After the fall of communism in the 1990s, the world saw horrific images of abused children living in deplorable conditions in state-run Roumanian orphanages. Those images and stories led to an international uproar and an outpouring of humanitarian aid to the country. Fifty years ago, declining birth rates prompted the government to outlaw abortion and contraception. Birth rates soon doubled, and many Romanian families – especially the nearly quarter who live in poverty – could not care for their children. Having a (mentally) handicapped child was/is a dishonor. The children are abandoned. Their parents never visit them.
After the first furor about the abandoned children died down, most people assumed the situation had gotten better. So did I.
I was thankful to be allowed to visit the center for mentally disabled ‘adults’ in Râmnicu Sărat. Great improvements have been made. The number of children living in orphanages and institutions has dropped by more than 60 percent. What Roumania has done in 10 years is in many ways impressive. Children and adults with disabilities are no longer written off. Yet, the sick and disabled still often end up in institutions, abandoned by their parents.
I could see that the staff at Râmnicu Sărat was deeply involved, which causes some to feel desperate, others to invest in loving care. One nurse openly told me she worked at the center by lack of any alternative – it is hard to find a job in the region – and that she hardly coped. The big problem is: there are so few of them and so many ‘patients’ demanding a lot of attention.
Some of these children had lived in such isolation that it took months before they accepted human contact.
But all things considered: this is good news. Things have changed for the better.