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Orphaned by History: A Child Welfare Crisis in Romania

In July 2011, Laurentiu Ierusalim left his Romanian orphanage, the only home he had ever known. He had less than $150 in his pocket and nothing more than the clothes he was wearing. He had no job, no housing, and no clue how to survive. “I didn’t know what to do,” Ierusalim says, “so I slept in a playground across the street.”

It was the beginning of two years of homelessness, of knocking on doors to ask for food and shelter. An Orthodox priest helped him find families to take him in for several weeks at a time. Last summer, after finally surmounting the formidable bureaucratic and financial obstacles required to secure a government ID, he landed his first job as a grocery store clerk.

With slight variations, Ierusalim’s story is told over and over again in the experiences of the tens of thousands of children shunted away in Romanian orphanages during the reign of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The execution of Ceausescu and his wife on Christmas Day 1989 led to the discovery of the country’s most disturbing secret—enough abandoned children to make up a city had been living in squalor for years, packed into unsanitary orphanages without appropriate resources, care, or stimulation.

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Under Ceausescu’s deranged despotism, abortion and birth control were outlawed. He demanded that all women bear at least five children in an effort to create a caste of “worker bees” that would labor in the hive of communism. Invasive investigations of women were conducted at workplaces and elsewhere to track their individual progress in making babies. The government pledged to raise the children whose parents were too poor or incapable of caring for them. Some women never wanted the children they had been ordered to conceive in the first place and were happy to offload them. But many thought their babies would have a better life if given up—or that they had the option of collecting them later if they found the means to properly care for them.

The legacy of this nightmare is very much present in Romania today—and is one of the reasons, nearly twenty-five years after the death of
Ceausescu and the bizarre and brutal system he created, that so many Romanian children continue to be abandoned while adult survivors struggle to make a life. A lingering social welfare mentality, coupled with lack of progressive approaches to education, a struggling economy, and halfhearted commitment to rule of law, pressurize the situation.

 

Ierusalim’s childhood was one of meager meals of broth and bread, minimal schooling, and lots of free time. He and fellow orphans tell stories of having their few pieces of food stolen by older bullies, who also pitted the younger kids against each other in fistfights for entertainment. Some talked of being sent on missions in search of cigarettes, scaling the fences around the institutions, stealing from shops, and sometimes sleeping in random cars on the street. There was little supervision. Abuse and disease were rampant.

Most of the lucky ones found homes abroad, when thousands of Americans and Europeans flocked to Romania in the 1990s to adopt, after catching glimpses of the tragic situation through television and newspaper reports.

Those who found homes with families, in Romania or abroad, have fared better, as numerous studies have shown, than those like Ierusalim who remained warehoused in the system. But few abandoned children escaped untouched by their initial neglect. American and Romanian researchers have been collaborating on a long-term study, based in Bucharest, investigating the effects of living in an institution in comparison to a family setting. Living in an institution, the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) has found, has significant negative effects on brain development, behavior, and psychological functions.

Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and lead researcher at BEIP, along with coauthors Nathan Fox and Charles Zeanah, have just published a book on their research, Romania’s Abandoned Children. Their ongoing study has shown that there are critical “sensitive periods” of development. For example, the IQs of children placed in foster care prior to turning two were significantly higher than IQs of those placed after age two. And language development reaches a key point at fifteen months.

As their research moves ahead, examples of the ill effects of institutionalization and abandonment continue to appear. Daniel, twenty-three, was adopted by a Connecticut couple from an orphanage in Transylvania at the age of one. Despite the fact that his stay in a cramped maternity hospital with little stimulation or affection was relatively short, he has been diagnosed with mental health issues, including anxiety and schizoaffective disorder. He experiences delusions and drastic mood swings. He has created a parallel world full of other planets and galaxies, a place where even Osama bin Laden has “turned to the good side.”

Psychologists say that his problems likely stem largely from the lack of attachment and sensory deprivation in the early months of institutionalization. Many others who were, by all appearances, successfully adopted, face struggles similar to Daniel’s. But if institutionalized children are moved into families early enough, some of the ill effects of neglect in these first years of life can be reversible. Children placed in foster care tested higher on IQ tests than those in orphanages, the BEIP study showed. They developed greater attachment to caregivers, exhibited less anxiety and depression, showed improvements in language skills, and had increased brain activity.

 

Fewer abandoned Romanian children are living in institution-like settings today than during the Ceausescu years. Since the early 1990s, several NGOs have worked with the government to close down many of the larger, notorious orphanages. Later in that decade, the Romanian government began a foster care program, employing “maternal assistants” to take care of orphans, hopeful that this would move more kids into family settings. The most recent government data indicate that more than twenty thousand Romanian children live in foster care. The system is based on the French model: foster parents are government employees, earning the equivalent of about $200 a month, and are prohibited from other employment, even if the children are of school age.

Child welfare workers in Romania debate about whether foster parents choose this path for love or for money. While $200 a month doesn’t sound like much, it is equivalent to the salaries of some other professions in Romania, including some teachers and nurses. In many smaller cities and more rural areas, jobs are scarce and foster parenting is one of few options. “It’s not for the love,” says Catalin Ganea, a project manager for one of the biggest funders of child welfare programs in Romania, SERA Romania. “It is a contract that can be broken at any time. It’s not good to have kids in foster care or foster homes for a long time. It’s a broken connection. Sometimes the foster family has an interest because it’s the only job to have here. It’s a job—a contract between them and social services.”

In November, Ganea concluded a trial program formulated in conjunction with a county in western Romania to reintegrate one hundred and sixty abandoned children back into their biological families. The plan provided goods, like a washing machine or materials to build a house, to families on a case-by-case basis in return for accepting their child back home. Most of the families are extremely poor, often living in cement-block homes with no electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. Though some of the children had been living in orphanages, many had been living in foster homes—sometimes in the same home since they were babies.

The head of one children’s charity in Romania, who asked to not be identified for fear that her statements might negatively impact her relations with the government, says she is unsure of the merits of the effort. “I don’t believe that a kid should be taken out from a good foster home after ten to fifteen years, to be placed back with his parents just because the government offered the parents an incentive to say they wanted the kid back. I believe that family is very, very important. But I also believe that family is where your heart is, where you feel peace, and where you are protected.”

She recalls a visit to the home of two elementary-aged brothers who had been reintegrated into their biological family by social services, unrelated to the SERA project. Neighbors approached her, she says, and told her the children were not safe—that the parents were drunk most of the time. The boys had previously spent their entire lives in one foster home, with guardians who were devastated when told that the kids were being removed.

But a child’s ties to his biological family, for better or worse, have become a central focus of child policy in Romania. A child’s biological parents must be deceased or indicate that they have no interest in having a relationship with the child before adoption can be considered. But what a “relationship” is, exactly, is unclear. Sometimes a mere phone call or e-mail a couple of times a year is considered sufficient. Many children now linger in the orphanage system because a parent “expresses interest” by stopping by or calling once a year. Many times, the parent can ensure the child won’t be adopted this way—leaving open the possibility that when the child gets older, he or she could finally be taken home and put to work to earn money for the family.

Even when the parent does not express any interest in maintaining a relationship with the child, the social system’s structure makes it difficult to get a child into an adoptive home within the critical periods of development that Charles Nelson and his colleagues have defined. At least a year with no familial contact must pass before a social worker can pursue adoption. Once it has officially been established that there is no interest from the biological parents, the social worker assigned to the child’s case must make contact with all adult relatives of the child, to the fourth degree—including, for example, the grandparents’ siblings—to explore the possibility that someone else in the family might take in the child. Only after this process is completed can the social worker finally file a motion to make the child adoptable.

But even from that point, other obstacles remain. A child cannot be adopted directly from an orphanage or group home; he must be adopted out of a foster home. The state slashed funding for foster parents as part of austerity measures a few years ago, meaning now fewer children can be moved through the system this way. And with the high case demand facing social workers, the process to finalize adoption is often slow.

Romania had issued a moratorium on international adoption in 2001, finally outlawing it in 2005 under pressure from EU representatives as the country made its bid for entry into the union. Romanian officials at the time said they could not effectively monitor and control the process, as rumors swirled of babies being sold at auction. But adoption inside Romania hasn’t been a success. Annually, between seven hundred and nine hundred children are adopted of the twelve hundred to fourteen hundred considered “adoptable,” a tiny fraction of the orphans within the system.

Most Romanians who apply to adopt children are couples that have been unable to have children on their own. Most of these couples are only interested in adopting babies; seventy-two percent want a child who is less than three years of age, and eighty-six percent want a child under five, according to a study by the Romanian Office of Adoptions and UNICEF. Few are open to adopting children with disabilities or those of Roma decent, which rules out a large percentage of children.

 

The idea of putting the needs and rights of these children first—reconnecting them with their biological families or finding them other loving homes—would require changing the social mentality of Romanians. During the Ceausescu years, parents didn’t necessarily know what they were getting into when they dropped their children off at the doorstep of a state-run institution. The poor in Romania today continue to lack education about birth control, and costs remain prohibitive for many. There also is a lingering belief that full-time childcare—for a year, five years, or more—is a service provided by the state.

Mothers have the option of leaving their newborns at the hospital when they go home. They do not have to give up the rights to the child at this point—or ever. And, as the law states, if the parents or relatives don’t renounce their relationship with the child, the child cannot be adopted. Some are eventually moved into foster care, while others remain at the hospital until they are two, when they can be sent to orphanages.

There are no national programs aimed at preventing unwanted births or child abandonment; no system for giving up your child for adoption directly or privately, as exists in the United States and Western Europe. But neither is there coordinated government support for the children who “age out” of the child protection system, leaving many on the street without the skills to find work, search for a place to live, or cook a meal. At age eighteen, or twenty-six in the rare instance when the orphan is enrolled in higher education, the young adults, like Laurentiu Ierusalim, are turned out with only a few dollars in their pockets. Each year, an estimated two thousand young adults exit orphanages in Romania. Many end up homeless, with no money or shelter, and turn to drugs and crime.

Those children who lived through the last days of Ceausescu’s institutions are young adults today. Some, who made it out through sheer determination or the rare help of a concerned caregiver, have been able to make lives for themselves on the outside. Gabriel Ciobotaru, thirty-five, says he was motivated by the support of an American family who wrote letters and sent gifts every Christmas. His excellent grades won him the chance to attend university, and he is now a social worker for the Department of Child Protection in Bucharest. He also started a foundation that aims to build apartment buildings for youth being released from orphanages. The group, Sansa Ta, or Your Chance, has secured the promise of a donation of land for its first building from the mayor of a town outside Bucharest.

“I was different than other kids because I liked to get involved,” Ciobotaru said of his childhood. “But like other orphans, I knew I’d have to go out into a new world where life isn’t easy. They don’t prepare you for life.”

Another recent university graduate, who described his “Lord of the Flies” surroundings growing up in one of Bucharest’s orphanages and is now a music teacher at a high school, asked that his name be withheld because even adult orphans are often discriminated against in Romania, as many feel that these survivors are “damaged goods.” He rarely tells people he is an orphan and worries that he might lose his job or his apartment if people found out his “secret.”

Romania seems unable to move past the shame associated with the early days of its abandoned children. While dozens of children’s charities continue to funnel money, goods, and care into the country, many international groups that came in the 1990s—some establishing model programs intended for government takeover—have gone, and few of their programs have continued. While Romania now for the most part looks at the brutal Ceausescu regime in its rearview mirror, it sees one of the few accomplishments of that dictatorship, large numbers of disquieted orphans who are now young adults, walking its streets every day.

Meghan Collins Sullivan is a supervising editor at NPR and former assistant managing editor at the Washington Post. She spent the last two years reporting in Romania, in part on a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.

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