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AP Interview:

"Harry Potter" author getting
involved with child welfare in Eastern Europe

By ALISON MUTLER
Associated Press Writer
01-26-2006 17:00

BUCHAREST , Romania (AP) _ When "Harry Potter"
author J.K. Rowling saw a newspaper photo of a child
in a caged bed in the Czech Republic almost two years
ago, her initial instinct was to turn the page.

"I was pregnant ... and vulnerable in the way that
a pregnant woman is to those kind of issues regarding
children," Rowling said. "It was an awful image and I
almost didn't want to let it into my head."

But Rowling forced herself to look. And that
experience persuaded the 40-year-old British writer _
whose Harry Potter books have sold more than 300
million copies worldwide _ to use her fame to help
children in need in the Czech Republic, Romania and
elsewhere.

"The next second I thought 'well you just need to
read this article and if it's as bad as it looks, you
have to do something about it' and that's why I am
doing it," she said in an interview with the
Associated Press at the British Council in Bucharest .

Rowling wrote to the Czech government in July 2004
complaining about the practice of restraining children
in caged beds in the country's psychiatric facilities,
which spurred the government to restrict their use.

Rowling's interest in child welfare in the region
did not stop there. She became a trustee in January of
a new Bucharest-based foundation called the Children's
High Level Group, which raises money for children in
need and promotes childcare reforms in Romania .

" Romania is a model for other countries hoping to
reform ... Romania was the state that acknowledged
there was a problem and set out to do something about
it," said Rowling, dressed in a duck-egg blue suit and
brown suede boots.

Romanian orphanages first came to world's
attention after the 1989 downfall of communist
dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In an effort to boost
Romania 's population of 23 million, Ceausescu banned
birth control and abortion, which led to thousands of
infants being left in state institutions.

Following his execution, televised pictures of
malnourished orphans living in squalor, many suffering
from AIDS, were broadcast around the world.

There are about 32,000 children in Romanian state
institutions, two-thirds of them teenagers, down from
more than 100,000 when Ceausescu was ousted. The
country has closed large institutions in recent years,
placing children in foster care and extended families.

Rowling was in Bucharest for two days this week,
meeting some of the country's institutionalized
children. She was guest of honor at a celebrity gala
held at Ceausescu's former palace which raised more
than ?170,000 (US$209,000) for the foundation.

Rowling, who shuns the trappings of celebrity and
has three children aged 1, 3 and 12, said fame has one
great advantage: "You can parlay that kind of interest
in you personally into awareness of issues you'd like
to raise," she said.

Before focusing on the plight of children, Rowling
worked with programs to fight multiple sclerosis, the
disease that killed her mother, and charities for
one-parent families, having been a single mother.

"With this issue it was something that really
shocked and touched me," she said.

She has words of praise for reforms carried out by
Romania in child welfare, although work still needs to
be done.

"The image that the world had ... ten years ago of
Romanian orphanages ... is not an accurate picture of
the overall state of institutionalized children in
Romania anymore. So by launching the group here we are
trying to ... establish the progress that is
possible."

Rowling recalls with tears in her eyes how an
institutionalized boy on Wednesday gave her paintings
that had won him first prize in a talent competition.
The boy said he met his birth mother last year _ but
that she died three months later.

In a hushed voice, she also tells of six abandoned
babies she saw the day before in a maternity hospital.

"I have a baby at home and again that is something
that touches you," she said. "It's shocking although I
understand the reasons these children have been
abandoned are not the simple reasons that many people
in Western Europe may assume. This is a complex social
issue and it will need complex social solutions."

 


 

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