Two weeks after she was born, in March last year, Ioana Balozache became one of Romania's countless abandoned children.

Her mother, Roza, had been in almost constant pain since the birth and was unable either to breastfeed or look after her. The girl's father, Remus, had lost his job and was desperately searching for another. Her grandparents, Petrus and Maria, were already overstretched trying to cope with Ioana six brothers and sisters, all crammed into the Balozache's tiny one-bedroomed Bucharest flat.

It was a classic case of too many mouths to feed, too many nappies to change and too few resources. And, like tens of thousands of Romanian parents before them, Remus and Roza decided to put their new-born daughter into an orphanage.

In the dark days of Nicolae Ceausescu, that might well have been the end of the story. Under the Communist dictator, Ioana would probably have been classified as 'handicapped' (in the socialist 'paradise' he believed he had created, social problems did not exist: only the 'sick' needed institutionalised care). She would then have been dispatched to one of the country's unspeakably brutal orphanages, from which she would, indeed, have emerged handicapped for life.

By 1993, however, things were beginning to change. In spite of the legalisation of abortion and improved access to contraception (both still strongly opposed by the Romanian Orthodox Church), an alarming number of parents continued to abandon babies that they felt unable to care for. However, the institutions that received these unwanted children began to look on them differently. Instead of seeing them as misfits that needed to be and kept out of sight, the authorities began to look at why the children had been put into care, who had put them there and, most important, how they might eventually be taken out of care.

In Ioana's case, a social worker (a new phenomenon) at the orphanage to which she was consigned took a shine to her and a genuine interest in her 28-year-old mother. Taking pity on the poverty-stricken Balozache family, the social worker advised them to contact the Romanian branch of Save the Children, which had a programme aimed at reunifying families.

The charity workers felt that the girl's best long-term interests lay in returning to her family, despite the obvious material drawbacks. In addition to pressing the orphanage to agree to such a move, Save the Children agreed to supplement Mr Balozache's meagre 40,000 lei (pounds 16) average monthly earnings with a further 15,000 lei. In February, after 10 months away, Ioana returned home. Within weeks, she had become established as one of the family.

'It is wonderful to have her back. She has a lovely smile and at last understands our language,' says Roza Balozache, breaking into a rare smile at the sight of her 16-month-old daughter. 'We may be poor, but with our children, we are rich. Nobody can take that from us.'

It is not far, about 60 miles as the crow flies, from the cramped, almost squalid Bucharest flat of the Balozaches to the primitive earthen-floored home of Florin Baiaram and Florina Dimir in the southern Romanian town of Alexandria.

The two couples have much in common. Both have to endure the almost Third World living conditions that are typical of Romania's large gypsy community, where large families are still the tradition. Both, too, have experienced difficulties looking after a new-born baby. But whereas the Balozaches temporarily put their daughter into care and then brought her home, Mr Baiaram and Ms Dimir sought to sell their daughter to a British couple who were desperate to adopt.

According to the Chief Prosecutor's office in Bucharest, Adrian and Bernadette Mooney, of Wokingham, Berkshire, paid pounds 4,000 for Monica Baiaram, the five-month-old girl they were caught trying to smuggle into Hungary in a picnic basket in their car. Most of the money went to the Romanian middle-man believed to have been responsible for setting up the deal. The child's parents, both aged 17, received just pounds 800.

Whatever comes out of the trial later this month, the case has already evoked memories of the unsavoury child-trafficking that exploded in Romania in the months following the toppling of Ceausescu, and raised inevitable questions about the extent to which it continues.

As with many things in Romania, the facts are elusive. While it is widely alleged that baby trading still occurs, proven cases are rare. The Mooneys are the first Western couple to stand trial on such charges since a new law limiting the number of adoptions to foreigners was passed in 1991.

According to Jeremy Condor, of the British-funded Romanian Orphanage Trust, babies born to young mothers in the poorer parts of the country still occasionally 'disappear' courtesy of unscrupulous dealers who seek to sell them in the West.

For some who get sucked in to such deals, the motive is entirely financial: the pounds 800 paid to the parents of Monica Baiaram, for example, far exceeds the average annual salary in Romania. For some, the motive is simply to avoid the shame still attached to giving birth out of wedlock in small rural communities.

Nevertheless, the scale of child-trafficking in Romania today is minuscule compared with the free-for-all that followed the revolution of December 1989. Then, childless couples from the West were able to exploit loopholes in the adoption laws and, for a price, return home almost with the baby of their choice.

The drama over the Mooneys' case has overshadowed the fact that, for every Monica Baiaram, there are dozens of Ioana Balozaches in Romania. In its own way, the country is gradually improving the welfare of tens of thousands of abandoned children inherited from the Ceausescu era.

In addition to schemes aimed at reunifying abandoned children with their natural families, charities such as the Romanian Orphanage Trust and Save the Children have pioneered programmes to encourage the fostering and adoption of Romanian children by Romanians themselves. They have also set up courses for social workers and alternative forms of care aimed at returning children to their communities. Conditions in the country's orphanages have improved dramatically, helped by donations from Western charities.

It is all worthy work, and today Lord Younger of Prestwick, chairman of the Romanian Orphanage Trust, will cap more than four years of the charity's involvement in Romania by meeting the leaders of five of the country's 40 districts to discuss fresh initiatives. Having set up several successful pilot projects, the trust now plans to hand over responsibility for them to local authorities.

'The Romanians do not wish to be treated like victims who need us to come in and rescue them,' Mr Condor says. 'If we can work with them, if we can offer some expertise based on our experiences, so much the better. But in the end, only they can solve their own problems.'

To many in Britain, Mr and Mrs Mooney are themselves victims of red tape which decrees that, at 41 and 39, respectively, they are too old to adopt; and of a misguided Romanian sense of national shame whenever one of its children is adopted by a foreigner.

Mr Condor does not share this view. 'It is all too easy to look at one child and say, 'Let her out',' he says. 'But what about all the abandoned children here who nobody wants and who are not going anywhere? Pulling one out does not help them at all.'

(Photograph omitted)