A fresh start for Europe’s lost children

By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

November 2002

Imagine you are a young child and have spent your whole life in a cot. One cot among rows of cots containing rows of other children. Lying there numb day in day out, your mind and muscles wasted, together but alone.

In state institutions in countries such as Albania, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine, this is life for thousands of children, many of whom are treated as having irrecoverable physical and mental conditions. In many cases, however, this is a paralysis of the heart and soul, and not of the body or mind.

Georgette Mulheir manages all activity in Romania for the British Charity Hope and Homes for Children, which works throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans region to transform the lives of institutionalised children. Georgette was recently introduced to ten children aged between 5 and 14 years old from the Camin Spital orphanage in Sighet, who were not only assumed to be paralysed but were so disturbed that they were repetitively punching and kicking themselves. After just months of rehabilitation from a Hope and Homes therapist, three of the children are now crawling, seven are walking and all of them are enjoying time outside of their cots interacting with other children.

Georgette Mulheir says of the youngsters: “These children have learned that the universe no longer ends with the bars of their cots. They have learned how to smile, how to communicate, they’ve learned how to trust the adults that care for them. Their lives have meaning now, and hope for a brighter future is not only a possibility, but a certainty.”

The seemingly miraculous transformation in these children is the result of one thing – the introduction into their lives of loving human contact and regular stimulation. Hope and Homes for Children believes that enjoying a loving family life is as fundamental a need for children as food, shelter and safety and is committed to providing this for every child in Romania’s institutions.

Although known as orphanages, most of the children who inhabit these institutions are not orphans but have living parents. Hundreds of orphanages were constructed as a result of Romania’s former President Nicolae Ceausescu, who declared all forms of contraception and abortion illegal and instructed all women under the age of 45 to have at least five children. The inability of parents to care for their children meant that by 1990 over 100,000 children were living in these institutions – in horrific conditions.

In Romania, the Salisbury-based charity currently focuses its work in Maramures in the North of the country, where it has begun a two year closure programme for three large institutions in conjunction with local authorities, the European Union and the EU’s PHARE “Children First” programme. This involves arranging family reintegration and providing foster families and small family homes for more than 600 children. In addition, Hope and Homes for Children provides day care services so that children with special needs can receive education and therapy and their families can receive the support they need.

Special Attention for Special Children

Over 250 children live in the Camin Spital institution, all of them diagnosed as having special needs. The sad fact is that many of the children have only developed special needs as a result of living in such nightmarish conditions which cause severely delayed development and poor physical and mental health. Hope and Homes child-care staff alongside the project therapeutic team and members of staff in the Camin Spital are now evaluating and monitoring the needs of every child. Mobile teams of child therapists, physiotherapists and social workers can then ensure that the children receive all the therapeutic care and education they need.

As a result of these efforts, there is great hope for these lost children. The first group of young people, aged between 15 and 20 years old, moved out of Camin Spital in December last year and are thriving in their new environment. They are now happy to invite friends and visitors into their home, they have dancing lessons, they volunteer at the local Zoo and they even do their own shopping. Every single day, they learn something new and grow more and more confident in themselves.

Fortunately, the battle is not being fought by charities and the good will of the public alone, the Government in Romania has committed to reform its childcare policies as part of its accession to the European Union. Georgette Mulheir has joined Baroness Emma Nicholson, Special Rapporteur for Romania from the European Parliament on a high level working group with responsibility for reforming Romania’s childcare system. Georgette is drawing up a plan which will see the closure of every one of Romania’s orphanages by 2010. Every child will then be free to experience the joys and intimacy of family life as they become part of an adoptive or foster family or, in the case of special needs children, will live in small family homes with trained staff.

Prevention and Cure

As well as its work in changing the face of Romanian childcare at a policy level and finding homes for children in the institutions, Hope and Homes for Children is actively involved in preventative measures to stop the abandonment of more children.

Surveys at a national level indicate that a vast majority of abandonments are caused by poverty. Social workers therefore visit families who are at risk of abandoning their children and give them advice on education and health issues, contributions toward household bills, food and medicine and assistance with finding employment. Last year just £7,000 helped to prevent 50 children being given up to institutions.

Sadly, abandonment of babies at birth is seen as the only option for many young single mothers who face being ostracised by their families if they wish to keep their child. A recently opened mother and baby unit allows vulnerable mothers to bond with their new born babies during those vital first few months until they feel ready to work with their families on reconciliation or Hope and Homes for Children will help them find alternative ways of supporting themselves.

In this way, perfectly willing and loving mothers are able to remain with the children they cherish. Every single success story of this kind means one less child abandoned into a life of monotony, desolation, isolation and loss.

The task facing Hope and Homes for Children, the Eastern European governments and the many other organisations committed to addressing the country’s childcare problems is huge and no one would deny that. But according to Hope and Homes for Children founder, Mark Cook, it is not overwhelming. When asked how on earth he could help the world’s most desperate children and make a dent in such a huge problem, Mark simply replied “The question you should be asking me is not how can we do this, but how can we NOT do this”.

Liberty & Humanity

Related article:

Child trafficking and intercountry adoption in Romania’s post-communist years.

Book Review: Romania For Export Only, The untold story of the Romanian “orphans” by Roelie Post.