Inside a Romanian orphanage

Inside a Romanian orphanage

I first learned of Romania’s overcrowded and destitute orphanages in the early 1990s, as Western nations were realizing the implications of the domestic policies of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. When Ceausescu was overthrown and executed in 1989, there were more than 150,000 children in Romanian orphanages. This was a direct result of his insistence that women under the age of 45 have at least five children, coupled with his ban on contraception and abortion. Because poor communities could not afford to raise such large families, it became an accepted part of Romanian culture to turn children over to orphanages.

Ceausescu’s orphanages were state-run child factories designed to produce compliant subjects for the Romanian military. No consideration was ever given to the developmental needs of the children. By the end of Ceausescu’s reign, the nation’s orphanages were home to hundreds of thousands malnourished children, most under the age of three, many covered in bedsores, lying on urine-soaked cots in steel cribs. Most had not learned how to walk or talk, and significant numbers were dying of infectious diseases. Studies showed that the orphans, sometimes lying quietly and unattended for 18 to 20 hours a day, were severely socially, emotionally, and developmentally delayed.

Last year, I had the opportunity to experience first-hand how the situation has changed for Romania’s orphans in the years since communism’s collapse. Among its varied humanitarian programs, World Vision, an international relief and development agency, provides trained caregivers to orphanages throughout Romania. The organization also sends teams of volunteers to Romania to offer their time and love to the children and to relieve the overworked orphanage staff. I volunteered for placement in the southwestern city of Craiova and, beginning in August, spent a month living and working with a team of five volunteer caregivers.

During my time in Craiova, I was assigned to Orphanage No.5. The orphanage housed over 250 children, ranging in age from one week to three years. When I first stepped through its doors, the sights, sounds and smells overwhelmed me. The ruin of the building, the aging and dismal corridors, the stale air of long-recycled clothing and cloth diapers and the weary expressions of the staff all stood in stark contrast to the countless rooms full of bright, beautiful and attention-starved children.

I was assigned to a floor of one to three year olds, dividing my time between three rooms of approximately 12 children each. In each room, I would further divide my time between the children, ensuring that each would receive individual attention. The one-on-one time would include playing and singing, as well as hugging, holding and rocking the children. Often, I would do all these things at the same time, rocking one child, being leaned on by another and teaching a third how to play with a toy.

Entering one of the rooms provided the same experience each time as 10 or more lonely and eager children swarmed me. They clamored up my legs, pulling me to the floor in an effort to sit on top of me, hug me, pull at my hair and clothes, offer me toys and just get a moment of my time. This level of need and interest remained constant throughout each day.

While all of the children were unforgettable, some stand out in my memory. I cannot forget Stefan who spent most of each day sitting quietly beside me and holding my hand. He would tolerate other children pulling at me and vying for my attention, as long as he could remain attached to my hand. If I needed to let go for a moment, he would suddenly swat and push at the child who had disturbed our connection. Or he would run frantically around the room, picking up toy after toy, bringing each to me with a shy smile, so that I would look to him for a moment and thank him personally.

And I cannot forget Nicoletta. Almost two and a half years old, Nicoletta is a tiny child, unable to walk without assistance and labeled “severely retarded” by orphanage staff. Due to years of poor stimulation, Nicoletta spends much of her time alone, engaged in repetitive behaviors such as rocking back and forth and watching the movements of her hands and fingers. During my month at the orphanage, each day I devoted time to her, encouraging her to walk around the halls, showing her new toys and speaking and singing with her in an exaggerated way to capture her attention. By the end of the month, Nicoletta could recognize me from across a room. When she spotted me, she would smile and laugh and clap her hands together, eagerly anticipating our playtime. It was an incredible feeling to watch her emerge from her isolated world.

I learned quickly that inside a Romanian orphanage you struggle constantly with the feeling that there is more to be done. On one occasion, just before the end of a long shift, a volunteer on the team discovered a room full of babies, who, unattended since a noon feeding, were wailing, wet and trapped in their cribs in a darkened room. Neglected at the end of a corridor with no assigned caregivers, no one had checked in on them for over five hours.

On another occasion, we arrived at the orphanage early, eagerly anticipating the adoption of a young boy by a local family. To the dismay of the staff, the boy’s birth parents had visited early that morning and refused permission for his adoption, even though they had no intention of taking him home. The fact is that many of Romania’s orphans cannot be adopted, locally or internationally, because their parents have not given up their formal rights as guardians. As long as they visit once every six months, they have the right to reclaim their children at any time, however most do not.

Although Romania’s revolution took place in 1989, the living conditions and economy are far from good, and Romania’s children continue to suffer from inadequate food, housing, clothing, medical care, stimulation and education. In fact, it is estimated that 36 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, and approximately 20,000 of the babies born each year are abandoned. The government is struggling to overhaul the country’s childcare system and tackle the enormous problem of family poverty that is the main factor behind the continuing high numbers of children in state institutions, street children and abandoned children. However, over 100,000 children still live in orphanages in Romania, child abandonment has increased by 20 per cent since 1989, and many of the country’s children are begging on the streets of the cities.

While in Romania I saw for myself the heartbreaking effects of orphanage life on the social and emotional development of children. Generally speaking, Romanian orphans tend to be small and malnourished, often with chronic skin and respiratory problems. They have a high frequency of medical problems, such as intestinal parasites and hepatitis B. Because of the lack of stimulation, many engage in repetitive behaviors, act out, throw temper tantrums and do not know how to play.

But Romania’s continuing hardship is really only half the story — the rest of the story is the cause for hope. It was shown to me in each child’s smile. Their eyes, although often clouded by a lack of stimulation, brighten and clear in the special moment that you reach for them, pick them up, rock them gently or spin them upside-down playfully. Each child, even those labeled “retarded” or “developmentally delayed” by the orphanage staff, unfailingly responds to individual attention and love.

Hope also exists in the gradually improving conditions in Romania’s orphanages. This improvement is largely due to the collective and organized efforts of international aid organizations. A network of aid organizations currently works with local NGOs to manage donations to Romania and to the orphanages, and to “help Romanians help themselves”. To this end, resources and facilities have been made available to help single mothers so they do not abandon their children, hospices for AIDS infected children have been established, and a foster program has been created as an alternative to the orphanages.

The reason why I simply had to go to Romania becomes clearer with every memory and reflection — because every act, however small, occurs in context. And inside a Romanian orphanage, every act of caring and love builds upon another. And, in the life of a child, these compounded actions, whether for a month, a day, or a moment, are woven into the fabric of life.


[This article was written in 2002 and published by the Human Rights Tribune (Winter 2002, Vol.8, No.3). It was published with the full title: “REPORTS FROM THE FIELD: Inside a Romanian Orphanage – Reflections by a Volunteer Caregiver“]