No End to Romanian Orphan Crisis

Ten years after Romania's treatment of sick and orphaned children shocked the world, their plight has barely improved.

No End to Romanian Orphan Crisis

Ten years after Romania's treatment of sick and orphaned children shocked the world, their plight has barely improved.

Vacant-looking and listless, they huddle in cold, cramped, filthy dormitories. Their bent limbs as thin as matchsticks.

Such images of Romania's orphanages shocked the world in the wake of the Ceaucescu dictatorship.

A decade after the communist regime was overthrown, millions of dollars worth of foreign aid has been spent on improving these institutions, but most are still in dire condition.

Thousands of children abandoned by poor families still live in orphanages or on city streets.

According to official statistics there are 33,000 orphans in state institutions. The number of unwanted children has reportedly increased by 20 percent since 1989.

The crisis can no longer be blamed on the communist regime. Over the past decade, failed economic reforms and high unemployment have led to crippling poverty - the number of abandoned children increasing in line with the growth in impoverished families.

At least 1,000 children are annually abandoned - many of them by poverty-stricken teenage mothers, 60 per cent of whom are unmarried.

The orphanages remain inadequately resourced. Indeed this winter, they were practically out of food, prompting the EU to send emergency aid.

The Romanian authorities are under increasing pressure to end the suffering of Romania's unwanted children. As part of its bid to join the European Union, Bucharest will have to show ample proof that the rights of children are being protected.

Earlier this month, Romanian officials presented a child protection strategy to the European Parliament. The programme aimed to establish clear responsibilities for child care institutions, upgrade services offered by

specialised institutions, promote child protection in families and restructure orphanages.

Government funds will be directed towards food, medication, and education for institutionalised children, according to the strategy.

The initiative follows the setting up in January this year of a National Child Rights Agency (ANDP). The agency, which will receive 10 million euros from the EU, aims to return abandoned children to their biological families whenever possible or place them with foster families and provide alternative services in the existing orphanages.

Some EU officials believe that supporting such a policy is better than spending money on helping to maintain what they regard as an obsolete care system.

At the same time, Romania has also tightened restrictions on foreign adoptions following concerns over children being stolen for paedophilia rings and organ transplants.

This followed the furore surrounding the British couple, Adrian and Bernadette Mooney, who were given two year prison sentences in 1994 after they were caught trying to smuggle a Romanian gypsy baby out of the country.

The then President Ion Iliescu, seeking to avoid bad publicity in advance of a visit to London, granted both an amnesty.

Until 1995, poor controls and legislative shortcomings allowed some 10,000 children to be adopted by foreign families in dubious and barely legal circumstances.

Now prospective adoptive parents must pay $3,500 and be prepared to wait for several years before they're granted a child. Notwithstanding the new bureaucratic hurdles, western families continue to adopt Romanian orphans.

"The Romanians are still reluctant to adopt due of their impoverished situation," said the president of the new Nationals Child Rights Agency. "For us this is not a real problem. We are just trying to find the best family for a child, not the best child for a family."

Marian Chiriac is news editor of the MediaFax News Agency in Bucharest and editor of Foreign Policy, a quarterly published by the Romanian Academic Society.

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