A Short History of the Romanian Orphan Crisis
How did this crisis start?
In 1966, one year after Nicolae Ceaușescu became head of Romania’s Communist Party, contraception and abortion were outlawed for women under 40 with less than four children. Women also had to endure regular examines to prove they had not had abortions. This law created double digit birth rates in just one year. Over the coming years, restrictions on the use of contraception became even more stringent as Ceaușescu attempted to over populate and grow the country’s manufacturing industries in an attempt to make Romania a world powered nation like its county to the north “ Russia”.
Romanian women were incentivized into having more and more children. The mentality was if the family is unable to care for the large number of children they were encouraged to take them to orphanages where the state would take care of them. In the 1980s, Ceaușescu’s attempted to pay down Romania’s national debt, and an introduction of stringent food rationing was introduced. Desperate parents figured that at least if their children were in orphanages, they would have food. During this ration period, which lasted for nearly ten years, the orphanage population swelled to over 150,000 children living in state-run orphanages. Today there are an estimated 60,000 children still cared for by the Romanian government.
Where do these children come from?
Romanian social workers cite poverty as the main factor for child abandonment.
- ‘Abandoned’ children have been removed from their families for their own welfare. Until Romania’s accession to the European Union in 2007, there was no real organized foster care system. Children who were neglected or abused were taken by social workers to orphanages, or ‘placement centers’ as they are more properly called.
- Many have been left at hospitals post-delivery. Although medical treatment is theoretically free in Romania, widespread bribery is the norm, and access to healthcare is limited in poor rural communities. Families in poverty know that a chronically sick child will receive the treatment they need if they are left in the care of the state.
- Some children have been voluntarily surrendered by their parents. In cases of extreme poverty, sickness, death or imprisonment of a parent, children will sometimes be surrendered to state care.
- Children are in state care because one or both of their parents are working abroad. Children are sometimes left in the care of older siblings, or elderly grandparents and the state is forced to intervene.
How are they cared for?
- Many abandoned children are placed by the state into their own extended family where they are monitored regularly.
- Romania, now a member of the European Union (EU), has set up a foster care program. While this has been a huge step forward, it’s still not without corruption, bribes, scandals and abuse.
- Some children are housed in ‘placement homes’. These are apartments or houses, homing up to ten children with a live-in house parent. These homes are an alternative between foster care and orphanages and often provide a relatively stable home for abandoned children, when properly monitored.
- The rest of Romania’s abandoned children still live in state-run orphanages. While these institutions have improved immensely, they are still impersonal institutions where children have no privacy, are often brutally bullied by older inhabitants, and grow up without any sense of what it means to belong to any kind of family.
Romania has made great improvements over the years, but it is clear that there is still a long, long way to go. Although most orphanages have a decreased number of children in care and are better staffed, they are still impersonal places that leave children without the skills needed to survive as independent adults. Little is offered in the way of life skills training, counselling, or therapy. Despite the caring attitudes of the vast majority of child care workers, there are still stories of abuse, and support from the state ceases the moment an abandoned child leaves full-time education, leaving many vulnerable young adults facing an uncertain future in a country where a large number of the population are living in or near the poverty level.
Romania's children—like our own children—need all the love and help we can give.