How to stop little children suffering

There are more orphans in Romania now than in 1989. Lindsey Mackiereports

They've been hiding in lorries and decanting at Deal, causing anguish to Daily Mail readers: hundreds of Romanian refugees are landing on British shores. There are Roma, or gypsy, victims of racist attacks; and native Romanians, fleeing the economic chaos that reigns in their homeland.

Ten years after they summarily dispensed with communist rule and the Ceausescus, Romanians are still in crisis. Poverty is rampant. This is a country where the currency, the lei, drops its value by 16 per cent in a month, where investment is dropping year on year by over 30 per cent, where privatisation is creating job losses, but not - yet - wealth. Among the poorest people in Romania are the gypsies, victims of discrimination in schools and jobs, whose children fill the nation's notorious orphanages.

For the west, these orphanages became the symbol of the dysfunctional character of Romanian society: here was a country whose institutional care of children featured cruelty and unimaginable neglect. Images of the abused and undernourished children in their overpopulated, dilapidated "homes" filled newspapers and television programmes (Blue Peter especially campaigned for the alleviation of the children's plight), prompting the British public to respond with cash and lorry-loads of food and nappies.

It helped. It helped a great deal. So the revelation that there are now more children in Romanian orphanages than there were in 1989 may come as something of a shock.

There are 45,953 children in Romanian institutions today, compared to 43,854 ten years ago. Adding the children in special residential schools - where conditions are as bad as anywhere else - the total number of children in institutions in Romania is nearly 100,000, even though 20,000 children have left the orphanages since 1989. The number of children being abandoned to the Romanian leagane (for babies up to three years old) and orphanages did drop after the fall of communism, partly because of an initial surge in international adoptions.

It is true that in 1998 the Romanian orphanages - which actually house a minority of orphans and a great many abandoned children - are in much better shape than the charnel houses of Ceausescu, thanks in part to the efforts of non-governmental organisations and charities across Europe as well as international organisations such as Unicef.

However, these are still places where rickets is common; where babies bang their heads against their cot bars, howling out of hunger; and where disabled children of five or six commonly look like undernourished two year olds.

The orphanages depend on the primary and emergency aid which still comes from the British, the French, the Dutch and the Swedes.

Romania is, however, building legal and social structures to protect its children. It has signed up to the International Declaration on the Rights of the Child. There will be no new orphanages - setting them up has now been made illegal. There is a new government department for child protection, and there is a great willingness to collaborate with non-governmental organisations from other countries.

One of these is the European Children's Trust. The trust, which began life as the Romanian Orphanage Trust and poured in emergency aid to the orphanages, is now partnering Romanian local authorities in 13 counties to set up foster care and a broad range of other community-based child and family support services. Its work illustrates the move away from institutions to support for all types of families, from birth families to adoptive families and foster homes. But because Romania has no fostering tradition, it is looking abroad for know-how. The Trust, in partnership with the department for child protection, is funding a programme to help young mothers, to build some small group homes for disabled children, and to recruit foster mothers to take children out of the institutions.

At the European Children's Trust, Helen Jacey believes that the non-governmental organisations' attempts to forge new social policy partnerships and promote an exchange of ideas and practice with Romanians points to a truly "third way" in aid. Only through the establishment of new support systems - such as foster families - can the west help to alleviate the plight of Romanian children and bolster the social structures that are essential to long-term stability - as well as stem the refugee flow that so worries the Daily Mail.