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Overview of the Romanian child care system

A look to the past

In order to be able to understand the child care reforms that are currently taking place in Romania, it is important first to take a look at the past in order to understand how the tragic situation of the notorious orphanages and the resulting institutionalised children came about.

Romanians are not proud of what happened to the "child protection" system during the communist era. The late dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled the country from 1965 to 1989, wanted to double Romania 's population within one generation. Consequently, he banned contraception and outlawed abortions, except in cases where women already had four children. Families who couldn't afford to raise such a large number of children turned to the state for support. The state intervened "generously" and assumed legal responsibility for all those children who were separated from their own families. With the creation of this large network of child care institutions, a "demand" for children in need was created and medical staff in particular were encouraged to advise poor young mothers that they could choose to place their child in a comfortable environment where they would have a better life. To some extent this practice continues today and is one of the factors that accounts for the large number of babies being left in hospitals.

During this period, while in other European countries largescale institutionalised care was on the wane, in Romania this type of child care actually increased. Throughout Romania, placement centres for small children up to the age of 3 were opened for those whose natural parents were unable to provide for them. After the age of 3, they were then placed in institutions for older children. The process of moving children to different institutions, according to their age, continued until they were 18, and this continual process of being uprooted from familiar surroundings, and friends, traumatised many children. The state claimed that institutions would provide the basic needs of the child: food, shelter, clothing and education. However, with the ever-declining economic situation, and the lack of professional and individual care, living conditions in the institutions deteriorated dramatically.

With the fall of the dictatorship in 1989, the first images of malnourished children began circulating around the world. As international journalists swarmed to Romania to cover the story of the only violent revolution in Eastern Europe , they also discovered the thousands of children living in miserable conditions in institutions. These pictures, which shocked both Romanians and the world, raised the alarm. This was a tragedy about which something had to be done.

Following these news reports, international help flooded into Romania : non-governmental organisations (NGOs), social workers, doctors, priests and people from all backgrounds came to help. It was a natural first step for humanitarian aid to focus on improving the living conditions in these institutions. Large sums of money were collected both within Romania and abroad for the construction of new living facilities for the children. Toys, books and clothing were generously donated by thousands of people who were moved by the images they had seen. Their actions and help, although valuable in the short term, had the effect of keeping large-scale residential institutions going for a while longer.

Continued publicity about the plight of Romanian children in difficulty triggered an additional reaction in the West: the idea that you could "save" a child by adopting it. Unfortunately, the combination of the often overwhelming desire to adopt a child, together with the realities of supply and demand soon led to corruption. Unregulated adoptions became the norm in the early 1990s and, following reforms under the 1996-2000 government, international adoptions became linked to large cash payments which were supposed to go to improving social services. Although international adoptions were only supposed to occur after all local solutions have been exhausted, the financial incentives were so significant that they often became the first priority. The process distorted the efforts of Romania's newly adopted child care system and was finally halted by a Moratorium on International Adoptions in 2000 (reinforced by the recent law on Child Rights).

Although no official statistics are available, it is estimated that since 1990 some 30,000 Romanian children have been adopted internationally. Even though the number may seem high, the truth is that inter-country adoption did not help solve the problem of children in institutions. In fact, the number of children in care increased, as many poor families were encouraged by "middlemen" to place their children in institutions. Children who would not normally have been considered for adoption, ended up going abroad, albeit most probably to a loving family, but it is a measure that should be the last resort according to the Hague Treaty on Inter Country Adoption.

Despite some well-intended attempts at reform and some achievements by governments and local authorities during the 1990s it became obvious that the system needed to be redesigned from scratch. The new system had to be based on a comprehensive model for child welfare and protection, and have as its main objective the support for families in need and the protection of the child within the family. At the same time, the attitudes in Romanian society towards child abandonment and institutionalisation, needed to be addressed.




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