YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Love and Loss in Romania

In a country where child abandonment is legal, Nannette Gonzalez is intent on finding homes for the unwanted.


SAN DIEGO — Falling in love is an occupational hazard for Nannette Gonzalez. So are lice, scabies, HIV, hepatitis and the psychological burnout that comes from helping children with lots of problems and little hope. But in the seven years the California native has spent nurturing abandoned babies in Romania and helping them find homes, she's been spared most of these liabilities. Except for the problem of love, and its attendant loss.

His name was Carlos. And he even looked like her. He was 7 months old when his mother dropped him off at Victor Gomoiu Hospital in Bucharest, where Gonzalez works. He weighed only 10 pounds, had acute bronchitis, scabies and showed signs of neglect. His mother didn't check back on him for almost three months.

During that time, Gonzalez nursed him back to health, helped him learn to sit up, coaxed him to smile and laugh, kissed him and loved him as if he were her own. Then, when the mother returned, handed him back and prayed.

Carlos is just one of many who end up at Romania Outreach to Christ's Kids, a nonprofit organization Gonzalez founded in 1997 to care for abandoned children, mostly newborns and toddlers, though some are as old as 15. Based in a 40-bed ward of a state-run hospital, the organization's staff provides the hands-on care that abandoned children need. In Romania, baby abandonment is not only legal, it's state-supported.

The ward is a large unadorned room lined with rusting metal cribs, the white paint peeling off their chain-link sides. On one side of the room is a sink and changing table. In the center, on the white and gray linoleum, are chairs and floor mats, and on them grown-ups holding babies.

The group's mission is to get kids out of the institution, and prevent more from coming in. Ideally, it aims to reunify children with their families. Failing that, the staff looks to foster care or adoption.

Gonzalez, who is 42, single and childless, is on a visit to San Diego, where she comes once a year to speak, raise funds and see family. "At first I couldn't understand any woman just giving up her baby, but then I've never been that poor," she says. Some mothers, she now understands, leave their babies out of genuine concern. They think if their baby has food and shelter it'll be better off, because that's more than they can provide.

Mariana Clichigi, for example, had three children and no husband. She could provide for her family as long as her grandmother cared for her children while Clichigi worked. But when her grandmother died, Clichigi had to leave the children in a state-run orphanage, one that Romania Outreach worked with. To put the family back together, the organization bought Mariana a home for $5,000 and gives her a stipend of $100 a month so she can stay home with her children. That kind of money goes far in Romania, where the average family makes do on the U.S. equivalent of $110 a month.

On this day, Gonzalez is sitting in an art-filled home that belongs to friends with whom she's staying. As she talks, the happy noise of children playing at a nearby elementary school fills in the background like a well-chosen soundtrack. Dressed stylishly in red-flowered capris and a crisp white sleeveless top, Gonzalez looks like Marie Osmond with edge. Her red-glossed lips match her painted toes, which match her sandals. "I remember wondering when I decided to become a missionary whether I could still dress cute," she jests.

But mostly her talk is serious. The reason so many children are abandoned in Romania involves poverty, politics and precedent. After the ouster and subsequent execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, which ended his 24-year regime, western media uncovered the horrific fact that more than 200,000 children were living in orphanages not much better than concentration camps.

Many were the product of Ceausescu's maniacal goal of increasing the population to 30 million by the end of the century. Romania currently has 24 million people living in a country the size of Oregon.

Ceausescu outlawed birth control and abortions, and required every woman of childbearing age to have five children or be heavily taxed. Couples who had kids they didn't want or couldn't afford simply dropped them at the local hospital, no questions asked.

Though the mandatory birth policy and communism officially ended in 1989 when the country became a democracy, the poverty lingers, along with the mentality of bearing and then institutionalizing children.

And while birth control and abortions are now legal, many women continue to have unwanted babies, which Gonzalez attributes to a lack of education.

Los Angeles Times Articles