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Ray of Hope for Romanian Orphans

A Carpathian village provides a sanctuary for Romania's long suffering street children
By Marian Chiriac

North of the capital, in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains, the village of Valea Plopului offers a haven of calm for Romania's abandoned children.

Here, in sharp contrast to the filthy, dilapidated orphanages which have so shocked the Western world over the last ten years, local people care for destitute kids and single mothers in their own homes.

Nine-year-old Eugen is one of eight foster children in the Nedoliou household. Bright-eyed and boisterous, he exudes a sense of security and well-being.

"Eugen was abandoned by his mother soon after his birth and brought here when he was just one month old," fifty-eight-year-old Filofteia told me. "He is quite special ... as he is the first abandoned child I took care of".

Filofteia took him in at the request of Father Tanase, a burly, black-bearded Orthodox priest who runs the parish here. She never looked back.

"Our home is not beautiful, but any child is welcome", said Filofteia. 'Mama Sita', as she is called, decided to take in the orphans after her own children left home. "They (the foster children) are everything to me. Nothing else matters."

The inspiration behind 'Mama Sita' and many others like her was Father Tanase. Nine years ago, he together with other local priests and doctors set up Pro Vita, an organisation geared to bringing single mothers and orphans to the parish and placing them with local families.

"Our initiative is unique," said 45-year-old Father Tanase, " and we run it without any help from the state."

Slowly at first, he started to encourage households to take in women and children. As the numbers increased, he won funding from aid organisations like World Vision and Holt. He can now pay host families a million lei, 35 dollars, a month to take in a child and give it not just a roof but also a loving and caring environment. The village has now taken in 208 mothers and children.

The homes of Valea Plopului are a far cry from the horrors of the orphanages exposed after the fall of Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu. Back then, around 150,000 children were being brought up in filthy, dilapidated state-run institutions. Malnutrition was rife and many of the children suffered from AIDS.

Eleven years on, there are still an estimated 119,000 children in state orphanages, mostly the offspring of families too poor to look after them.

Conditions in many institutions have improved. Clothing, medical equipment, toys and TV sets donated by charities worldwide have helped make the orphanages warmer, healthier and more cheerful places. But the situation as a whole remains bleak.

The deplorable conditions of Romania's orphanages have been covered time and again in the national press. Pictures show children still sleeping two to a bed in vast, cold dormitories. Corporal punishment is common and institution staff commonly steal food intended for the children.

"Those who give money do so with the best intentions," said journalist Cristina Liberis. " But a lot of people who've got involved in the orphanages have found that it provides plenty of opportunities for corruption."

The Bucharest authorities are under increasing pressure to end the suffering of Romania's unwanted children. As part of EU accession talks, the country has been urged to improve the conditions of homeless and institutionalised children and to implement birth-prevention and contraception programmes to cut back on unwanted pregnancies.

"The government's main fault all along is that it has failed to find ways to prevent the continued practice of abandoning children," said Liberis. "There has never been a coherent sex education programme for young women."

But, Ion Iliescu's reformed communist government, elected last November, recently announced measures to "ensure new living conditions" for all such children.

"Our efforts are mainly focused on implementing the policies of foster parenting, which is quite a new concept in Romania," said Brandusa Predescu, the head of a government agency dealing with child welfare agency, ANPCA.

"There is no other real solution to deal with the plight of abandoned children, " she said. " We'd like to shut down the biggest orphanages."

The plan also makes economic sense. While it costs the taxpayer 150 dollars per month to keep a child in an orphanage, providing a child with a foster home costs a third of the amount.

However, some NGO's have pointed out the dangers of fostering. Unsuitable foster parents might be induced to take on a child to secure the government benefit; fifty dollars being twice the wage some of the country's poorest bring in. The recent death of a newly fostered child in Bucharest raised fears that the scheme is not being properly supervised.

Reform of the state-run system is both very expensive and very slow. One social worker, preferring to remain anonymous, indicated that it was also in the government's interest to maintain the status quo.

"There is an enormous interest not to change the situation here," said the social worker, explaining that the jobs of the 100,000 or so unskilled workers in the sector would be threatened if the system was overhauled.

The government has also come under fire for its adoption legislation which, many believe, acts less in the interests of the child and more in the pursuit of profit.

Under Romanian law, orphanages are partly funded by the adoption charges paid for by foreign couples. The more one adoption agency contributes the more children are sent their way.

"In many cases of foreign adoption, the child was reduced to an item to be bought and sold for cash," said Emma Nicholson, the European Parliament's rapporteur for Romania, who is pushing for the adoption law to be scrapped.

According to ANPCA's Predescu, domestic and overseas adoptions have risen by 38 per cent and 29 per cent respectively. Last year, foreign couples paid an average of 10,000 dollars to adopt 3,163 kids.

Nicholson visited Valea Plopului for the first time last week and showed her support for the locals who have opened their doors to the dispossessed over the last decade. "Romania has to try harder to prevent abandonment in the first place and then to find solutions for helping local foster families."

Marian Chiriac is a regular IWPR contributor

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