A journey into Romania's
child care protection system
"Being positive about HIV"
Gaining access to child care institutions can be complicated, but in this case it led to some interesting insights about HIV and child abandonment.
Rupert Wolfe Murray, 22nd June 2005
It has been a long time since I visited a child-care institution in Romania and I was reminded what an intimidating experience it can be: the buildings tend to be large and forbidding; there is usually a guard and some stray dogs at the gate; the local authorities are not really geared up to receiving visitors, especially the media, and it can be really hard to find out who you should speak to, what are the phone numbers and which authority (central or local?) has to give permission to visit the institution. Indeed, it is difficult to know which institution to visit, where they are and who is in charge. Needless to say, few of the local authorities have a dedicated press officer dealing only with child protection issues - and if they do, their job is very much "reactive" i.e. reacting to negative coverage in the local press. It is rare to find a public institution anywhere in Romania , in any sector, which give journalists a concise briefing (or fact sheet) about their activities, and child protection is no exception. You have to work out for yourself what is going on, who to contact and how to gain access. Foreign journalists do this by using local "fixers" or translators, an increasingly sophisticated breed of service providers who can identify within minutes the person in charge, apply the right pressure, open the right doors, and facilitate the visit.
As a writer working on an EU Phare project for the promotion of child rights in Romania , it was not feasible for me to use a professional media fixer and I had to make the call myself. And what usually follows "the call" is a request for a fax explaining who I am and what I want. This is standard procedure in Romanian institutional life - no decision about a visit can be made without "the fax" - and it makes sense. My fax was never actually answered but the fact that I had found out who to send it to, and had actually sent it, felt like a small step forward.
A week later I was in the small, picturesque city of Piatra Neamt , in North East Romania, trying to call the institution I was planning to visit. But nobody ever answered the institution's phone number, I had the wrong number for the director and although the Directorate for Social Assistance and Child Protection were friendly, they made it clear that I was free to visit the institution if the director approved, but they couldn't help contact her. This was a good sign in terms of transparency but didn't really help me gain access. What to do? In the end I asked a taxi driver "where can I find the Placement Centre on the 1 st of December 1918 street?" He told me where the street was but said "there's no Placement Centre there". Should I believe him of keep searching? I found the street, slowly drove up it and it soon became clear that the huge dilapidated mansion, with a couple of blocks built in its front garden, was in fact my destination. I went in, wandered around a bit, asked some kids and was eventually led down a carpeted corridor to meet Felicia Sandu, the director of the "Calin House" section of the Placement Centre.
Once inside the director's office everything changed and my impression of the system being forbidding, confusing and inaccessible just melted away. How could such friendly and warm people be anything but informative and helpful? One of the strongest impressions one gets from these visits is that both the staff and the children are delighted to be visited, and it is clear that they don't get many. Once you get past the forbidding exterior you realize they want more visitors, and that perhaps they should work at ways of making these a bit easier.
Flashback to Edelweiss talent competition
At this point I need to jump back in time and explain what it was that brought me to this dilapidated mansion in the north east of Romania . I work for the EU funded project called Educational Campaign on Family Advisory Issues and Child Rights, a project which aims to promote child rights in Romania . My job is to raise awareness among the international media that Romania has indeed reformed its child care protection system, and what better way of doing this than profiling some of the children in the Romanian care system. But how to find these children, who should we focus on and how can we present "success stories" without appearing rather artificial and propagandist.
The answer came in the form of the Edelweiss talent competition which is an annual event which promotes talent among children in care. Edelweiss has been going for three years now and this years event consisted of a concert at one of Bucharest 's biggest indoor arenas, Sala Palatuilui, with four and a half thousand screaming children enjoying some of Romania 's top bands. The whole event was broadcast live on the public television network, TVR1, and nine categories of winners (including sport, art, dance and literature) were presented with prizes . This all took place on June 1 st , which is the international day of the child, a week before my visit to Piatra Neamt .
A day before this big concert the real talent competition was coming to a head, a competition which had been building up over several months in all of Romania's 42 counties, and is the one opportunity the children in care have a chance to express their talents. I took the opportunity to get out of my office and finally meet some of the children in Romania 's care system, something which I had been planning for some time but had for various reasons never happened. My plan was to visit the Xenepol school in Bucharest and conduct some interviews with children.
Things didn't work out like that as the atmosphere in the school was wholly inappropriate to conducting interviews. The school was completely packed. Xenopol school is a big place with hundreds of students and on the 31 st of May they had 200 visitors from all over the country, children from child care institutions queuing up to display their talents and try and win a prize (scholarships). The atmosphere was electric, buzzing with enthusiasm and the energy of children who have escaped from their environment for several glorious days. When I said I wanted to do interviews I immediately had three children attach themselves to me and we criss-crossed the school in search of a quiet space to do the interviews. It was impossible to find. However, we did find somewhere to sit down and we did manage to have a good talk and to exchange addresses, and I did promise to try and visit them in the coming weeks. Carrying out an interview was impossible as they kept interrupting; as soon as I asked one kid a question another one would answer. It was absurd, but amusing and what we were doing, in fact, was building up a bit of a relationship, a rapport.
Out of the three students I was attempting to interview the one who impressed me the most was Ana Maria Surdu, even though it was she who was doing the most interrupting. She didn't impress me with what she was saying, she impressed me with what she wrote. She pulled out a scruffy piece of paper from her bag, ripped off the bottom half of it and asked if I would be interested in reading it. I said I would be interested and slowly read it (being British I sometimes have a problem understanding written Romanian).
Ana Maria's story is short, powerful but not sentimental. She writes about a boy called Razvan who is HIV positive and not ashamed of it. Razvan knows that this condition cannot be spread very easily and, as long as precautions are taken, he is not a danger to others. He wants to spread the word about HIV not being such a terrifying thing; he wants to talk about it. Having read the short story I looked at Ana Maria, and she said "I am Razvan." And that was about the extent of our interview.
I was really impressed by this exchange as I had been led to believe that children with HIV are severely discriminated against in Romania's education system, and I had heard say that children with this condition are effectively barred from school. I had always assumed that the children with HIV would be ashamed of themselves, would be hidden away from public view, alone and miserable, and I had never imagined that a child with HIV would be so strong about it, so unashamed. But I had never actually met anyone with HIV so all of my own prejudice on the issue was built up on what I had heard and read, in other words second and third hand sources. I was determined to find out more.
Ana Maria Surdu lives in Piatra Neamt .
Inside the office of the director of Casa Calin, where Ana Maria lives, sweet Turkish coffee and fizzy mineral water was served. The atmosphere was relaxed, the director was open and communicative and people were coming and going, the county director of Social Services and Child Protection was apparently on his way (not to see me) and the atmosphere was good. Things were going on.
Ana Maria was sent for and she soon appeared. But she seemed rather embarrassed to see me and said she had a bad headache. I could imagine the kind of pressure she felt she was under: after a short meeting in Bucharest a foreign man comes to visit her (was I her first foreign visitor? Did she actually believe I would turn up?); the room was full of teachers and directors; it wasn't the right place for an interview and so she did the right thing and disappeared. However, this was not a problem as I knew she had the instincts of a writer and I wanted to support this by offering to publish anything she wrote on our project website (you can see some of her material attached). I saw her later in the yard and we talked a bit and agreed to keep in touch by email, which I suspect is easier said than done on her part.
Then Dan Lopsa, the Director of Social Services and Child Protection for Neamt County turned up and the conversation took a new turn. The same relaxed informal atmosphere prevailed and they had some issues to talk through, but I was able to ask a few leading questions, which led to some valuable insights.
I told them that I had come to see Ana Maria, who had really impressed me with her positive attitude towards HIV. The director of social services was quick to point out that this was not unusual and, in fact, they had spent many years confronting the prejudice they had all feared would prevent them integrating HIV positive children into the education system. He said the exercise had been rather successful and that the message is rather simple - HIV cannot be spread by touch or saliva - and that both the teachers and children in mainstream education had been quick to accept this.
Assuming this was a major success story for Neamt county, the director of services again deflated me and said "the same approach has been taken in the majority of counties in Romania and the only problems I have heard about were in Constanta where a HIV positive child was sent home for a minor disciplinary offense, and the local papers got hold of the story and kicked up a scandal."
My own assumptions about children with HIV had been turned on my head and I was delighted. This sort of thing happens all the time in Romania : the media present us with a series of negative stereotypes - from corruption in the public sector to the high number of abandoned babies - and yet when one visits the supposedly incompetent and corrupt public servants one could come s across people who are really impressive, and always underpaid. The fact that they can stay motivated is deeply impressive. But the public institutions are not active enough in countering the press, they don't do much in the way of actively promoting their many successes, and as a result the public sector in general, and the child protection system in particular, is an easy target for the media. The fact that Romania has now got one of the most modern child protection systems in Central and Eastern Europe has effectively been ignored by the western media, which still assumes conditions are as bad as they were 20 years ago.
My job involves regular contact with the Romanian public sector, in the child protection system as well as in other sectors like regional development and city administration. I am continually impressed with the level of dedication, enthusiasm and professionalism I come across within the public sector, especially at the lower levels, as well as the range of modern and imaginative initiatives one sees. None of this seems to come out in the media. Journalists must work hard to find negative stories as the positive ones seem to be overwhelming. There is also something about Romania as a "horror story" location - think of Dracula, Transylvania , Ceausescu, the institutionalised children in the early 1990s - that has remained in western consciousness. When the opportunity to visit Romania comes up, I suspect the editors and journalists conspire decide to to put a "horror" spin on any articles that emerge simply to get readership . As we all know, "good news is not news", and there are also bad stories to be found in every country. But bad stories from Romania have a particular flavour as the old stereotypes about Ceausescu and Dracula can easily be wheeled out as the journalist describes the background. Romania 's imminent entry into the EU is another gift to newspaper editors, as they can build on this horror image and produce scare stories about the new member of the club.
Continuing my discussion with the Director of Social Services, I threw in another difficult question, hoping to overturn another stereotype; "what about the scandal in Jurnal ul National about the abandonment of babies in maternity hospitals? They say almost 10,000 babies a year are abandoned." The director reacted well to the challenge and did indeed challenge the facts that this national newspaper had presented: "in my county there were 7 babies abandoned in hospitals last year and this year there have been two. All have been placed in families." He explained that UNICEF had quoted a much larger figure as they only had time to check the figures in the maternity hospitals, where mothers often "abandon" babies for a few weeks and then rush off to look after their other children. The situation is indeed worrying, but it is also confusing as the children get moved from hospital to hospital, a range of solutions are available, and the paperwork and reporting side of it is often dysfunctional. This is another issue that needs to be looked into in more detail, and is another issue which the international media are exaggerating. On the 21 st of June 2005 , the International Herald Tribune wrote an article saying there were 10,000 babies abandoned in Romania every year. In 2004, the real figure was actually 4,600, even though few of them can really be considered abandoned. Indeed the whole term "abandoned" is no longer appropriate as some mothers leave their babies temporarily as they simply can't afford to feed them.
My visit concluded with a visit to some serviced apartments in the nearby town of Roman , and I was able to gain an insight into how solutions are found to institutionalised children. There are an estimated total of 83,000 children in the Romanian care system, of which 50,000 are either in the huge network of 12,000 foster families or in a family-type environment . W The others are in various types of "residential care" and w hen I saw the apartments in Roman, where about 6-10 children live in independence and comfort, I was really impressed. The local manager of the flats, which had been bought with EU money for an average price of 7,000 EURO each (now worth five times more) was keen to show me the large "residential care" institution that they had closed down, but I had to rush back to Bucharest .