books on human sexuality were classified as "state secrets." Women under 45 were rounded up at work every three months, taken to clinics and examined for signs of pregnancy in the presence of so called "menstrual police." A pregnant woman who failed to "produce" could be summoned for questioning. If she miscarried she was suspected of illegal abortion. If a baby died the doctor could lose as much as 25% of his salary.

But Romania was poor, nutrition bad, pre-natal care in some areas non-existent. As Alexander Floran Anca, a Bucharest doctor put it, "The law only forbade abortion. It did nothing to promote life." Infant mortality soared to 83 deaths per 1000 live births (compared to 13 in Portugal in 1990 or 5 today).

Unwanted babies often ended up in orphanages, together with children born with deformities and those whose families simply could not afford to feed them.

After the revolution there were 47,405 children in institutional care. With the dislocation that followed the collapse of Communism, the numbers grew. In 2001 the European Commission reported 129,296 children under special protection, nearly 78,000 of them in residential care.

The British charity Relief Fund for Romania described the plight of the average orphan, "Cold and bored, meager and unvarying meals, bleak mealtime experiences fighting for food. nobody to call your own, to love and hold you.no time for personal attention or affection, little color or variety. made even worse by disability, illness or abuse, sores and infestations, psychological damage."

The authorities were overwhelmed. To some the solution seemed simple: let rich foreigners adopt. Romania quickly became a magnet for American and European couples willing to pay as much as 20.000 euros per child. Some 30,000 children left the country.

Then came reports of baby trafficking: some of the children were ending up as victims of the human organ trade or of paedophiles, condemned to domestic servitude or child prostitution. Criminal gangs started to coerce impoverished families into giving up their children. The trade was so lucrative that gangs spread into neighboring countries where they tore children from their families. Under pressure from the EU, in 2001 Romania froze all foreign adoptions.

So does this explain the fate of Alin and Nico: trapped between the "fogo" of ghastly orphanages and the "brazas" of the street?

Actually no. Starting in 2001 the Romanian government went on a spending binge, investing millions of euros to modernize its childcare system. It shuttered the huge old orphanages that had been so inhumane. In their stead it built hundreds of drop-in centers, advice clinics and mini-orphanages and hired thousands of new child-care workers and psychologists. The Expresso visited several of these new centres. They were uniformly impressive: modern, clean, brightly painted, well-staffed and congenial.

At the Danila Prepeleac Shelter for street children, which can handle up to 18 kids at a time, we arrived in the midst of a lesson. The children all looked well-fed, well-dressed and happy.

"We find them on the street and persuade them to come here," says Anghilina Christian, the director of the centre. "They can stay three months while we determine their legal status. It's voluntary, if they want to leave they can. We have more chance of helping them if we let them know they are not prisoners. We try to reunite them with parents, but many parents say they can't afford it. The government tries to help with financial aid. If we cannot persuade their parents to take them back, we look for foster parents."

The children were shy and giggling. Josef, a 16 year-old who lived on the streets for five years, explained that his parents live far away in the countryside and will not take him back, but a cousin who lives close to Bucharest has agreed to take him in, helped by a government stipend of more than 100 Euros per month. Asked if he was looking forward to the move, Josef nodded nervously.

The Casa Di Tei, a brand new building erected with financing from the European Development Bank is designed to prevent the creation of orphans by keeping vulnerable families together. It is a dormitory for single mothers, a day-care center and a place where families in stress can receive counseling. In keeping with the new policy in everything related to child care -small is beautiful- the centre has just 5 bedrooms each of which sleeps two mothers and their children.

Alina, a 23 year old mother of 7-week old twins was poor and unemployed when she advertised in the Libertatea newspaper that she was prepared to sell her babies. The authorities tracked her down and brought her to the Casa Di Tei. "I was living in such an unhealthy place," she explained, "I was thinking 'what kind of horrible life will my children have?'" She looked at the floor and twisted her hands in embarrassment, "I thought they could do better with another family. But now we have a chance to get our lives together."

Alina's room-mate is Nina a 28 year old with a one year old baby girl called Gabriela. "I was evicted from my apartment," Nina explained, "I was going to be on the street, then I remembered this emergency phone number, I called it and they brought me here. If they hadn't maybe I would have lost Gabriela, had to give her away. Now we have a new chance," she said with a smile.

These centers and others we visited are symbols of a system so thoroughly reformed that, "Romania should go from being the ogre of Europe to being the role model in child protection," according to Baroness Emma Nicholson, who until the last European elections was the European Parliament's Rapporteur on Romania.

Nicholson made child care and children's rights her top priority as she shepherded Bucharest towards EU accession. "I chose children's rights because I thought a society that doesn't care for its children has lost its heart," she told the Expresso, "But now Romania has found its heart."

Nicholson recognizes that, "There is always more to be done -street children, children in adult prisons, children with AIDS- but the progress has been dramatic and magnificent, and Romania will become a model." She now compares Romania favorably with Italy , France , Spain , Belgium and the United States where she says there are larger proportions of children interned in large institutions.

Gabriela Coman, the head of the National Authority for Child Protection and Adoption spells out the dramatic improvement: less than 37.000 children live in institutions today - half the number four years ago. "We did not act just because of pressure from the EU. We Romanians were as shocked by the TV images as foreigners were," Coman told the Expresso. "These were our children, we were ashamed. I would describe what has happened as foreign support, not pressure. It has helped accelerate our response. It has not imposed a model."

What impresses Nicholson more than the numbers is the philosophical underpinnings of the Romanian approach. "The spirit of the new law is to place the rights of the child front and center, to preserve the family and protect kids within families," Coman explains. One way is to support single mothers and families with many children so that they are not forced to abandon their kids. Some 700.000 families now get financial aid. Another way has been to vastly expand the foster care system so that orphaned or abandoned children can be raised in a foster family.

The decision to ban foreign adoptions and to help keep poor families together was controversial. The Americans in particular were unhappy and applied a great deal of pressure. "We received much and confused advice," was how Coman put it diplomatically. There were unconfirmed allegations that Washington tried to make an end to the adoption ban a condition for Romanian accession to NATO last year.

US ambassador to Bucharest Michael Guest, makes his views clear, "Children should not be required to spend their childhood in institutions simply because there is no Romanian family to take them."

Debra Murphy-Scheumann, of Special Additions, a nonprofit adoption organization in Kansas that has lobbied the Bush administration, argues that, "Every child has the right to a permanent family. These children have become political pawns. This is not about the United States and the European Union, this is about the life of a child." Skeptics worry that people like Murphy-Scheumann are too focused on the rights of adoptive parents.

Who decides what is best for the child -and to what extent a child's own opinion should be considered- became a fundamental legal issue and it was Romania that helped clarify European law on the matter. It revolved around the case of two girls, Mariana and Florentina, adopted against their wishes by two Italian couples at a time when the Romanian courts were riddled with corruption.

The girls were living in a small home run by the former Romanian tennis star and International Olympic Committee member Ion Tiriac. Tiriac, a millionaire whom Nicholson describes as a "real hero," has opened a series of homes with up to 12 children in each, presided over by a 'father' and 'mother.'

The children attend local schools and are encouraged to stay in touch with their families, but usually come to think of the other kids in their Tiriac home as their extended families. So it was no surprise that Mariana and Florentina did not want to leave. Based on their assertions the Romanian authorities refused to comply with the court order to send them to Italy .

The Italians appealed to the European Court of Human Rights which noted that, " The applicants' interest lay in their desire to create a new family relationship by creating a relationship with their adopted daughters." The Court also noted that the girls' "Interest lay in not having imposed upon them against their will new emotional relations with people with whom they had no biological ties and whom they perceived as strangers."

In the end the judges decided that, "Particular importance had to be given to the best interests of the child. In adoption cases, it was even more important to give the child's interests precedence over those of its parents, as adoption meant 'giving a family to a child and not the child to a family.'" Mariana and Florentina were allowed to stay in Romania .

Nicholson was elated. "This decision sets an important legal precedent. This is an important legal step forward that will protect children in 45 countries across Europe ."

It also strengthened Romania 's determination to help children stay in the land of their birth. One way has been to persuade families to take back their abandoned children; more than 2000 families did so in 2004. Another has been to encourage Romanians to adopt: nearly 3000 did so from 2002 to 2004.

And another way is to use certified foster parents. Visited regularly by social workers and re-certified every year, foster parents are encouraged to build relationships with a child's natural parents. If they resist, the foster parents are encouraged to think of adopting their charges. There are now nearly 50.000 children living with foster parents, up from 11.000 in 1997.

The upshot is that there are no ghastly Dickensian orphanages left in Romania . Instead there is what Nicholson calls "A completely new, world class, state of the art, child health development policy. You won't find better anywhere in the world."

"Far from being the Wild East of Europe," the Baroness continues, " Romania is a country that for geographic and political reasons was on the wrong side of history for a long time. But the spirit of the people was never quenched and Romania is now literally at the heart of Europe ."

So how come Nico and Alin will not stay in one of those fabulous new, shelters? "Oh we've been in them," Nico says, "The food is very good. And the staff nice, they don't hurt us. It's the older boys. They tell us we have to beg and they beat us if we don't bring them money. It's just like home. One kid hit me with chains. So it was easier just to leave. We know how to be safe on the streets."

Nico highlights an obvious danger in the reform process: that this generation of kids will repeat the behavior of their parents. Coman is aware of it, "We have a program to teach life skills, starting with children age 14. We help them go to university. We work with the Ministry of Labor to make sure they get help past the age of 18. Many who have been through the child care system say they want to work in it and make it better. But in the end this is a problem not of the state, but of the community. We all have to help these children, they belong to all of us. If we don't understand that we understand nothing."

TONY JENKINS


 

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