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The Unwanted Children of East Europe

Romania's treatment of disabled kids was once a horror. It's better now, but a UNICEF report finds old Soviet policies continue in the region.

November 13, 2005|William J. Kole | Associated Press Writer

CLUJ, Romania — Instead of iron cots and squalor, there are plush toys and pillows in primary colors. Walls once decorated with photos of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu are now plastered with posters of pop star Kylie Minogue.

But the government facility still serves a purpose born of the communist era: It's a repository for the unwanted: mentally disabled children whose parents are too poor, too unwilling or too ashamed to care for them.

Romania's children's homes were one of the worst horrors to emerge when the Iron Curtain came down in 1989. The country has made huge strides in reforming its institutions and shrinking the number of inmates. But across Eastern Europe, hundreds of thousands of children are still being abandoned in institutions as wards of the state, continuing the old Soviet policy of "defectology," the United Nations Children's Fund found in a study released last month.

"No matter how good the conditions are in an institution, it's still an institution ... and an institution should always be a last resort," said Monica Filip, who oversees nine state-funded centers for children in Cluj, a northwestern Romanian city of about 350,000 people.

"We are trying to destroy the myth that the government -- not the family -- is responsible for taking care of the children," she said. "Unfortunately, that mentality hasn't changed much."

Many of the region's institutionalized youngsters have only light or medium mental retardation, mild forms of autism or trouble interacting socially with others. In the West, most would be living with their families, attending regular schools and learning to integrate into society.

Countries like Romania, however, are struggling to alter a mind-set still widely held after decades of Soviet-era propaganda: the notion that disabled children are best dealt with by being separated from society, community and family.

In Slovakia, one of the countries examined in the study, "Not much is done to integrate these people into society. Not much is done to educate them," conceded Anna Chalachanova, a member of a civic advisory board that monitors Slovakian institutions.

For many special-needs children, state homes are "an end station," she said.

As of 2002, about 317,000 youths were living segregated lives in 27 nations of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, UNICEF found. Romania has cut the number from 6,919 to 902, but in some countries, the rate remains disturbingly high: one in three in Georgia, for instance.

"Countries in the region are putting children with disabilities in institutions at roughly the same rate they did before the transition began," the organization said.

In Western nations, it said, the rate of institutionalization is much lower.

" 'Special education' in segregated facilities -- as prescribed by the Soviet discipline of 'defectology' -- is still the overwhelming policy approach across the region" and remains "influential and deeply embedded," UNICEF said.

Some institutionalized children are not even disabled, but countries such as Russia and Georgia are building new facilities to handle growing demand, it added.

Other youths clearly function at a high level, raising troubling questions about whether they belong in an institution.

At the Cluj institute, home to 500 children ages 2 to 16, officials are proud of their efforts to give youngsters a decent life. They show a photo of Ana Maria, a mildly retarded 12-year-old with mischievous almond eyes and a shy smile. She's not around, they explain, because as a reward for her good progress and her cheerful acrylic paintings, she is downtown on an unchaperoned date.

"We think this is the way to develop their skills so they can integrate into society," said Monica Ghitiu, a psychologist at the center.

But does Ana Maria really need to be institutionalized? "It's a long process," Ghitiu said. "We have to be patient. Radical changes don't happen overnight."

In Croatia, youngsters with mild disorders are enrolled in regular nurseries and schools, and their families get state financial aid.

Therapy in some Czech institutions includes exposing children to horses.

But at least eight countries -- Azerbaijan, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Poland and Uzbekistan -- had more or roughly the same number of disabled children in institutions in 2002 as they did in 1990, the UNICEF report said.

In communist Romania's institutions, children wasted away, malnourished and deprived of human touch. Today, families with mentally disabled children are offered a salary and benefits if one parent stays home.

The state has closed dozens of institutions as the stigma of having a disabled child has subsided and families have become more receptive to the idea of being primary caregivers for their own children or foster parents for others. Three of Cluj's nine centers will be shut by year's end, Filip said.

In the meantime, Monalisa Pintilei, who coordinates care for two dozen mentally disabled children, paints Tweetie Bird murals on the walls of her Cluj center and hangs colorful twirling mobiles from the ceilings.

It's her way of trying to make it all seem a little less institutional.

"We try to make it as homey as we can," Pintilei said as a roomful of chatty 5-year-olds scribbled with crayons. "Because this is the only home that some of these kids know."

Associated Press writers Andrea Dudikova in Slovakia, Snjezana Vukic in Croatia and Nadia Rybarova in the Czech Republic contributed to this report.

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