Bucharest Journal; Little Care and Less Love: Romania's Sad Orphans

Date: 1994-10-27


In a drab dormitory, small children old enough to walk and talk grip the rails of their cribs in frustrated attempts at locomotion, silently rocking back and forth. A playroom filled with toys, a paradise of imagination and exercise donated by foreigners, remains locked because the children's caretakers consider it too much trouble to supervise. The caretakers, women in white uniforms, sit a few yards away in the corridor, smoking and chatting.
In one crib, the oldest child, 6-year-old Gheorghe, his hair a tousle of dark curls and his eyes wide and brown, lies on his back, occasionallymanaging to pull himself up to peer out of his little prison. Until a few months ago, when an American volunteer visited, no one had bothered during Gheorghe's six years of institutional life to encourage him to sit or stand. Even the volunteer's interest has not enabled him to overcome his stunted development.

As in many Romanian children's institutions, physical conditions at Lacul Bucor Hospital have improved marginally since the fall of the Communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, when thousands of children were found warehoused -- often three to a bed in filthy and cold buildings -- and were given very little food.

Despite Western help from dozens of charities and some governments, Romanian babies are still abandoned at alarming rates. As the children shuffle from institution to institution, they suffer from poor and hostile care at the hands of untrained staffs, Romanian and Western experts say.

One of the biggest barriers to improvement, the experts say, is the presence of Iulian Mincu as Minister of Health. Dr. Mincu was Mr. Ceausescu's personal doctor and one of the masterminds of giving micro-infusions of blood, much of which turned out to be H.I.V.-infected, to underweight Romanian babies in the 1980's. A former hard-line Communist, Dr. Mincu is now responsible for the orphanages containing children under 3.

An outspoken Romanian pediatrician, Dr. Livia David, said that until the Government changed its policy to encourage family care -- through adoption or foster care -- instead of favoring institutional care, the plight of Romania's orphans would remain largely unchanged. The Government of Mr. Ceausescu's successor, President Ion Iliescu, still believed in the Ceausescu philosophy that "parenting" by the state was acceptable, she suggested.

"What is going to happen to him?" asked Dr. David as she watched a 2-year-old struggle with his first steps at St. Catherine's, a showcase orphanage in Bucharest visited by the pop star Michael Jackson. "When he's 3 he has to go to another institution and by the time he's 4 he will be very difficult to like. I would like the older children to go to foster families or private institutions, not these big state institutions."

To get the children out of institutions into adopting or foster care families is a formidable process because of a labyrinth of laws and bureaucracy surrounding the national Romanian Adoption Committee, the official agency for adoptions, the experts say.

A British couple, Bernadette and Adrian Mooney, tried to bypass the committee by paying a middleman $6,000 and ferreting a 5-month-old child across the Romanian border in July in a box hidden in the back seat of their car. They were sentenced to two and a half years in jail on Oct. 14.

Of an estimated 100,000 children institutionalized under the age of 16 only a handful are legally eligible for adoption because of the tradition of parental rights. And many of the children, physically and mentally damaged by rough institutional treatment, do not meet many couples' ideals of an adoptable child.

"The myth is that there are thousands of families who want to adopt," said Rebecca Tucker, the director of the international adoption office of Holt International Children's Services, an American agency that has been working here for the last four years. "But what do those families want? They want an infant, not an older child. They want a child in perfect health and they want a child who is white. You will see a lot of Gypsy children, a lot of older kids and a lot of kids with special needs in the orphanages."

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to freeing children from institutions is the official attitude that the parents of a child have paramount rights to the child, no matter how delinquent as parents they may be. A law passed last year was supposed to ease this situation but is not working well, the experts said.

The new law says that if a parent has not visited a child in six months the child can be declared abandoned and become eligible for adoption.

But in reality, Ms. Tucker said, orphanage directors are reluctant to declare children abandoned for fear of losing them and thus the financial allowance the Government gives the orphanage for their care. In other cases, there are no workers available to do the necessary paper work, she said.

In Constanta, a city on the Black Sea coast, babies are being abandoned in great numbers by parents because of increasing poverty, said Dr. Rodica Matusa, a pediatrician in charge of abandoned children infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

Rather than focus on what appears to be the near impossible -- reforming institutions -- some international groups have concentrated on the best longterm solutions: trying to persuade some Romanian parents to keep their children or others to adopt. More than 3,000 Romanian families adopted children last year.

One of the most stunning successes in the efforts to insure babies a home came this year through the work of the Romanian Orphanage Trust, a British agency, which, like Holt, has placed specially trained social workers in maternity wards. These are the places where indigent mothers most often dump their babies.

When Alexandra Ion was born this year, her 18-year-old mother, Clara, declared that she did not want the child, her first. Mioara Stamescu, a social worker employed by the trust, counseled Adrian Ion, the 28-year-old father, saying that Alexandra was beautiful and healthy and that it would be best for her to be with him, even without his wife, who had fled.

Mr. Ion, a poorly paid factory worker, took the baby to his one-room apartment in the industrial city of Ploesti, 50 miles north of Bucharest, and with the help of a cousin and donations from the trust looked after her.

A few months ago, he took Alexandra to his parents' home in the village of Vilcaresti, where the child is smothered with affection. Mr. Ion feeds her, changes her diapers, plays with her and acts like a model single parent in the West.

"She's my child, it doesn't matter what happens in the world," Mr. Ion said as the baby gurgled happily. "I would have something on my conscience if I didn't look after her. And now I realize what I would have missed if I had abandoned her in the maternity ward."

Recently, Mr. Ion saved enough to buy Alexandra a pair of tiny gold drop earrings. At their next visit to the baby clinic, Mr. Ion said, the pediatrician will pierce her ears for the new ornaments, an outward sign in Romania of a loved child.

Photo: These two children at an orphanage south of Bucharest tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS. Abandoned Romanian children are often shuffled from institution to institution. (Reuters)


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