The secret neglect of a nation's children

Behind the spiked fences and closed doors of Romania's grim orphanages are young victims of indifference. Starved not of food, but of love, they need our help
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The Independent Online

The little girl sits alone on her bed, watching a teacher's face as we talk. Vali is 10 and she is small for her age. Hunched up she looks as though she wants to shrink and vanish.

The little girl sits alone on her bed, watching a teacher's face as we talk. Vali is 10 and she is small for her age. Hunched up she looks as though she wants to shrink and vanish.

All of the 22 children who live in this small, bare dormitory at the scoala speciali have been diagnosed as mentally damaged. They are not starving. This article is not about youngsters who will die tomorrow if you do not send money. But it is about the wilful destruction of thousands of orphans in Romanian institutions - happening slowly, secretly, behind closed doors.

We have asked to hear Vali's life story but she thinks we want to take her away somewhere strange and frightening. She does not trust adults. The teacher, who seems to care, says Vali has nothing more severe than what we would call learning difficulties.

Watching from the doorway, the local mayor starts to rage. "This child is normal," he says. "The committee are committing a crime. They should be made aware of their burden not to destroy the lives of children like this."

The school is a grim concrete block among shacks at the edge of a village in the countryside near Bucharest. Beyond the grille on the dormitory window are wide, furrowed fields hard with frost. The skyline is marked with the towers and pylons of heavy industry, many of them redundant. The fences around the school are spiked to keep the 115 children from running away.

Some of the children have big problems. Others like Vali would flourish if they were just rescued by a loving family, with the proper support. It is the aim of the Independent on Sunday's 2000 Christmas Appeal to help to bring about loving support for some of the 160,000 children who are still in state care in Romania 10 years after revolution toppled Ceaucescu.

Despite many donations of money and the best efforts of volunteers, many of the country's orphanages are places of disease, neglect and abuse. There is no evidence of Vali being brutalised in these ways, but just by being in the special school she is being harmed. "The mental activities of such a girl decrease when they are sent to such a place," says Teodor Biris, mayor of Snagov region, who is part of a campaign to get the institutions closed. "They do not have access to proper learning and they cry out in the night. They are said to suffer trauma. No wonder."

The teacher tells us that Vali was left in a hospital by her parents, who did not have jobs. Her grandmother rescued her, resists all attempts to have Vali taken away permanently, and visits as much as she can.The two are reunited at Christmas and other holidays.

Then the Romanian teacher says something which startles our translator, Diana Tascu. "It seems," Diana says, "that Vali shares a bed with her grandmother - in the same house as her parents." The parents, she says, still want nothing to do with the thin little girl who stays under the same roof from time to time. They refuse to acknowledge her.

Vali's future is bleak. The authorities might allow her to be trained to do something useful, like sew, but then she would be sent out into the world aged 18 without support. Otherwise, she could spend her entire adult life in another, perhaps far worse institution.

Our appeal will help children like Vali to escape the system. The money will pay for medical teams, supervised by the World Health Organisation, to go into some of the worst orphanages and assess each child.

Georgette Mulheir, director of Hope and Homes for Children in Romania, who has been working here since 1993, says: "These children have been badly abused. You get babies from orphanages addicted to sedatives because the staff have drugged them for a quiet life. We had one little boy who couldn't walk properly; the muscles in his legs were wasted because he had had so many injections. It's vital there is a really good medical assessment covering everything."

Afterwards, those who really do have special needs could go to small, modern units. Others, misdiagnosed, might be able to go back to live with their families or with foster carers. They might be adopted by Romanian couples. The European Union and the Romanian government are now working together to close institutions and ensure families taking orphans get proper financial backing and support from social workers and counsellors. The money for this will come from the EU, which has promised 23m euros to sympathetic community leaders in Romania.

When the children get new homes, the huge, crumbling orphanages can be torn down. Hope and Homes for Children has already been involved in shutting down several near the Ukrainian border. It plans to do more having now joined a coalition of charities - chaired by Baroness Nicholson, MEP, founder of the Parliamentary Appeal for Romanian Children, the charity we are supporting - which is committed to avoiding the corruption which has bedevilled voluntary work in Romania since 1990.

It is not just corruption that has to be shaken out, though. Attitudes in Romania have been conditioned by the Communist regime which ruled that it was families' patriotic duty to have as many children as possible; the state would care for those they could not feed. A new economic crisis has made hungry parents even more desperate. Romania has a negative birth rate and one in five women cannot have children. The only legal charge to Romanians wanting to adopt is $4 (£2.80), but they are up against foreign couples, who have been known to pay $50,000 for a child. The authorities would of course rather "sell" to foreigners. "And rich families want to adopt babies but not disabled children aged perhaps six, the ones who really need families," says Ms Mulheir.

So these children stay in the orphanages and the special schools, abandoned again.

But Romania is trying to change its approach. As far as care is concerned, for instance, it is moving away from providing it through enormous hospitals and intrusive medicine. And some authorities realise that the "mentally handicapped" - often children just malnourished or experiencing problems with physical co-ordination - can be treated easily with therapy.

While we are with Vali, a rumour spreads among the children that foreigners have come to take her. As we walk to the gates many of them follow, shouting. Diana translates. "They are saying, 'adopt me, adopt me'."

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