Doina was sitting on a round iron bucket as usual, her marked bare skin rammed firmly into its circle. Her hands were tied tightly behind her back and the bucket made untying her, even to go to the toilet, unnecessary. As we walked towards her, Doina stared defiantly, silently challenging us to come closer. Then she laughed, loudly and hysterically, her intelligent, gleaming eyes seemingly misplaced in her scarred, unclean face. We moved forward and sat on the bed beside her bucket. She stopped laughing. Her eyes were dull now, even a little scared, and very sad.
We talked to her inanely, as though she were a baby. In fact she was a woman of 28. But Doina stayed quiet, as anticipated. We had been warned not to approach her, told that she didn’t talk and that she was kept in this degrading, inhuman position because she was violent to herself and to others. There were rumours that she was a government minister’s daughter. Some staff recalled that she had been a pretty and vivacious little girl when she arrived at the hospital more than 20 years earlier. No one had visited her in those 20 years, though, and as she had settled down to the realities of life in this children’s psychiatric hospital, miles away from her Bucharest home and family, she became first withdrawn and then violent.
I stretched out my hands to untie her ropes. She seemed fairly passive now. But as the knot broke, Doina spat in my face, lifted her stooped frame from the bucket with incredible speed and wrestled me to the floor with brute strength much greater than my own. She had regained the upper hand. Helped up by my co-worker, Malcolm, I sat on the bed again and carried on talking.
That was seven-and-a-half years ago, in the days when Romanian “orphanages” still had a regular place in our press and on our television screens. I was volunteering for a charity, the Jacob’s Well Appeal, in a huge grey fortress of a hospital, packed with “orphans” or “patients” aged from three to 28. In room 16, Doina was the hospital’s “old lady”.
When I called the press attache at the Romanian embassy in London last week to ask for information about current legislation, he was clearly annoyed that I was writing this article. Hospitals and orphanages, he said stiffly, are old news, “a trite metaphor with no substance in it”. His irritation was understandable. Ceausescu’s forgotten children made very poignant pictures in the late eighties and early nineties, images no country would want sustained . . . and a PR man’s nightmare.
But “old” news? It certainly is for some. Take Radu, who died in the hospital in his early twenties, having lived several years of his life flat on his back, unable to move, in a room full of disturbed teenage boys. Radu was unusual because he remained completely sane and lucid until his death in October 1992. He died of multiple sclerosis; died alone, in a psychiatric hospital, of a physical illness.
Or there was Marcel, the little boy who was killed in the same week that Radu died. Children were passed through a tin bath of water once a week, and Marcel was taken first on this occasion. Imagine a sheep dip. But the water was too hot, boiling hot in fact, and Marcel died, killed by his third-degree burns. Old news? It wasn’t even news at the time. It was just another tragedy.
However, the press attache is right to say that things have moved on a great deal in Romania. The government now has a Department for Child Protection headed by the secretary of state, Christian Tabacaru. It is described by Trevor Williams of the European Children’s Trust (ECT) as being “extremely progressive”. As a result of this department’s work, there are now dedicated social service teams throughout Romania. The government has been promoting family life as the preferred way for children to grow up, and orphanages are definitely out of fashion. Legal reforms have helped to set a programme of de-institutionalisation in motion, enabling local authorities to reallocate resources. This allows them to focus on finding Romanian families for children in institutional care and, wherever possible, reintegrating “orphans” with their biological families.
Trevor Williams reports that in the regions in which the ECT operates, the number of young children in institutional care is diminishing rapidly. But as he is also keen to point out: “This is the tip of an extremely positive iceberg. The country is taking the problem seriously, in both strategic and local terms, but it is still a very real problem.”
And the forgotten girls of room 16, Doina’s cohabitants, are proving more of a problem than most. Illness, eccentricity, age and institutionalisation make them an unwelcome prospect for most families. Incidents such as the time I saw one of them, a ten year old, swinging a dead mouse above her head by the tail, while several others stood around chanting and clapping, strike fear into many hearts. The girls are among the most vulnerable in Romania and, for that reason, the most difficult to place.
Most of the girls in room 16 arrived at the hospital with a variety of health problems, including epilepsy and autism. A lack of drugs, most notably those that control epilepsy, made matters worse. However, there were many more children who were brought to the hospital as “orphans” (often by their parents) with little or nothing wrong with their mental health. Some of these children were among those the press introduced to dismayed audiences around the world. They were left in cots and neglected for long periods of time. As a result, their walking, talking, emotional and social interaction skills were grossly impaired. Regular head shaving, with a communal razor, also left them open to the risk of infection with HIV, hepatitis and other illnesses.
Petru was one of these children. He was brought to the hospital because he was born with beautiful brown eyes which were large, but slightly slanted. His father accused his mother of sleeping with an oriental man and told her to dispose of the boy. Petru was not diagnosed with any mental illness, but at eight years old he could barely walk or talk and he clung to volunteers and carers like a frightened koala bear. Behavioural difficulties became evident shortly after his arrival at the hospital.
I could quote many more examples, but there is little point in raking over a past which is painful for the Romanians and for all those who have witnessed the tragedy, either first hand or through the media. Dorothy Walker of the Jacob’s Well Appeal agrees that things really are getting better now. The girls of room 16 have a teacher these days, who has designed a special education programme. She also reports that voluntary activities are being run on the ground by a Romanian man, Liviu. Jacob’s Well sees its new role as supporting those Romanians who are taking the initiative and beginning to care for their own. British volunteers are dwindling in number and are increasingly taking a back seat, which is exactly as it should be.
However, Walker also reports that there are as many new cases coming into the hospital as ever before, many of whom do not suffer from any mental illness. These are often gypsy children whose families suffer from the racism which still blights the relationship between white Romanians and the gypsy population. Others come from peasant families where parents do not always feel they can afford to keep their children. Inflation has soared in recent years and poverty is widespread. Romania may be placing some children with families but, in its current political and economic climate, it is still creating orphans – the Doinas of the 21st century.
For as long as people are too poor even to keep their own children this problem will remain unresolved. I know from the letters I receive that things are not getting better for country people living on smallholdings. Poverty is crippling them and the economic climate is worse than ever before. One friend, who works as a carer in a hospital, wrote to me recently in a terrible state. She said that her husband had suffered a brain haemorrhage and was in hospital in Suceava, miles away from their village. She does not have a car and cannot afford the bus fare to go and see him on a regular basis. Her husband cannot come home until she finds the cash to buy a wheelchair.
And then she has to think about the medical bills. A family of five who sleep, eat, wash, work and play in a tiny two-roomed cottage simply cannot afford these. The economics of illness can completely destroy families. With poverty like this, it is understandable, to a degree, why the perception that children will be better off in orphanages still exists. Foreign agencies provide aid to the orphanages, and the children will at least be fed and clothed. Desperate parents speculate that this is more than they can do. The message is clear that families need support if they are to keep their children and help to bring about the demise of Romania’s orphanages. Fortunately the Romanian government is now seriously focusing on this issue, a development which must rank as one of the most positive of the past decade.
Adults brought up under Ceausescu, before the revolution and before the international outcry, felt nothing but apathy or contempt for these children. They learnt to call them “animals” almost as soon as they could speak. Attitudes formed in childhood, by an entire nation, will take a long time to change. I fear that those children who were forgotten years before the revolution are now too old and too institutionalised to be saved by democracy and the new reforms at the Department of Child Protection.
The tenth anniversary of the end of Ceausescu’s dictatorship is coming up on 22 December this year. Romania has worked hard to regain its democratic feet since then, and is making admirable progress. But true social change, the reformation of hearts and minds, cannot keep pace with political developments. The Romanian government has taken many innovative and effective prevention steps, for which I applaud it. But for many of those young (and no longer young) people who are already caught up in the system I see no fast or obvious cure. Ceausescu’s children, sadly, are not yet old news.
The names of all children described above have been changed. If you would like to support the Jacob’s Well Appeal, its telephone number is 01482 881162. The European Children’s Trust can be contacted on 0171-248 2424