Longer version

Romania’s policy of emptying its orphanages raises controversy


Grainger Laffan

Romania claims to have removed one of the main obstacles to its entry to the European Union in 2007 after closing down a large number of its huge children’s homes without resorting to overseas adoptions.

Its policy of returning abandoned youngsters to their natural families has meant that dozens of the state run institutions have closed their doors, and Romania is pledging to continue the programme, despite pressure from countries such as Israel and the United States that wanted overseas adoptions to be restarted.

The country’s problems with large numbers of unwanted children began when the then dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu decided to increase the country’s population. He banned sex education, contraception, and abortion and offered financial incentives to parents to produce large families.

The national birth rate doubled as a result, but many of the children were unwanted and later abandoned, forcing the state to build institutions to house them.

Overcrowded and underfunded from the start, the orphanages worsened during the economic decline of the 1980s, and little changed with the end of communist rule in 1989.

Rates of abandonment remained high, and the new democratic government opted for adoption as a way of decreasing the number of children in state run institutions. Images of children sent around the world after the fall of Ceauşescu created a wave of international sympathy, and large numbers of Western couples set off to Romania in the hope of "rescuing" a child.

The trade in babies flourished in the unregulated climate that developed, and private companies sprang up to meet the demand. Financial incentives encouraged Romanian parents to give their children over to institutions, where they could be offered up to the lucrative market, which in the 1990s exported an estimated 30 000 babies.

Widespread condemnation led by the European Union encouraged the government to ban international adoption in 2001 and form a national authority to protect children’s rights. The authority created new laws to increase parents’ responsibility in the upbringing of children and began a national policy forcing the return of abandoned children to their parents.

In the last four years Romania has closed 91 residential institutions while at the same time opening 37 centres aimed at returning children to parents.

Foster care is increasingly used as an interim solution to avoid sending children to institutions. Of the 82 918 children in state care at the beginning of 2005, more than 50 000 are housed with foster families. However, the government continues to emphasise that parents should resume responsibility for their child, even if they are divorced or economically deprived.

Critics say the price can be high when unwanted children are forced back on destitute families.

The British aid worker Sarah Wade (pictured) has fostered a four year old autistic child, Dylan, and has been fighting the international ban on adoption to prevent the boy being returned to his alcoholic parents, who live in a ramshackle hut without electricity or running water.

"The laws are stupid and ineffective," she said. "Of course, something needs to be done to help the children here, but at the moment all the Romanian government is doing is signing forms—sending children back to their parents without looking at each individual case. It doesn’t seem to matter that the parents might be alcoholics or have no means to look after their kids as long as the numbers are cut."

But Rupert Wolfe-Murray, an independent consultant who works on children’s rights in Romania, rejects the claim, saying much is now being done to make it possible for families to keep children, including a scheme to identify and support pregnant women who are deemed at risk and more services such as day care centres. He pointed out that between 1997 and 2002 the proportion of abandoned children who were housed in state institutions had fallen by 44%.

He said: "Romania has become a model for other east European countries struggling to tackle the legacy of communism, where massive state funded orphanages that need children to survive put pressure on hospitals to make sure there is a constant supply from the poor and the desperate."

He is backed by the member of the European parliament Emma Nicholson, who as vice president of the committee of foreign affairs with special responsibility for Romania was once one of the country’s fiercest critics and who warned Romania it would be barred from entry to the EU unless it tackled the problems of the its abandoned children.

But she said the changes since then had been dramatic: "Romania has gone from having the worst system in Europe to developing one of the best. It now has less infants in public institutions than established EU members like France."