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What Happened to Romania’s Disabled Orphans?

Ilinca photo 2
“Welcome Home” sign @hopeandhomesromania
March 6, 2018
The new ‘Teilor’ Family Home @hopeandhomesromania

After the 1989 Romanian Revolution, which ended decades of totalitarian communist rule, journalists from the West flooded in to report on this historic event. What they found was deeply concerning.

More than 100,000 orphans had been living in horrifying and dangerous conditions, where malnutrition, self-destructive behaviors, and sedation were incredibly common. Many of these children were also living with some form of disability.

How did it come to this?

Former communist Romanian President Ceausescu found inspiration in Stalinist dogma and believed a strong nation needed a large population to support its economic growth and military expansion. In the context of his “pro-natalist” policies, abortions and all forms of contraception were made illegal, with state police enforcing regular gynecological check-ups.

These policies resulted in orphanages becoming overcrowded. Most parents simply could not afford to raise a large number of children, especially those with special needs, as this required substantial additional costs. At the same time, the main philosophy guiding the widespread institutionalization of children was that the state was a better caretaker than the family. It had the power to create the ‘new men and women’ of the communist state and hide those who could not represent this image of the ideal citizen.

However, the climate of austerity and economic stagnation meant that orphanages were left in terrible conditions. With little electricity, heat, staff, and food, children’s physical needs were barely met while their emotional needs were entirely neglected. For most, this led to severe developmental problems and many were misdiagnosed as having intellectual disabilities.

Orphans at a state institution in Grandinari, Romania, in 1989
Photo By: Isabel Ellsen/Corbis

What are the consequences of this today?

The orphans of the communist era today are, for the most part, well into their adult life. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress and have difficulty finding their place in the current society, especially if they have a disability. As such, many of them are living in adult institutions.

Fortunately, most institutions today, though not all, are unrecognizable. Romania has inherited from the former regime an extensive system of segregated services for people with intellectual disabilities, but there have been a considerable number of reforms to ensure better infrastructure, sanitary conditions, food, and cleaning staff.

What more has been done?

With all of this in mind, it’s hard to believe that things are looking up. But they are.

With the realization that household settings are best for child development, Romania is favoring “more family-type alternative solutions, as well as the development of professional training for youngsters over 16 years old who have been ‘institutionalized’ for most of their lives.” While financial resources remain scarce, progress in child protection services and in finding solutions for family-like settings has been quite impressive.

For instance, Hopes and Homes Romania has been at the forefront in the restructuring of the old system. Its programming revolve around closing down old institutions, preventing the separation of the child from the family (through personalized poverty-reduction action plans), and implementing social and professional programs for those leaving the protection system (via financial support and counseling). These initiatives have been very successful. In the last 15 years, 25,787 children have remained with their families, thanks to the organization’s technical and financial assistance programs.

In its quest to close down institutions, Hopes and Homes Romania is funding the construction of new family homes for children who, for many reasons, can’t be adopted or go to boarding schools. These houses, which are known to be inclusive of children with disabilities, welcome a maximum of twelve children of a similar age group. In these spacious homes, the environment is similar to that of a family, as children receive the educational, emotional, and personal support they need. Finally, activities — creative, athletic, or simply social — are organized on a regular basis.

The following video shows the arrival of children in their new home, which was inaugurated in February in Târgu Frumos (Iasi County):

Non-governmental organizations have in fact been some of the main initiators of change in Romania. Examples include Speranta AssociationPentru Voi, and Special Olympics Romania, all which seek to empower people of all ages with special needs in a way that facilitates their inclusion in wider society.

Everyday Romanian citizens are also playing their part in fostering connectedness in support of these individuals. Today, many people, including the newest generation — which hasn’t lived under communist rule — are generally more aware of all sorts of social issues, including disability rights.

Why does it matter?

Let’s not forget that Romania is still in a transitory period — between the old order and the global market economy — which means that new social initiatives are still in the process of being implemented to meet international standards. Thus, now is the time not only to continue raising awareness, but also to address hurdles related to funding, infrastructure, and bureaucracy in order to create a lasting positive change. Romania has made great progress, but more still needs to be done for it to become a truly inclusive society.

If you want to support the inclusion of children with intellectual disabilities in society, please visit the websites of the organizations mentioned above. For further reading on the situation in Eastern Europe more generally, see Kim Samuel’s 2016 article, Institutionalized and Isolated: How Serbia is Failing Children with Disabilities.