Hope for the abandoned

When Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed in 1989, the world learnt of the barbaric conditions in Romania's orphanages. Scandalously, very little has changed - until now. Virginia Ironside reports
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The Independent Online

"Romanian orphans?" said the taxi driver as he drove me back from the airport, where I'd arrived back from Bucharest. "But I thought that was all over years ago."

"Romanian orphans?" said the taxi driver as he drove me back from the airport, where I'd arrived back from Bucharest. "But I thought that was all over years ago."

I'd thought it was all over years ago, too. I thought something had been done about those infamous orphanages, where children were kept tied in cots, screaming for attention or, worse, rocking and biting themselves in order to get some kind of stimulation. But I was wrong.

It says something about the power of the European Union that Romania, which has been told that it won't be accepted as a member until it cleans up its human-rights record - particularly in regard to children - is finally paying attention to the situation in its 100 or so orphanages. By 2007, government officials have promised, all its orphanages, which now house about 35,000 pitiful children, will be closed down.

The problem is: how will they do this? There's the cynical political way - to give the orphanages a lick of paint, insert a few hardboard partitions to divide them into sections, stick signs on the doors bearing twee names alongside Winnie the Pooh transfers, and pretend that all orphans are now looked after in small family homes - in other words, to change nothing. The other way is the one followed by the charity Hope and Homes for Children, which has already succeeded in closing down five orphanages, and is closing four more this year.

Mark Cook and his wife Caroline started Hope and Homes for Children 10 years ago. Mark was the commander of Britain's United Nations contingent in Croatia when the war there started. One day he discovered a ruined orphanage, with 65 orphans who had hidden in the cellar for three weeks. Resolving to rebuild it, he resigned from the Army to complete the task, using local labour and resources.

On his return to England, Mark read Michael Nicholson's book, Natasha's Story, which told how the ITN reporter rescued a girl from an orphanage in Sarajevo, Bosnia. He decided to go back with Caroline to see how the other orphans Natasha had left behind were faring. What they found horrified them.

"It was a terrible place," he says. "There were 40 babies in cots in one stiflingly hot room, covered in sores, desperate for attention. In another part there were older children, behaving like pack animals." The Cooks managed to rebuild this orphanage, smuggling 300,000 Deutschmarks over the mountains and into the country strapped to Mark's body. They went on to Albania, where they built a new orphanage.

Later, one night in their Wiltshire home, Caroline was peeling carrots in the kitchen when the phone rang. "Do you build homes for orphans of war?" asked a voice. "Er... yes," she said. It was a man from Sierra Leone. Hope and Homes now works in 14 countries. Over the past 10 years it has built itself into a £4m-a-year charity and rehoused more than 8,000 children orphaned by war, disease or poverty, all over the world.

When Hope and Homes for Children first went into Romania, in 1996, the Cooks could hardly believe what they saw. "In one orphanage, the lucky ones were about 60 babies, stuffed into a metal pen under an awning on a concrete patch, all in grey vests with numbers on them," Mark says. The unlucky ones were kept indoors; another 60 children aged between a few days and three years lived at the top of a hospital, all in cots. They never went outside.

Mark and Caroline immediately bought six houses, modernised and painted them, created gardens, provided beds, chairs, tables and toys, trained staff to care for the children and installed 10 orphans in each house - and so was born a new idea. Rather than simply rebuild an orphanage, why not get these children into smaller units with outdoor areas, with the aim eventually of getting them fostered or, ideally, back with the families that had abandoned them? "After all," Mark says, "when you ask abandoned children what they would like, they don't answer, 'I want to go into a lovely orphanage.' They say, 'I want to have a family of my own.'"

Abandoning children had become common in Romania, partly because parents were often too poor to look after an extra child, and partly because of the large Roma population - Roma children have big families and don't have access to medical help or education. But it was the former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who exacerbated the problem. Eager to populate Romania with some kind of master race, in 1980 he instituted "baby police" and compulsory gynaecological examinations to ensure that women were not trying to avoid their patriotic duty, which was to have as many children as possible. Unmarried people and married couples without children were penalised by higher taxes. Abortion was banned, there were no social services, and orphanages became places where unwanted or handicapped children where simply dumped.

These institutions became such big business to the staff running them that the directors went out touting for children, promising families money in return for their kids. Some were bribed to bear children especially for the orphanages. Ioan Ardelean, the local Russian Orthodox priest at Hoteni, says: "I know that in one small village near here, as many as 50 perfectly normal children were taken to be put in an institution." Ardelean has adopted four children from one orphanage to bring up in his own family.

At that time, orphans were highly lucrative. They could be sold abroad for $40,000 to $50,000 each, particularly to the United States, which did not sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course, some children went to kindly couples, but there were no checks on who got them, and teenage girls were in huge demand, probably for prostitution. Others were sold as slaves and, staggeringly, for spare organ parts.

When I visited one of the Romanian orphanages - the Institute for Children with Severe Special Needs, in Oradea - I was not prepared for what I found. We arrived in what seemed like a perfectly normal part of town, a busy suburban street near a football stadium. Homely women in bright headscarves were shopping, a cat jumped from its place in the sun, and children played in the street. Workmen were mixing cement in a garden, and there was a quiet air of pleasantness. But, entering the grim concrete building where the orphans were housed, everything changed.

First, we were shown the babies. Well, they appeared to be babies, but it soon became clear that several of these wretched children were far older than they looked. One particularly tragic creature, who looked like a tiny refugee from Belsen with a strange space-creature face and huge, desperate eyes, kept pleading to be picked up. She was 15 years old. Others tried feebly to stand in their cots and cried, stretching out their arms and seizing passers-by, desperate for any kind of attention.

To say I was reduced to tears doesn't begin to cover the emotions I felt. Like everyone else, I was overcome with a mixture of horror, pity, revulsion, hopelessness, fury and deep, deep sadness.

In the section for older children, we saw children with their hands strapped together and their arms tied to the bars of cots, some with their heads locked in huge helmets to stop them self-harming. They rolled around as much as their fetters would allow, groaning and rocking - anything to relieve their excoriating boredom, loneliness and misery. They will be left like this for days on end. Many have never seen the sunlight. Dante's seventh circle of hell could not be worse than this.

These children receive little treatment, except occasional sedation. Many of them, tragically, started off as perfectly normal children but have become disabled simply through sensory deprivation, lack of movement and exercise and a complete lack of affection or love, or even human contact of any kind. Many otherwise healthy five-year-olds cannot feed themselves, speak or walk - because they never leave their cots.

In some of these orphanages, there may be only one member of staff to feed and change more than 70 children. Ceilings have caved in, there are no plug sockets, live wires stick out from the walls, there are no light bulbs and no heating, and rats infest the rooms near the toilets. In the Girdani institution, an orphanage only recently closed by Hope and Homes, there was very little drinking water, even when the temperature rose to 35C. "What was the best thing about leaving the orphanage?" one orphan was asked when she was rehoused. "Water," she said. "And what else?" "Water." "Anything else?" "Water."

In the notorious Camin Spital orphanage in Sighet, it was so cold in winter that the children couldn't put their feet on the icy floor-tiles - they had no shoes - and had to sit on chairs, hunched up, hands inside T-shirts, rocking their shaven heads wretchedly, with nothing else to do. When they were occasionally let out to play, they had no idea what to do; they spent their time crying, rocking, hitting or biting themselves until they bled - or hitting each other. They ate like animals, ripped off all their clothes and destroyed everything they could see.

Care professionals from Europe who are quite used to children with special needs in their own countries are shocked by the state of children in Romania. For those who are handicapped, incarceration and the lack of treatment have made them far, far worse than they need be. Because of their severe conditions, rocking and self-harming is common. The children have no idea of trust, no imagination and no moral sense. They indulge often in obsessive masturbation, aggression or tantrums. "Take away normal interaction with adults," says Mark, "and they simply can't develop, either emotionally or physically. They have no choices at all. They are told when to sleep, when to eat, what to wear. Freedom can be an overwhelming discovery."

What makes things so difficult for Hope and Homes is that when it tries to close these orphanages and place the children into families or small family homes, its workers are often met with fierce resistance. The directors and staff of the institutions, worried about their jobs, bitterly oppose any change, saying that the children will be worse off, and that nothing can be done. "They say that children are like vegetables, not worth helping," says Stefan Darabus, Hope and Homes' director for Romania. "And it's true; you see some of these children and you feel there's nothing you can do. And yet, after six months living in a small family home, their lives are totally transformed."

There are now 50 such homes in Romania started by Hope and Homes. The staff ratio is about one adult to four children. They have their own toys and clothes, and they're given mirrors (which were forbidden in the orphanages) to give them an idea of who they are, helping to boost their sense of self-respect. These are children who, without intervention, would have stayed in the orphanages until they were 18 and then been placed in a gruesome old people's home to die.

Certainly, it is extraordinarily moving seeing children such as Mitrut, blind and confined to a cot for 17 years but now, at 18, able to walk for the first time in his life. Then there is Lia, who arrived in her family home very aggressive and addicted to chewing cigarette ends, with a permanently furious expression. Now she beams, she's stopped chewing and she shows almost no aggressive behaviour. Monica was tied up for many years, doubled over with her feet behind her head and arms across her chest. She's stopped self-harming, her body has straightened out and she's starting to walk.

Doctors had given up on some orphans, but now many are walking for the first time. They can feed, dress and go to the toilet themselves. In every small family home we visited we were met by cheers, smiles and a dozen friendly arms pulling us upstairs to show us their own rooms and beds.

What is so marvellous is that lots of families, seeing the improvements their children have made, have started to visit them again. Sometimes the children go home for good. At last, they have found people who love them. It is hoped that all the children in these small, friendly homes will eventually be fostered or adopted.

But things are also changing in Romania itself, and Hope and Homes is working closely with the government and local authorities. Abortion is now allowed, and there is a government-run social services network. It is hoped that the cruel culture of abandonment will eventually become a thing of the past. The last orphanage in Romania was built in 1994. From 1 January next year, it will be illegal to put any children aged under two in an institution. And international adoption was made illegal from June this year.

In Europe, the whole idea of orphanages smacks of Dickens and workhouses. Even the comparatively recent Barnardo's homes seem to exist in another time, now that it's known that children always do better in smaller environments. Hope and Homes is trying to spread the word; one of its young team-members, Georgette Mulheir, has drafted a "how to" guide on de-institutionalising the orphanages in Romania, which Unicef is to publish next year. The UN children's fund hopes the guide will be a blueprint for other countries.

Surprisingly, Sudan has become a convert to Hope and Homes' ideas. "Last year, their government sent a party of 10 people, led by a devout, white-robed Muslim, to Romania to see what we are doing," Mark says. "Some were cynical and even disapproving, but after a week they returned to Khartoum, determined to close their first orphanage, where 250 children die each month." Hope and Homes is helping them to do this, and already 50 babies have been fostered by local families.

Caroline Cook's dream was to close all the orphanages in Romania. Now Hope and Homes for Children is having a far wider impact by creating models of family-based care for orphaned children, which can be replicated around the world.

Hope and Homes for Children, East Clyffe, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP3 4LZ (01722 790111; www.hopeandhomes.org)