The aftermath of the 1989 Romanian Revolution has been compared to the "Wild West" period of United States frontier expansion between 1850 and 1890. Immediately following the Revolution the influx of foreigners and foreign aid proved impossible to coordinate or control. As the London Sunday Times put it, "New charities sprung up like dandelions in wet grass" (Carol Sarler, "Shame About The Babies," 20 January 1991, 18-30). Well-meaning people with little or no experience in Central and Eastern Europe came to Romania prepared to do anything they could to help. The free-for-all in aid distribution caused confusion and an overlap of efforts. Consequently, orphanages in the northern and western parts of Romania received more aid than they could handle, while many orphanages in other parts of the country received very little.
The popular view that "some help is better than no help at all," spurred an inestimable number of Westerners to travel to Romania with loaded cars and trucks. Material goods flooded through the doors of orphanages with the natural assumption that the children would be relieved of some of their suffering. As more and more foreigners were exposed to the orphanages, stories spread of the vast numbers of institutions and widespread abuse of children. The conditions were appalling, and the response was to provide better equipment, more supplies, and volunteers to lighten the workload of the small number of staff in each facility. Some groups addressing these needs believed that the best solution was for the children to be adopted by foreign families. They assumed that Romanians could not manage adoptions because of their poverty and political instability.
The "AIDS epidemic" further raised the plight of Romania's orphans to the world. Doctors fanned across the country, bringing with them disposable syringes and other AIDS-prevention techniques. People sought to bring any comfort possible to these suffering children as they attempted to understand how such an atrocity could have been overlooked or ignored under Ceausescu's regime.
Now, more than three years later, many still assume that this type of crisis relief and care is what is needed. Yet experience has shown that the roots of the problems lie much deeper than emergency relief can penetrate. Immediate needs are, in most cases, being met with medical supplies, building equipment, and personnel. However, the increasing concern now is that emergency aid progress to a strategy of development.
According to UNICEF, recognized as the most reliable source, there are 628 residential institutions in Romania. These are estimated to house approximately 142,000 children up to the age of 18, at which time children legally become adults. These estimates do not include, however, other institutions run, for example, by the police. The actual number of children, including these additional institutions, is thought to run closer to 200,000.
Much has improved since the pre-Revolution days when the lives of the children centered on survival. Emergency relief supplies have provided much-needed nourishment and clothing, as well as toys and medical supplies. New problems have emerged, however. Often the supplies "went in the front door and out the back." Many of the orphanage staff workers, with survival needs of their own, took supplies home with them or sold them on the black-market. One man from a California church brought jackets for all the children in an orphanage. He took pictures to show in his church. When he returned six months later, not one child had a jacket.
The lack of foresight or planning of many foreigners also became evident. Reports started to surface of cases of soda being delivered where baby food and powdered milk or diapers would have been more appropriate. Another reported cartons of tennis balls being delivered to a school for the blind. In such instances, the supplies would sit in storage or be stolen. (To order a report on Romanian Relief see below.)
Still another problem is the lack of education or understanding of the staff. Supplies arrive without proper explanation or training for their use. These supplies sometimes remain in storage for months on end. Much to the amazement of the donor, the staff contend that if toys are not to be broken or mistreated, they should be kept out of the reach of children.
After the 1989 revolution, an active baby market developed in Romania. Although precise numbers are not known, it is estimated by the U.S. State Department that over 10,000 Romanian children were adopted by foreigners in the first year following the revolution. Many of these were not adopted from orphanages; rather, they were adopted from their biological parents as part of an illicit baby trade.
In November of 1992, approximately 1,200 people from more than ten countries, who work with Romania's children, gathered for the first time in Bucharest for the National Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Workshop, organized and financed by the Romanian Government, UNICEF, USAID, and the European Community. This proved to be a step towards cooperation with 183 nongovernmental organizations represented, 63 of which were Romanian and 120, foreign.
During his opening address, Romanian Prime Minister Theodor Stolojan emphasized the importance of moving beyond emergency child care and replacing this with a policy of long-term assistance, based on a well-defined legal framework. Especially important was his definition of child-protection policies as necessarily "applied first to integrate the child back into the family or into foster homes and, only if that fails, into governmental institutions."
Today, the NGOs in Romania are trying to establish a foster-care program. The Romanian Orphanage Trust, from England, in cooperation with the government, has developed a foster-care program with Romanian families for children from birth to age three. The hope is that the children will be adopted by these same families within one to two years. Holt International Children's Services, an organization from the United States, is also working to implement a foster-care program. Its approach is to provide foster-care until a more permanent situation or adoption within Romania can be secured. Other groups, such as Project Concern International of the United States and Teddy Bear Project, are attempting programs as well for the de-institutionalization of children.
Social Work and More Coordinated Efforts
Social work has become a crucial means in preventing the institutionalization of children without families. Nongovernmental organizations are attempting to organize training for social workers. At the NGO Workshop, Rosemary McCreery, UNICEF representative in Romania, said, "More courses for the training of specialized social workers should be organized to fill the existing needs."
NGOs are also beginning to work toward a unified approach in their presentation of a family atmosphere and experience for each child. This is happening in particular with Christian organizations and churches. There is a long way to go to find any real unity among the NGOs, but organizations such as World Vision are making significant progress in incorporating an integrated approach to ministry through work with children, handicapped services, and primary health care in connection with local Romanian Christians.
The Church and Its Response
In the eyes of many Romanian Christians, Western churches have provided an overflow of generosity towards Romania. They note a difference, however, between the approaches of the churches in Europe and the churches in North America. European churches have traveled consistently with material supplies, delivering them, and exiting quietly. Due to distance, churches in North America have largely taken a one-shot approach, but provided much greater manpower in numbers. When asked about this difference in strategy, one Romanian Christian worker said that the Europeans were more dependable and their strategy more helpful. This could be because the European approach allows for the Romanians to do the main work themselves. But he noted that North American churches have also made a significant impact by continuing to send workers to train Romanians.
The Orthodox Church has done significant work in focusing on the street children in major cities. In a Romanian Orthodox church in Dobroteasa Bucharest, Father Sima is taking up the cause for a generation he refers to as the lost generation. His goal is to "rehabilitate the community, to teach people to live for others, take initiative and try to help one another." He is hoping to one day start an orphanage, one run on the principles of Christian love, free of the corruption found in the present system.
After the Revolution, many tried to give a "quick-fix" to the problems and many mistakes were made. Limited foresight, poor planning, and emotionally driven help brought workers and money into the country to simply improve upon the old institutions. The focus of foreign assistance must shift to equipping Romanians to address their own society's problems. Material goods, funds, and short-term volunteers must be channeled into long-term development plans that, ideally, are the initiatives of Romanians.
Caroline Swartz is a journalist who has worked for International Teams in Central and Eastern Europe since 1991.
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© 1994 Institute for East-West Christian Studies