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Unwanted Children Still Shame Romania

Europe: Ten years after communism's collapse, 150,000 youngsters remain locked in orphanages. They may get enough food, but affection is in short supply.

May 14, 2000|ALISON MUTLER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

MICLAUSENI, Romania — Ioana Radeanu lives in a castle--but she's anything but a princess.

Originally a 19th century castle, Ioana's home is a dilapidated youth institution where girls--all of them considered mentally deficient--huddle two to a bed in cold, clammy rooms and don't get enough to eat.

Ten years after the collapse of communism first revealed the huge numbers of Romanian children living in squalid orphanages, 150,000 youngsters remain in institutions, often still with abysmal conditions.

Last year the European Union told Romania it had to resolve the problem of institutionalized children before it could join the economic bloc, something Romania hopes to do within this decade.

The poor treatment of institutionalized children is perhaps the most graphic of the many problems that impoverished Romania must solve before it can meet EU criteria.

During the communist era, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's bans on birth control and abortions led to large numbers of unwanted children who were dumped in orphanages as Romania's system eroded feelings of community and individual responsibility.

After Ceausescu's overthrow in 1989, the world was shocked to see television pictures of children dressed in rags with shaved heads tied to iron beds to stop self-mutilation and of infants sitting in urine-soaked rags.

Now many orphanages have decent clothing for the children, disposable diapers, toys, medical equipment and television sets, mostly donated by international charities. Attendants are increasingly seeing their charges as humans and not objects.

But poverty, in a country where the average monthly wage is less than $100, and lingering communist mentalities have kept the institutions full.

"It is not correct to keep these children for years on end in state institutions," says Ion Serbina, a counselor who deals with child protection, adoption and foster parents in Iasi, capital of Romania's Moldova province, some 200 miles northeast of Bucharest.

Christopher Shore, director of Romanian operations for the U.S. charity World Vision, says unwanted children are still mistreated.

"The whole approach has the foul odor of Ceausescu about it," he says. "Children who don't fit our idea of normality, we put them in warehouses or castles. But what comes out is not a fairy princess."

Individuals sometimes try to make up for the shortcomings of state care.

When Serbina heard about the plight of the 170 girls at Ioana's institution in Miclauseni, he drove to the remote castle armed with tons of basic foods and washing powder. The home has debts of $52,000, and some suppliers have stopped sending heating oil and food.

But such spontaneous help is not a solution, he says.

"We can give them caviar, but what they are lacking is affection," says Serbina, who works with international organizations to get children out of institutions and into adoptive families or foster homes. Iasi county alone has almost 4,000 children in state care.

Clearly, not all is well in Miclauseni castle.

One girl, 13, rocks herself during a zoology lesson with a vacant stare. Others scramble to catch the attention of a rare visitor. Still others, ages 12 to 16, nap in dank, frigid rooms after a lunch of thin soup and porridge, wearing woolen caps to keep warm.

Take the girls outside into the castle's wooded grounds and they almost seem like a normal group of teens grinning and giggling for a school photo. Some have dyed hair. Other wear baseball caps, baggy sports pants and platform shoes.

But years in an institution leave their scars.

"These places wreck people," Shore says. "Romania needs to build an alternative."

In line with EU demands, all children cared for by the state are now under the control of county authorities, and the National Agency for the Protection of the Rights of Children was created in December to be the central government agency responsible for children.

But for long-term residents like Ioana, 17, it may be too late.

She last went home six years ago and says she does not know why her parents brought her to the institution. Attendants say the parents are simply not interested in her.

"My parents don't ever come to see me," she says. "If I have a child when I grow up, it will only have problems, like me."

*

On the Net:

Help the Children of Romania, U.S.-based aid group:

http://www.mciadoptions.org/helpthechildren.htm

Titus International missionary group's site on Romanian orphanages:

http://www.titusinternational.org/Joseph--Lass.htm

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