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Teenagers find a home in the real world
by Bob Graham, Sunday Times, 5 February 2006

Romania 's orphans have benefited from a revolution in care that can be exported, says our correspondent

The competing sounds of mobile phones, computer games and rock music make it the kind of student apartment you could find anywhere. Alex Icuti is sprawled over the sofa chatting animatedly. Next door Marius Cornea pleads for quiet — he has important school work to do. There is laughter and he is ignored.

These are today's Romanian orphans, the children who, 16 years ago, were the emaciated, neglected babies cowering behind the rusting bars of cots as they stared out at a shocked world. Now they are part of the reason Romania expects to become part of the EU.

Over the past four years a quiet revolution has been taking place in Romania , led by British childcare experts determined to close the orphanages for good.

“It is a minor miracle that has been achieved,” explained Professor Kevin Browne, a psychologist from Birmingham University . First through his work at the World Health Organisation then as a leading member of an advisory panel attached to the Romanian government, Browne has helped spur the slow change into a headlong rush.

Following the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, aid for Romania's children flowed in from all over Europe — including hundreds of groups from Britain — but the numbers of children being dumped in orphanages and institutions remained as high as ever. Families abandoned children through poverty and inability to care for them, or in the hopes of making a few dollars through the burgeoning black market in foreign adoption. Baby brokers and lawyers got rich while the shocking conditions inside the orphanages barely changed.

The turning point came in 1999, when Baroness Emma Nicholson became EU rapporteur for Romania . She witnessed what she later described as “barbaric conditions . . . a system that was worse in 2000 than when I first saw it in 1990 when I visited Romania .

“The whole ugly picture was that crime was driving the foreign adoptions because big money was at stake. It was in the interests of people who ran the institutions to keep them going because it meant more money for their benefit.”

Nicholson made clear to the Romanian authorities that if the country wished to join the EU, things had to change. Fast.

She set up the High Level Group for Romania , which included child welfare professionals and senior Romanian politicians as well as leading industrialists and businessmen.

As a result, in 2001 Romania instigated a moratorium on foreign adoption (much to the anger of countries such as the US and France ). The group began looking at how to close 600 or so orphanages across the country. There was also a drive to encourage Romanian families to stay together and put an end to the longstanding practice of abandoning unwanted children.

The new charity, the Children's High Level Group, backed by JK Rowling, intends to spread the gospel of radical change to neighbouring countries — Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and the Czech Republic — where conditions often remain Dickensian.

In seeking to close their orphanages, the Romanians were aiming to halt decades of mismanagement in just a few years. It was a daunting task. Most of the “children” left in them were already approaching or in their teens and fully institutionalised. Younger children and babies had tended to pass through on their way to adoption: in 1989 an estimated 170,000 children were in Romania 's orphanages. Today fewer than 32,000 remain.

Many of the teenagers are now housed in apartments serviced by trained child welfare staff who rotate through a 24-hour shift to ensure the youngsters are cared for at all times.

Icuti and his friends live in a third-floor flat in the remote northeast Romanian town of Falticeni . As well as housing, they are provided with small grants and an opportunity to either work or take on full-time education.

“Here we learn how to look after ourselves,” explained Icuti, 19, who had been in an orphanage in nearby Suceava since the age of two. “Now we learn how to clean and look after our apartment, how to cook and how to do simple tasks such as going to the shops to buy our clothes or our food. I want to be an agricultural student, to understand how to grow crops. I want to do something that will help.”

In the Suceava orphanage he was little more than a statistic, one of 25 children in dismal, cold dormitories. “When I was a small child others used to steal my food,” he said. “There were more than 300 kids and the smallest had no chances. I always felt lonely and thought one day I would run away and live on the streets.”

Flatmate Marius Cornea is 18 and was orphaned at three. “When I was at the children's home I had to hand some of my food over to the older, bigger boys. They told us if we didn't give them food they would beat us, so we had to do it to survive,” he said.

“Here we learn to share and have responsibility, not just for ourselves but each other. We learn about normal life and how to care for the things we have.”

Marius, who is studying to be a leather worker, proudly shows us round the two-bedroom apartment, which is kept in immaculate condition. Board games, Monopoly and chess sit neatly on a table, partially completed.

Marius said: “It is called the Little Forest Flat because it is close to the forest and it is a home we have come to love.”


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