Destinies on paper: The fate of Romanian orphans

    “The saddest part is that we live in a country where children end up living on the streets, because of a system that instead of helping and making everything easy for parents, makes it as difficult as possible to adopt a child; sometimes almost impossible,” says Diana, a woman fighting for the adoption of a child.

    In the last 20 years, the number of children in orphanages in Romania has decreased by over 30.000, but there are still over 60.000 children in foster care in the country, and 500 centers that house a number that is above the limit of decency; put together in much too small, cold and rusty beds. Most of the problems and the extremely slow pace of adoption in Romania have their roots in the tangled laws of the country. In 1989 Romania was a poor country. A UNICEF Report from 1991 mentioned that 4% of Romania’s child population (142,000 to 200,000 children) were living in conditions below the limit of decency and normalcy, in almost 628 residential care institutions. The news was broadcasted around the world and made people interested in adopting and saving the children from behind the moldy walls. Consequently, between 1990 and 2001, a large number of children in orphanages were adopted by families in America, mostly Canadians.

    However, under EU pressure for more serious rules on adoption to prevent human trafficking, the Romanian state came up with a law banning adoption by foreign parents. Children were eligible only if one of the parents had Romanian citizenship, if they were grandparents or if they were foreign citizens, but they lived in Romania. Thus, instead of creating a safe path to a better life next to a family, Romania chose the easy way and cut off any chance of an adoption for Romanian children coming from abroad.

    Another problem comes from the fact that children in orphanages are abused by those who should protect them. Violence in Romania is considered a form of education, according to a study by Salvați copiii organization, which shows that about 63% of children say they are beaten by their parents, and 20% of parents in Romania strongly believe that beating their kids is a normal and effective way to educate them.

    However, these statistics cannot be applied in orphanages, where abuses are committed without witnesses to speak, behind closed doors. One of these abuses, possibly the most dangerous, is the sedation or drugging of children who do not respect the limits of a “good kid” applied by nurses. If the children are much too active, which is perfectly normal for this age, they are sedated, beaten or tied up. 

    If the Romanian state closes its eyes or pretends not to see what is happening, then the sedatives and drugs given to young people end up having a much darker purpose than calming the little ones: prostitution and child trafficking. According to the National Authority for the Protection of the Rights of the Child and Adoption (NAPCRA), “in the last five years at least 66 children from the more than 700 orphanages have been victims of sex trafficking”. In 2014, it was discovered that in cities throughout Vaslui County, there was a criminal network that forced minors in placement centers to prostitute themselves. Minors were sent to do so by the head of the center himself, and in order to cooperate and not oppose the abuse, the young women were drugged before being sent to clients.

    What happens at home?

    Lucica and Ioan are a couple who tried to have a baby for many years, and as they got older they realized that this was less and less plausible, so eventually they decided to adopt a child. Little did they know that the trial would take almost 4 years.

    “We just wanted a baby. My husband and I, we love kids, and although we were happy, we knew we weren’t complete. Without knowing what madness was awaiting for us, we began to do our research. We come from a small village and as far as I know, it is very likely that we are the only ones who have an adopted child, but it was worth it. Living here, you notice that people are very conservative. They don’t tell you straight in the face, but they are skeptical about it, that ‘you never know whose child you are bringing into your home’, as if they were talking about some wild creature. The child will follow the way he is raised by his parents and will respond to the world in the same way. I think that matters, not whose blood flows through his veins.”

    Lucica describes adoption in this country as a fight; one whose end you don’t know when it appears or if you can still find the strength to continue. “The fight – because it feels like a fight against the system – was tiring. Mentally tiring. Sometimes you feel like you can’t go on; that you don’t have patience anymore and you think that maybe it’s better to give up. There were so many moments when I thought we had everything complete, and we were back on track. Either we were missing something, or a document wasn’t right, or it just had nothing to do with us, it was a ‘system error’, and we were sent home to wait. So you wait. And no one calls you anymore. We didn’t set many conditions. We just wanted her to be a healthy girl. We didn’t want brown or blue eyes, blonde or brunette. We just wanted a baby.”

    Fortunately, their adoption story had a happy ending. “We have her,” says Lucica, smiling, looking at the blond-haired girl who is 10 years old now. With tears in her eyes, she continues: “I am happy with all my heart that we did not give up in all the moments when we felt like doing it. We are getting old, and to be with her for as long as possible is all we wish for.” When she was asked if she would like to say something to those who have lost hope in a system that pushes everything too slow or in the wrong direction, parents who may no longer have the patience to shout at all the doors, Lucica responded calmly and with a peace that only a mother can have in her eyes: “It is all worth it. It’s worth all the waiting in front of doors that don’t seem to open anymore, and all the swearing and tears of tiredness. You feel like you’re fighting and talking to the walls, and no one seems to really care, but it’s worth it. Let them gather all the patience they have in the evening, and use it in the morning, because if they want to save an angel, then they will find the strength to go all the way till the end. Believe me, as I’ve been there, it’s worth it all the moment you get to hug them.”

    Another couple who hit the wall of Romanian adoption indifference is Diana and Florin. They have a 4-year-old daughter together, Anastasia, but they have always wanted to adopt a child. “Even before we got married, he knew I wanted to adopt. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have my own children, but I already knew I wanted to adopt one,” Diana said amused. “When I was younger, I volunteered in a home for children with special needs and since then it has remained strongly imprinted in my mind that I want to take a child out of such a place. Or maybe two. I have never been the type of woman that is sure she wants to be a mother, or even feel the call for such a thing, as my mother did, but I strongly believe that adopting a child is a noble thing. You really take that life in your hands; a life which could be awful, and you bring it under your protection. You save a child. What could be nobler?”

    Diana then continued after a long pause, while looking at her little girl: “Sometimes I look at Anastasia and see how vulnerable she is, how much she needs us, how her whole life revolves around what we do. Then I remember the children at the center and how they sometimes clung to our clothes and did not want to let us go. I don’t know if it was out of fear or desire to hold on to any kind of parental love, nor do I know if I could bear the real answer to these questions. When you decide to have a child, you have the responsibility of his life in front of you. You choose to give birth to him, it is your duty to take care of everything he means. These children do not have this protection from behind. They learn to protect themselves, and it shouldn’t be like that at all. I see these little ones as boats drifting away from shore with each day they are alone. It’s so unfair…”

    Diana and Florin have been trying to adopt a child for over a year, but the process, as in the case of many other parents, is long and difficult. “We were expecting this. We were quite aware of how adoptions go in Romania, so we loaded ourselves with all the patience we found and started fighting. We didn’t ask for it to be a boy or a girl, healthy or with health problems, as long as we could give him a new life, or at least a new beginning. But his fate is in a computer program. So you wait. Is all you can do. This computer chooses which parents are eligible with which children, and human involvement in this process is done only in the case of documents or when the child was chosen. After he was chosen by the computer, more investigations are made for eligibility, and if two things do not fit, everything falls and you are again in the hands of the computer. And you wait again. It’s a dangerous carousel of feelings and it’s very tiring mentally.”

    The frustrations, love and struggle of both parents and children are things that cannot be understood by a computer, bureaucracy, nor the Romanian state. It is a continuous fight of two sides for the same purpose, but without a common ground or weapons. “What drives me crazy is the fact that everyone is aware of the situation of children in orphanages. Everyone is aware of the rusty metal beds that the little ones are tied to, the medications they receive to be easier to control and that it affects them mentally on the long run, the violence present there and the horrors they go through. If you, as a state, don’t feel like giving money and attention to solve these things, then make it easier for me to get them out of there! I fully understand why all the documents and tests are done, they have to be sure that it is safe for the kid, but I think that things can move faster if there is any trace of interest in doing good to them. Sometimes I feel like we are on our own. The saddest part is that we live in this country where children end up living on the streets, because of a system that instead of helping and making everything easy for parents, makes it as difficult as possible to adopt a child; sometimes almost impossible. I try to keep up to date with everything about children in orphanages. I donate everywhere I see organizations that help them”. Diana stopped, then continued after a long pause, laughing nervously: “I read as much as possible about all kinds of horrors that happen to the little ones and I feel like crying in frustration when I know that instead of doing everything possible to keep them safe, they send them on the streets, because money can be taken from children who belong to no one, right? Who can be held accountable? And who can help those who belong to no one?”

    While the Romanian state fails to change things at the right pace, or does not give enough importance to the people who will be part of the country’s future, people have taken things into their own hands, as happens most of the time. SERA is a non-governmental and non-profit organization founded in 1996. Its purpose is to organize activities to support children in orphanages, so that if they cannot have a family, then at least to feel something closer to the concept of family. They also develop methods of adaptation, both for children and families, to all that adoption means. SERA reached every county and managed to close more than 71 institutions that functioned in an outdated way, saving around 6,500 children who now get the attention and care they need. SERA also has a higher level of interest for children suffering from a disability, which would have been a problem in finding a family, a fact that is usually overlooked, ignored or even punished in most orphanages in Romania.

    Another foundation that helps children is Hope and homes for children. Their mission is to close all orphanages in Romania until 2027. Among the ambassadors, we can find Romanian public figures such as Amalia Enache and Marius Manole. If you want to help build a future made with our own hands, you can donate here.

    Maybe we’re not their parents. But that doesn’t mean they’re not our children.” – Hope and homes for children