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Inter-country adoptions: child welfare

By: Rupert Wolfe-Murray


Rupert Wolfe-Murray provides an overview of Romania’s child welfare system


Posted: December 2005

In his second article on Romania’s children in state care, Rupert Wolfe-Murray provides an overview of Romania’s child welfare system, and takes a closer look at how practces have changed. He also examines how many children are still in institutions, how many are with foster families, and what is being done about the abandonment of children in maternity hospitals. Read the first part here.

Edelweiss contest winning children during a holiday camp at Buzau.

Romanian intellectuals tend to dismiss the 1989 Revolution as a sham, a stage-managed coup d’etat that merely led to a new group of communists taking over. Just look at the lack of progress made in subsequent years, they say, and you can see that it wasn’t a real revolution. A real revolution would have led to real change and quicker economic improvement, and not corruption and poverty. I say this view is a lot of nonsense and is the result of a generation of communist history teachers who taught that revolution was a bright new beginning for a nation. In my understanding of history (revolutions are followed by chaos and war), the Romanian revolution was the real thing: a dictator was overthrown. Period.

I am seeing a similar reaction among Romanians about the reform of the child welfare system. They don’t believe it. They think it’s a sham, a PR lie, too good to be true. Romanian journalists are particularly cynical about the issue as the press continues to report on the abuse, trafficking, prostitution, murder and rape of children. How can the system have been reformed if this kind of thing is still going on?

On the other hand you have a well respected international NGO now in Belarus promoting the “Romanian model” of child welfare reform and de-institutionalisation; Baroness Nicholson stood up in the European Parliament last month and said “the reform of Romania’s child care system has been a triumph”; and an article appeared in the New York Times about the positive effect the reforms are having (describing a young single mother who was encouraged to keep her child, rather than send it to an institution.) What’s going on? Why these divergent views? What is the truth?

A good starting point in understanding this process is to begin with Baroness Emma Nicholson, as her view has gone from highly critical to very positive. In 1999 Nicholson was appointed by the European Parliament as the Rapporteur for Romania and, based on the fact that her own professional background was in child protection, she put child issues at the top of her agenda. She became very critical of the Romanian government for its policy on international adoptions, which she described as a corrupt open market in children. The first reaction of Nastase’s PSD regime to these charges was defensive; it went into denial and commissioned its own independent study. This was carried out by the IMAS polling agency and, according to the Baroness, “they found out things that made my own report pale into insignificance”. The government immediately slapped a moratorium on international adoptions in 2001, and Nicholson made several public warnings that if the childcare system was not reformed Romania would not be permitted to enter the EU.

Today the Baroness is one of the champions of the “Romanian model” of childcare reform and in the recent debate in the European Parliament on Romania and Bulgaria she said she would present the Romanian model to other nations of Central and Eastern Europe.

In order to understand the context of the reforms, we need to go back to 1989 when the Convention of the Rights of the Child was passed by the UN General Assembly. This document was the result of years of work by child protection experts from all over the world, and views from people in all continents were taken into account. The Convention was ratified by a total of 192 countries and has become the most ratified human rights treaty in history. Romania ratified the Convention in 1990 and the only countries that have not signed it are Somalia and the United States of America.

Once a country signs the Convention it is obliged to put into national legislation (as well as practice) a series of measures that are designed to both protect the child from abuse and keep families as the basic building block for child protection. A holistic approach is promoted and childcare institutions are considered a “placement solution” of last resort. All this imposes a considerable burden on signatory nations, as national legislation must be harmonised and adapted. Interestingly, it is the Latin American and African countries that have taken the lead in adapting their legal codes to the norms of the Convention, and most European countries have been lagging behind in this regard.

Although the reform process in Romania started in 1990, very little of note actually happened until 1997 when important legislation was passed. While the 1997 law on child protection has been discredited by the fact that it turned international adoptions into something of a free market, it did introduce some important changes. The most important of these were the decentralisation of social services to the county level, the proper establishment of the social work profession and the introduction of a strategy for a complete reform of the system.

The EU had been pumping money into the system during the 1990s, but its early support was more focused on the maintenance of the childcare institutions (in the early 1990s I remember that the EU representative used to pay the heating bills for most of Romania’s childcare institutions). Countless other bilateral and charitable initiatives were going on since 1990, but there was a lack of coherence and coordination. This all changed after 1998 when the reform strategy came into effect and the EU started working at the strategic, policy making level. The policy that emerged was based on a gradual process of de-institutionalisation and the setting up of alternative childcare services. The best known EU initiative which supported this process is the Children’s First project which will have closed 91 childcare institutions by the end of next year, when the project finishes. It has also set up scores of new services such as serviced apartments, mother and baby units, counselling centres and so on.

Many people assume that none of this would have happened without the EU, as well as the other donors such as USAID, investing so much money into the system. Baroness Nicholson is also credited as the one who facilitated the changes, following her tongue lashing of the Romanians in the European Parliament. But this is a misreading of the situation. You cannot reform a social structure with cash alone; without political will nothing will change (although the money will no doubt be spent). And despite all their faults, their problems, their disagreements, successive Romanian governments have managed to keep this issue alive as a real political priority.

The Nastase/PSD government, for example, which is remembered with disdain by many Romanians, pushed hard on the child protection issue and brought the process to its climax last year with the passing of law 272/2004 on the Protection and Promotion of Child Rights (a law which came into effect on 1st January 2005). The current government has inherited a much reformed child protection system and has continued the process with no sense of partisanship or political infighting.

What is the essence of these reforms? One of the fundamental aspects is that the child is no longer the responsibility of the state as stated in a communist law of the 1950s but of the family. This may seem trite but it is an essential change to the system, as now young mothers who are considering abandoning their child are actively encouraged not to do so (previously, when the network of institutions needed to fill their beds, mothers were given the option of giving their child to an institution). An estimated 24,000 young women were given counseling in order to prevent abandoning their babies last year.

The other major reform that has come into play is that it is no longer legal to place a child under the age of two in a child care institution a child must be placed with a substitute family if seperated from its natural parents (left in a maternity hospital). In practice, this means that social workers must speak to the child’s extended family in the hope of placing it there, or to a local foster family (of which there are now a growing number). A quick glance at the statistics on this issue will show that almost half of those 4,600 children considered abandoned in Romanian hospitals last year were returned to their own parents (thanks to the heroic efforts of Romania’s overwhelmed social workers). This particular aspect of the law has cut the supply of young children into the residential child care system in Romania, and this is a vital part of the solution.

Much of the new law is about children’s rights of which a summary can be seen in the adjacent panel and these cover issues like the right to an identity, opinion, education and so on. The basis of this is that any decision made on behalf of a child must be “in the best interest of that child”. A recent example of how child rights can work in practice was seen in November this year during the (seemingly endless) teachers strike. The Secretary of State for Child Rights, Bogdan Panait, said the strike was an abuse of the children’s right to education. This gives a new and interesting perspective to a teachers strike.

The most dramatic aspect of the reform of the child welfare system is the process of getting the kids out of those large and horrendous institutions. This process has been going on for years now, and today the results look impressive. Ten years ago there were over 100,000 children in child care institutions. Today there are just over 32,000 and 77 per cent are teenagers, in other words they are much harder to place with families than young children (years of institutionalisation leads to behavioural disorders and integration into family life becomes very difficult).

Today there are 82,000 children in the care of the state and, as mentioned above, 32,000 of these are still in institutions. The remaining 50,000 are in the care of “substitute families” extended families (relatives) and foster families. Ten years ago there were no foster families in Romania and today there are almost 18,000; each taking care of at least one child, and each getting paid a decent salary by the local authority.

What is particularly interesting to outside observers is that Romania is the first country in Central and Eastern Europe which has managed to de-institutionalise those legions of children who were locked up in the grim “orphanages” of 1990s notoriety; it has also managed to stop the flow of babies into the system. Few Romanians realise that Romania is a pioneer in this regard, and that none of the former Soviet countries in particular have been able to address their problems with institutionalised children. Recent newspaper articles from Russia claim that over 600,000 children are living in grim institutions there, with millions living on the streets, and one gets the impression that there is no solution in sight.

Having reformed the system, closed down the institutions, set up family-based alternatives, can we now declare success and all go home satisfied? Of course not. It would be ridiculous to say that all the problems regarding children in Romania have been resolved: the statistics and stories of child trafficking, child labour and abuse are deeply disturbing. But we can say that Romania has managed to get the kids out of those grim institutions and stop new generations from having to grow up within them.

This does not mean that Romania has necessarily been able to deal effectively with all the problems facing children in difficulty. What about the spread of drugs? Child prostitution? Children left behind by parents going to work in Western Europe? Access to education for Roma children? What about those children who were sent home as part of the de-institutionalisation process who can’t stand “home” and would rather be back in the institution? What about disabled children? These are all difficult issues that have not been effectively dealt with yet, but one very important factor is that the Romanian government has faced up to these issues and that is the first step towards finding a solution and is a difficult step to take for a country that has been used to denying problems of this nature.

Rupert Wolfe Murray is an independent consultant working on child rights, public communications and regional development issues.


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