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A protective wing for Romanian children

Publication: Moscow News (Moskovskie Novosti)
Date: Jan 2006 

For already one year, Romania has new European laws regarding the protection of the rights of children lacking parental care. This experience should be enlightening for Russia .

Bleak inheritance

Romania 's progress in the field of child rights impressed everybody, even the godmother of the reform, Baroness Emma Nicholson. In 2001, as member of the European Parliament and rapporteur for Romania regarding its integration in the European Union, she warned the Romanian authorities: unless the “leakage” of Romanian orphans abroad is stopped and reforms undertaken in the field of child rights, the Baroness would do everything in her power to block Romania entering the European Union.

Beginning with 1 st of January 2005, Romania has fundamentally reformed its legislation and rapidly advanced from having the worst child protection system in Eastern Europe to having one of the best. From Ceausescu's “golden era” that forbid abortions, thus flooding the country with unwanted children, Romania 's inheritance was a grim one indeed. Five years ago this country, with a population of 22 million, had over 100,000 “institutionalized” children, living in orphanages. Today, according to UNICEF, out of the 82,000 children in state care, only 32,000 live in residential care, the rest of the children are being raised in a family environment: foster families or substitute families.

Family-Type Alternatives

During mid December I managed to visit the new care services for children in Slobozia, the administrative center of Ialomita County, 120 km East of Bucharest, with no industry, one of the poorest counties. That makes us all the more impressed with the solutions developed for the children in care. It's true, not without European Union's help.

While we were at the headquarters of the county Direction for Social Assistance and Child Protection, the director Nicolae Badea spoke about the reforms in the child protection system. He has been working here since 1997, when the reform was initiated. Its philosophy, mirrored in the new legislation, is based on decentralisation, the gradual closure of old-type institutions and placement of the children in alternative services and families. “The most important thing is to prevent parents from abandoning their children by attending to their needs. But when the child is left without parental care, we must care for him/her in an environment as close as possible to the family one. Thus, later on, the child's reintegration in society will be easier. Experience shows that children having spent 18 years in an institution have huge problems reintegrating in society.”

Mr. Badea further explained the notion of alternative services. They include the extended families (relatives up to the 4th degree), “substitute families' – professional foster parents raising one or two children in their home. There are 116 foster parents / maternal assistants in the county; they have a salary of USD 230 per month, to which the child allowance is added. There are currently over 16,000 maternal assistants in Romania .

“Another form of alternative services”, Mr. Nicolae Badea goes on, “is the Mother and Baby Center , for young mothers or pregnant women in difficulty (rejected by their families, with no place to stay, no job). In order to prevent women from abandoning their babies, we help them find a job. Our social assistants work to reunite them with their families. From now on, the law forbids placing a child between 0 and 2 years old in residential care; all placement centres for children of this age have been closed.”

Villa replaces orphanage

Several alternative services in the county have been put up through the PHARE program of the European Union and with the financial support of the World Bank. Among them, we visited the Day Care Center, where 40 children from families with social problems, aged between 4 and 16, are being taken care of from 7 AM to 6 PM . They eat here, do their homework attended by the educators, go to school, have a afternoon nap.

“The children can stay here for up to one year,” says the head of the center, Roxana Arion. “Some of them don't even have elementary abilities: they don't know how to read or to eat using a fork. We had a case when a child taught his mother how to read when he went home from the center. The day care center is a successful solution to prevent the child's separation from his family.”

With PHARE funds, three family type houses have been built, each designed to host 12 children with physical and mental disabilities. Located at the outskirts of the city, each has its own name: “Marian”, “Raluca” and ‘Cristina” – after the names of the social workers who successfully initiated this project.

In the courtyard, with carefully trimmed lawn there is a summer pavilion. A living room and a kitchen on the ground floor, three bedrooms on the first floor. In the living room the children have a TV set and a music station. Some of the boys prepare the decorations for Christmas guided by the educators. Some of them attend regular school, the others go to a special school for children with disabilities.

Viorel Rudar, a boy with intelligent dark eyes, is 16 years old. He is a 3 rd year vocational school student, a future locksmith and a big fan of Dinamo Bucharest football team. He can live here until he turns 26. After this age, those with more severe disabilities are taken into residential care for adults.

USA , puzzled

Regarding inter-country adoptions, between 1997 and 2001, when the moratorium was imposed, there were 219 cases of internationally adopted children in Ialomita county. An estimated number of 30,000 children have been adopted by foreign families between 1990-1997.

“Control was weak, abuses occurred, there were tragic cases”, remembers Mr. Badea. “Private companies intermediating the adoptions made a lot of money in this business. Sometimes they didn't even have authorization. Following Baroness Nicholson's pressure, the shop closed. Main reason: children rights must be respected and defended not abroad, but in their own country.”

The new child rights' law that came into force on the 1 st of January 2005 forbids inter-country adoptions, with the exception of a child's grandparents living abroad. Putting an end to the flow of Romanian children caused much discontent in the US , since they were the main client in the adoption field in Romania .

Since the introduction of the moratorium, the Romanian government has come under powerful pressure. Confidential sources in the EU disclosed that the reason for the discontent in the USA towards the new Romanian law is their special interest in adopting white babies.

During 2005, this issue was twice debated in the US Congress and Romania was asked to change its legislation. Some weeks ago, the State Department expressed a “deep concern” regarding the closure of the international adoptions and asked Bucharest to find a “legal mechanism” which would allow the solution of suspended cases.

Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu was forced to make a declaration: “The new Romanian law is centered on the best interest of the child and not on the interests of the potential adoptive parents. We will send letters to those who ask for adoptions and explain the situation. We don't want to raise false hopes.”

Baroness Nicholson's firmness has been inherited by the Romanian authorities. And those who came out victorious from this situation were the children. It is not by chance that in Bucharest , on the 2 nd and 3 rd of February 2006 an International Conference on Child Rights will take place.

Worth taking into consideration

Baroness Emma Nicholson, who undisputedly contributed to the healing of the Romanian child protection system, kindly accepted to answer Moskovskie Novosti's questions:

•  What's your opinion on the Romanian experience in the protection of child rights?

•  I admire the way in which the issue of institutionalized children was approached and analysed in Romania and the way in which politicians from successive administrations have coherently worked to correct what was a tragic and criminal situation.

•  How much of this experience would be applicable in Russia ?

•  The Romanian experience is entirely applicable in Russia , where only recently human trafficking was outlawed. Russia has a long way to go and together with my colleagues from the High Level Group, we would be very glad to help. (Besides Baroness Nicholson, the High Level Group includes the Prime Minister, international experts in child rights, UNICEF and other NGO representatives. It played a key role in ameliorating child protection in Romania .)




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