Romania - A new law here on the "protection and promotion of
the rights of the child" has done little to protect Vasile,
a 7-year-old who has lived his whole life in an orphanage in
than two years ago, Becky Hubbell, a pharmaceutical executive
from Overland Park, Kan., submitted the required papers to adopt
the wide-eyed, dark-haired boy, whom she and her husband had
met during medical missions here.
before that process was completed, the government passed its
new child welfare law, which essentially forbids international
adoptions. The measure has left hundreds of families without
children they had counted as theirs. More important, critics
say, the sweeping law leaves thousands of abandoned Romanian
children stranded indefinitely in institutions or foster care.
have a child in your heart and you've made all the arrangements,
and it's clear that child wants a family, too," Ms. Hubbell
said. "But for Vasile, time is passing without the stability
of a home. And that's harder and harder to make up for."
in 2002, officials in Brussels demanded that Romania clean up
a chaotic and sometimes corrupt child welfare system as a condition
for admission to the European Union, Romanian politicians jumped
into action. Law 272, written in collaboration with European
Union advisers, aimed to halt decades of mismanagement in just
a few years, with edicts that many critics now say were overzealous
and impractical. In response to criticism that orphans were
growing up in sterile institutions, the government mandated
that no child under 2 could live in one; the new law, it noted,
favored reuniting children with biological relatives or placing
them in foster care.
response to charges that foreign adoptions were so poorly managed
that they sometimes resembled child trafficking, the government
declared there would be no more.
applaud the central goal: to encourage Romanian families to
stay together and to end the longstanding practice here of abandoning
unwanted children. But many child advocates doubt that this
poor country, just 15 years removed from a brutal dictatorship,
will be able to find good living situations quickly for its
huge population of orphaned and abandoned children. Many children
currently in orphanages and hospitals, they say, will be stranded.
are good impulses behind the law - to provide more assistance
to mothers, to keep children out of institutions - and we all
felt the system needed more standards," said Gabi Mihaela Comanescu,
program director of the ProChild Romania Foundation.
there are problems. For example, there are older children who
are as adoptable as ever, but there is no one to adopt them
now. Also, the law says every abandoned child under 2 should
be in foster care, but as far as I know there aren't nearly
enough foster homes."
unintended result is that deserted infants are now passing their
precious first years in a hospital ward. There are close to
10,000 children abandoned at hospitals each year in Romania,
according to a new study by Unicef, and up to 50,000 children
in the care of the state.
unusual tradition of child abandonment began with a ban on birth
control imposed in 1966 by Nicolae Ceausescu, the former dictator,
to increase the population. Within a year, women began dropping
off unwanted children at state orphanages or hospitals. Their
logic was that "the government wanted them, so the government
should raise them," according to the Unicef report.
abandonment has continued at the same level for 40 years, said
Pierre Poupard, head of the Unicef office in Bucharest, even
though birth control is widely available in post-Communist Romania.
Now, mothers desert babies because they feel they cannot afford
to raise them.
Law 272 took effect on Jan. 1, politicians from France, Italy
and the United States, among others, vigorously lobbied the
government to rethink the ban on international adoptions, or
at least to allow cases already started to proceed. In January
the new Romanian prime minister, Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, said
he would "not forget foreign families" who had taken steps to
adopt Romanian children. To date, however, nothing has been
to the Romanian Adoptions Office, 467 babies were adopted by
foreigners in 2002, although a partial moratorium was already
in effect. Before that, several hundred Romanian children were
adopted annually by families in Italy, France, Israel and the
United States, according to adoption groups in those countries.
Today the number is zero. I
Romanian county child welfare officials are now required to
"reintegrate or integrate the children into their biological
or extended families or to place them with a Romanian foster
family," said Theodora Bertzi, head of the adoption office.
families are being trained in foster care to meet the need,
she said. Romanian couples (or grandparents living overseas)
are being encouraged to adopt unwanted children. Orphanages,
called "placement centers," can take children over 2 when no
home is available.
Catanescu, 28, grew up in the centers after being abandoned
at birth by a schizophrenic mother. Handsome and articulate,
he carries his past in one small photo album decorated with
a child's glittery stickers. He is skeptical about Law 272,
at least in the short term.
just don't think the resources are sufficient in our country
for this new law, and attitudes will not change that quickly,"
said Mr. Catanescu, who is starting a nongovernmental organization
to help graduates of the centers integrate into society: find
jobs, rent apartments, order food in a restaurant. "Children
will be stuck - there are still so many families who abandon
so many of the children are given up for economic reasons, they
continue to have contact with their mothers even if they live
in orphanages for years, making it hard to define their family
the old law, if a mother disappeared for more than six months,
the child could be put up for adoption. But the new law, with
its emphasis on maintaining biological families, stipulates
that a mother's right to her child is indefinite, extending
through years of separation.
order for a child to be put up for adoption, the mother must
sign a paper formally ending the relationship, which is impossible
in cases like Vasile's, in which the mother has long since disappeared.
Other relatives have to decline the child as well.
the Sunbeam Complex of Community Service, a placement center
60 miles from Bucharest, 15 of the 16 children (aged 4 to 9)
have had some contact with their biological families. Only one
girl, who is 4, is technically adoptable. The tidy two-story
house, lying amid dusty fields, is far superior to the huge,
impersonal orphanages that made the child welfare system of
Communist Romania so notorious.
a recent afternoon, young residents busied themselves drawing
pictures at low tables and playing with blocks. But
before Law 272, five children left here each year, adopted by
foreign families, said Letitia Stefanescu, the home's director.
new law "has many good aspects," Ms. Stefanescu said, like offering
preventive counseling and financial assistance to young mothers
deemed at risk of abandoning babies. But she acknowledged the
downside for the children in her care: "International adoptions
gave them a chance for a family."
cute 9-year-old with pigtails, who can only be identified as
M.S., said, "I like being here, but I would like more to be
with my mom." The girl's mother, who lives nearby, has not visited
for several years.
Stefanescu has faith that the faults of the new system will
be dealt with: New programs will encourage or force some mothers
to pick up abandoned children; other children will find foster
homes. The four-year-old, she hopes, will be adopted by Romanians,
even though they traditionally do not adopt older children.
Unicef report said it was crucial to take steps to prevent future
abandonment, like allowing mothers to start rooming with their
newborns in order to encourage bonding and prevent desertion.
Hubbell, who spends holidays volunteering at the Botosani orphanage,
says it is great that the government is now helping families
stay together. But in the meantime, she said, "there are kids
like Vasile who have no options but adoption abroad.
already provide support for him," she said. "We will be his
family, no matter what."