Full of abandoned children, the ‘state homes’ passed from communism to democracy, but the transition saw no change in institutionalisation practices. For a long time after 1989, the child protection system was still operating like a concentration camp. Its ruins were used as the foundations for the present day system. With The Decree Chronicles, our mission is to understand this legacy. | Photo: Mike Abrahams

“In the village, they called me the one from the hospital,” says Z.I., a teenager institutionalized in a hospital-home in Romania, during an interview conducted twenty years ago. 

His testimony, as well as those of other young people who were heavily traumatized by the child protection system inherited from communism, are recorded in a 2002 study, ‘Child Abuse in Social Protection Institutions in Romania’, conducted by the Institute for the Protection of Mother and Child (IOMC).

Z.I.’s life, briefly recorded in several papers included in his medical record, began with him being abandoned in the special ward of a hospital for children suffering malnutrition, (known as Dystrophic Ward), of in the summer of 1983, and continued with a series of random transfers to various “child protection” institutions belonging to the communist state. 

In the 1980s, the President of Romania Nicolae Ceausescu claimed Romania was living through a ‘Golden Age’, but this was – also the era of Decree 770, which had banned on-demand abortions since 1966. Against the background of the Decree, a new system of child protection developed. But the protection was just a façade. The system needed the abandoned children to be alive at birth to fulfill a quota. Afterwards, their life mattered to no one.

From the hospital, Z.I. was moved to an orphanage on 22 November 1983. He was less than five months old.

All that remained of the first three years of his life in that orphanage is medical information: the vaccines he received, a measurement of his body size, the childhood diseases he suffered from. No one recorded anything about his relationship with his parents or the child’s behaviour. There isn’t one line about the psychological development of this child under the care of Ceausescu’s Romania.

Z.I. was just a body that had to be kept alive in order to tick the birth indicators desired by the regime. More than 100,000 minors housed in appalling conditions in the orphanages, homes and hospitals of the state found themselves in this situation in 1989.

At the dawn of democracy, Romania didn’t know what to do with them, so it continued to hold them captive in the same penitentiary-style system.

Boost in Birth Rate,
Decline in Rights

 Boost in Birth Rate, Decline in Rights

In the context of new anti-abortion law, the birth rate in Romania doubled in 1967. But this statistic had a downside.

Forced to give birth to children they did not want or could not support, thousands of mothers abandoned them in maternity wards or hospitals. From there, they ended up in orphanages that housed children up to three years old.

At the time, the existing infrastructure could not cope with thousands of abandoned babies, so it had to be expanded. The baby boom of 1967 led the state to rethink the entire system of child “protection” in Romania, researcher Luciana Jinga writes in the book “The Pronatalist Policy of the Ceausescu Regime”.

For example, in 1967 there were 33 orphanages in the country, with a capacity of 4,451 beds, covering only 50% of what was needed at that time.

Law 3 of 1970 reorganized the entire child protection system. 

Bogdan Simion, President of the Federation of Non-Governmental Organizations for Children (FONPC) sums up the attitude of the authorities to mothers during that period: “If you can’t raise your child, leave it in the care of the state, with no sanctions. We’ll look after it.”

The law provided for the operation of several types of “protection” institutions, depending on the age of the child, as well as on the disabilities they displayed, which were called “deficiencies”.

The system was divided in three, explains Bogdan Simion.

The Ministry of Health took care of the orphanages for children aged zero to three. “The staff was strictly medical,” says Simion “Emotional stimulation was out of the question. The orphanage Sf. Maria from Iasi had 500 beds.”

From orphanages, abandoned children were transferred to preschool houses (three to seven years old) and from there to the girls’ or boys’ schoolhouses, where they stayed until they were 18 years old. These belonged to the Ministry of Education.

There were also special kindergartens for children with mild and medium disabilities. After kindergarten, they went to schools for children with special needs. If they had neuropsychiatric problems, after the age of three, they would go from orphanages to pediatric neuropsychiatric wards until they were nine years old. After that, those with severe disabilities were sent to hospital-homes (cămine-spital). These institutions were managed by the Ministry of Labour.

The 1970 law also introduced the term “irrecuperable” for children who, according to communist authorities, could no longer be integrated into society. In the decades that followed, both in communism and in the democracy after the Revolution in 1989, this term became synonymous with a slow death sentence. Nobody knows if the victims from the last half of the century are in the thousands or the tens of thousands, because Romania has never been able to count them.

Deadly Winters

Deadly Winters

In hospital-homes, the mortality rate was huge. For example, at the home in Cighid, Bihor County, where an average of 100 children were kept, in 1988 there were 54 deaths and in 1989 there were 52 deaths, according to data collected by researcher Luciana Jinga.

“Among the causes: pneumonia with fatal consequences. According to Cighid staff, cases of children freezing to death were also put under this diagnosis. There was no heating at Cighid. As a result, children simply freeze to death.”

Cold was a major problem in many of these child welfare institutions.

“Numerous verification notes (from the Ministry of Health) mention that the temperatures were totally unsuitable for children,” writes Jinga.

 “At the home in Oinacu, Giurgiu County, in March, the temperature inside the building was ten degrees Celsius, lower than outside.

In the orphanage in Suceava, the thermometers did not show more than eight degrees.

The negative record was at the orphanage in Botoșani, in the winter of 1988, namely six degrees.”

Sent to a Hospital Home

Sent to a Hospital Home

In 1986, at the age of three, Z.I. was transferred from the orphanage to a hospital-home, an institution for children with severe disabilities, who were considered “irrecuperably deficient”.

According to the institutional path created by the communist state for children under its protection, Z.I. shouldn’t have been sent there, as he only had a slight disability. In the language of that time, he was “recuperable”, so he should have been placed in another type of institution.

There were even two recommendations from psychiatrists, made ten years apart, in 1986 and 1996, for the boy to be transferred to a kindergarten for children with special needs, then to a special vocational school, “care” institutions where children received a minimal education.

Both recommendations were ignored. Z.I. remained in the hospital-home, a kind of institutional dead end in the protection system. There, the children were just disposable bodies.

The “irrecuperable deficient” were left to die.

Hospital-home from Grădinari where, in February 1990, five nurses and a cook were taking care of 96 children and 25 adults. | Photo: Mike Abrahams

But even in other institutions in the child protection system, the abandoned children did not necessarily end up living. The protection facilities that housed them went from communism to democracy without any change in institutional practices. Long after 1989, the system continued to function as a death camp. And the current child protection framework has been built on its ruins.

The Decree Chronicles has set out to understand this founding heritage. Before anything else, in order to get answers, we need to go back in time to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania.

Medical Solutions for Social Problems

Medical Solutions for Social Problems

With the new demographic policy inaugurated by the Decree, the Romanian state became obsessed with statistics: increasing the birth rate and decreasing the infant mortality rate were the magic formulas of the communist heaven.

“Children born under the normal weight were not released into parental care. Doctors feared an increase in infant mortality, and the ideology was that the state would raise them anyway,” says researcher Mariela Neagu, author of the book Voices from the Silent Cradles’, built on the testimonies of 40 young people from Romania’s child protection system. 

Pediatricians, along with municipal People’s Councils officials, came to play a key role in placing children in institutions, sometimes against the will of their parents.

“Doctors were punished if a child they cared for died outside the hospital. As a result, there was a tendency to send a child to a hospital or an institution even when it wasn’t appropriate.”

, says a 1991 IOMC study on the causes of institutionalization in orphanages and dystrophic wards in Romania.

This medical model survived in the ’90s. “Doctors are no longer prosecuted for the death of an infant they are caring for, but they still have considerable power in making decisions about the need for institutionalization. There is a tendency to look for medical solutions to social problems because there are no alternatives,” says the same study.

Forgotten in Hospitals

Forgotten in Hospitals

In February 1988, the new-born ward at Colțea Hospital in Bucharest could no longer cope with the high number of hospitalizations. The reason was not a spectacular increase in the number of births, but “the large number of children abandoned by their parents (cazuri sociale) not transferred to orphanages,” writes Luciana Jinga.

Those were children abandoned in maternity wards, who remained in hospitals for months, sometimes years, although they did not have a medical problem.

The austerity policy of the 1980s meant, among other things, a drastic reduction in investment in the child protection system. The “protection” institutions thus became overcrowded.

The prolonged hospital stays of abandoned children, some without any medical problems, continued in the early 90s. “For example, Ploiești Maternity Hospital had about 56 beds where children were kept immediately after birth. In ‘92 -’93, out of 56 beds, 50 were occupied by abandoned children. And these children stayed in the maternity ward for a very long time,” says Bogdan Simion.

A maternity in Bucharest, February 1990 | Photo: Mike Abrahams

Children abandoned in hospitals or maternity wards who were not transferred to orphanages or homes became the category most prone to illness, contracting various infections “due to a prolonged hospital stay.” At the same time, they became sources of infection for other patients, especially for newborns, writes Jinga.

“Ceausescu, based on an old health organizational model, invented the dystrophy wards,” adds Simion. “They were for new-borns weighing less than 2,500 to 3,000 grams at birth. They were fed a special type of milk to reach normal weight. In the ‘90s, I saw children kept there just because there were no beds available in orphanages.”

“They Are Not Held When Fed”

“They Are Not Held When Fed”

Both the orphanages and the dystrophic wards where babies and young children were kept were organized “like hospital wards, with rows of beds laid in a large room,” according to the study from ’91 on the causes of institutionalization. 

“Children are left alone for a long time and are rarely taken out of the cots. The walls are white, the beds are white, and the staff is dressed in white. Babies are swaddled and therefore cannot move freely. Children are not usually given toys or other household items for fear of exposure to infections,” the document notes. 

“It is not surprising that many children react to the lack of sensory stimulation by engaging in self-stimulation (such as rocking, crib jumping and shaking their head). They are not held when fed. They are given a bottle of powdered milk with a large nipple. Those who can hold their bottle do so, the others are propped up by a pillow (or blanket) in the crib. The crying children are not held and soothed,” the same study also shows.

There was insufficient staff in these child protection institutions.

“A friend who grew up in the system told me that the staff’s concern was only that they [the children] be clean, fed and obedient, and they achieved this by any means,” says Mariela Neagu.

One method of control was through older children who would beat up the younger ones, take their food, and abuse them emotionally or sexually. Andi, one of the young people interviewed by Neagu, recounted how “the educators gave two or three cigarettes to the older ones, so that they [the big boys] would keep us [the younger ones] quiet, and they [the staff] wouldn’t have to worry”.

A Huge, but Invisible, World

A Huge, but Invisible, World

Although hospitalized in the early 1990s in a hospital-home, Z.I. was among those who managed to survive. However, he did not have access to any form of education, cognitive stimulation or any kind of emotional connection.

He learned to cut hair from a nurse. In the early 2000s, he hoped to buy a cassette player and a barber’s chair, and he was content that for the past two years he had been allowed to own personal items. 

The testimonies from Mariela Neagu’s book showed that many institutionalized children did not have any personal belongings, not even in the ’90s. “The children had clothes and toys, but no item was personal property.”

About the living conditions of the tens of thousands of children who entered the “protection” institutions of the state after the implementation of Decree 770, nothing was known for several decades.

The protection system was an invisible world to most of the population, though a huge world. In 1991, there were about 700 children’s institutions, including 112 institutions for children aged zero to three years: orphanages and dystrophic departments, stated the 1991 study on the causes of institutionalization.

In 1989, there were 125,000 children abandoned in various “protection” institutions, writes Luciana Jinga. In April 1993, there were 158,078 institutionalized children, says researcher Gail Kligman in the volume “Duplicity Policy”.

Hospital-home, Grădinari, February 1990 | Photo: Mike Abrahams

In the foreign press reports from 1990 that first put the spotlight on this opaque universe in Romania, the institutions were presented as places for orphans. In reality, the vast majority of children were not orphans, as their parents were still alive. But presenting them as orphans was a useful narrative for the adoption market, explains researcher Mariela Neagu.

Neagu worked at the Delegation of the European Commission in Romania between 1997 and 2006 and was in charge of coordinating EU funds for reforms in the child protection sector. Between 2007 and 2009, she was the head of the National Authority for Child Protection and Adoption.

Officially, only 4.2% of the children in orphanages were considered “abandoned” in 1988. This included children left in hospitals or entrusted to institutions that their parents took no interest in anymore. But the vast majority of children ended up in institutions for the socio-economic situation of their parents”.

“Having too many children, a child born out of wedlock, or a disabled child seem to be serious reasons for institutionalization. Few children are truly abandoned, although many more are labeled that way,” says the 1991 study on the causes of institutionalization in orphanages and dystrophic wards.

The Beginning of the Reforms

The Beginning of the Reforms

Starting in 1990, more foreigners started coming to Romania to adopt children. They often came in groups and went through orphanages and maternity wards to see the children, writes Gail Kligman. Many, if not most of the adopted children, were obtained through private networks.

Foreigners would rather resort to these networks than go through the official bureaucratic process. These networks included lawyers, doctors, translators, judges, staff from hospitals and centers and even consular employees, writes Kligman.

Mariela Neagu believes that the existence of this “children’s market” was one of the main reasons why the reform of the child protection system began so late after the Revolution.

The main concern of the employees was not “what happens to children in orphanages, but how to bring in more children, put them in the system, and give them up for adoption. The mentality was: “they’ll end up in America and they’ll be fine“.

In March 1997, the program for the reform of the child protection system began. The fundamental principle underlying it was decentralization.

Child protection directorates appeared at county level and took over from the Ministries of Health and Education all the orphanages and children’s homes with all the material and professional resources, explains Bogdan Simion. 

But the process of closing these mammoth institutions was met with resistance from the employees.

Simion tells a story of  the closure of the orphanage in Pucioasa, Dâmbovița County. “There were 78 children and about 70 staff members. The County Council made an offer to those who worked there to become foster carers, attend classes, become accredited and take children from the orphanage. Only three or four accepted the offer. The rest said they had never heard of such a thing. It was unthinkable to close an orphanage.”

The Collapse

The Collapse

Some of the young people interviewed by Mariela Neagu said that the transfer of responsibility from central to local levels led to major supply problems.

“The situation was a disaster, at least in our home. The public procurement procedures were rigged, there was not enough food, there were not enough clothes and many children had to work on the black market for food. At one point, the women in the kitchen brought food from their own homes”

, says Ciprian, a 28-year-old man raised in the child protection system, in an interview in the book.

In 1999, the reform attempted by the Romanian state led to the financial collapse of the recently decentralized system. There was a lack of food, insufficient staff, and international adoption was favoured over other protection measures.

That same year, writes Neagu, the European Council conditioned the opening of negotiations for Romania’s accession to the EU by the financial commitment of the Romanian authorities to the child protection system: to cover basic costs and undertake structural reforms in this sector.

But reforms are still delayed.

The Bat of the Foster Parents

The Bat of the Foster Parents

C.A., a 13-year-old girl housed in a family-type placement centre (created as part of the deinstitutionalization process), said she did not like it there because employees at the centre, called “părinți sociali,” (foster parents) beat the children for any reason “with a bat that they keep hidden behind a kitchen cabinet”.

The girl’s story appears in the research “Child Abuse in Social Protection Institutions in Romania”, published in 2002.

– What’s the reason they beat you?
– Because we don’t do the job they want, the way they want it, and for as long as they want. We don’t have any free time. When they see us standing, they start shouting at the top of their lungs.

When asked about other things she disliked about the centre, C.A. said she didn’t like that the foster parents’ boy was sleeping in the same room as her. “He tried to rape my friend, but he didn’t succeed. The parents beat their child, but didn’t take any action regarding the sleeping arrangements, so he is still sleeping in our room. Everyone in management knows this, including the Director. I don’t feel at ease, not even in my room. I have to be careful when I get dressed because he could burst into the room,” said the little girl. 

Two decades have passed and the testimonies of Z.I. and C.A. remain enclosed between the covers of the 2002 IOMC study. We don’t know what happened to them after they left the child protection system. But we do know what happened to Ciprian Bălan, who lived in a hospital home in Galati County.

The building of the former protection institution is in ruins today. Only the registers with daily reports, left behind in the drawers of the ghost building, remind of the irrecuperable people who once lived and died there. But Ciprian survived.

In the next episode of the Decree Chronicles, we will go to this hospital-home.

About the authors