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Romania Seeks to Reverse a Harsh Era for Its Children

By NICHOLAS WOOD, New York Times
Published: September 25, 2005

Seated on a bed in her first-floor apartment here,
Katrina Stoica held her 3-month-old daughter,
Elizabeth, close and made what might seem like an
unremarkable comment. ''I'm glad to be with my baby,''
she said. ''I have to be with her. I'm her mother.''
Such an apparently normal scene is a significant
achievement in this country, notorious for the rate at
which impoverished families have given up their
children to state care. Until recently, Ms. Stoica,
23, with no job or family to support her, would have
been expected to hand over her daughter to a
government-run orphanage. In some cases, mothers have
been forced to do so.

Instead, she and four other women living in the same
apartment are being encouraged by the city's social
services agency to keep their children. A nurse
teaches them how to clothe and feed their babies.
Social workers counsel them and help them look for
jobs and a new place to live.

The apartment, which is run by Arad's child care
department, is just one of several new services in
Romania in the last five to seven years aimed at
curbing the flow of children into the orphanages,
which earned Romania the worst reputation of any
country in Europe for child care.

First revealed to the world after the collapse of the
Communist government in 1989, the orphanages were
found with children in squalid conditions, frequently
tied to beds or locked in rooms, and receiving little
or no personal care and affection.

''In the West, this country is best known as the home
of Dracula and orphanages,'' said Theodora Bertzi,
secretary of state for adoptions. But since 1997,
Romania has been developing alternatives to the
large-scale orphanages, putting greater emphasis on
keeping children with their mothers or extended
families.

''Now we have a completely different situation,'' Ms.
Bertzi said.

New services are being built up from scratch. Social
workers are employed in hospitals to work with new
mothers thought to be at risk of abandoning their
children. Foster parents and ''family homes'' where
couples care for small groups of children have been
introduced, providing homes for just over 50,000
children who would otherwise have been sent to large
residential institutions. Around 32,000 mainly teenage
children remain in state-run institutions, down from
100,000 in the mid-1990's. But there is still abundant
evidence of child neglect by the system. In cities,
children as young as 3 can been seen begging, or
sleeping outside. The government estimates that about
5,000 minors are homeless, but it is trying to address
that problem with its revamped child care services, as
in Ms. Stoica's case.

Ms. Stoica was given up by her parents soon after her
birth, and grew up in orphanages. ''They abandoned me
when I was just like this,'' she said looking at her
baby. ''It was very sad. I didn't feel the love of
parents.'' Homeless at the time of her daughter's
birth, and sleeping in a shelter, Ms. Stoica was
referred to social services in Arad , a town 265 miles
northwest of Bucharest .

''I am a little bit nervous,'' she said, talking about
the prospect of bringing up her daughter by herself.
''I don't have anywhere to go when I leave here.''
But, she added, she was certain about one thing: ''I'm
not capable of abandoning a baby.''

Persuading young mothers to keep their babies has been
a struggle, health care workers say.

Since the 1960's when Nicolae Ceausescu, then
Romania 's leader, banned contraception as part of an
effort to increase the population, the abandonment of
babies has been widespread. As the state assumed an
omnipresent role, many poorer families who could not
afford to bring up children thought little of leaving
them to the state to look after.

Doctors were as responsible as parents for encouraging
the culture, according to a senior member of Arad 's
child protection services.

''Mothers could not take a child home without the
signature of a doctor,'' said Rodica Crainic, the
assistant director of child care services in Arad .
''If they saw the conditions a mother was living in,
they could decide even before the baby was born if she
could keep her or not.''

A child might be taken into care if the mother was not
married, Ms. Crainic said. ''That was the attitude at
the time,'' she said.

Those attitudes are hard to change. Ms. Bertzi said
some doctors still resisted allowing social workers,
who counsel and monitor new mothers, into maternity
wards, a crucial step in ensuring that a mother
establish a bond with her child, and helping them find
financial aid.

In Arad , local child care officials say conditions of
those put into the state's care have markedly changed.


In 2002, the city closed its main orphanage, one that
used to house more than 200 children. The county of
Arad now employs 111 foster mothers to take care of
children under the age of 2, and 116 social workers.
There were none before 1999. Nationally, the rate of
child abandonment is disputed. A recent survey by the
United Nations child rights agency, Unicef, estimated
that 10,000 children were left in hospitals each year
for at least seven days, a figure it says has changed
little in a decade.

But Romania 's National Authority for the Protection of
Child Rights says the numbers have sharply fallen. In
2004, the agency said, 4,502 children were left in
hospital care. More than half were eventually returned
to their parents, leaving 2,113 abandoned. Over all,
the number of children in government care is now
comparable to what it is in other countries in Eastern
and Central Europe , according to the government.

Placing children with adoptive parents is one of the
weakest links in preventing children from growing up
in the care of the state, Ms. Crainic said.
International adoptions have been banned, and while
there are more Romanian parents who want to adopt than
there are children available, Ms. Bertzi said new
rules introduced in January made adoptions slower and
more complex. There were 10 adoptions in Arad County
last year and none so far this year.



Photo: Katrina Stoica with her 3-month-old daughter,
Elizabeth. In a shift, Romania is helping poor mothers
keep their infants out of state orphanages. (Photo by
Nicholas Wood for The New York Times)

 


 

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