As Children on the Edge work with partners to respond to the needs of Ukrainian refugees arriving in Romania, we have found ourselves going back to our roots; now working with Ukrainian refugee children without parental care, living in state run institutions.
Children on the Edge are currently supporting partner organisations on the ground in Romania as they respond to the influx of refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. When we heard about a group of children without parental care in Romania, who fled an orphanage in Dnipro after it was bombed, we knew we were well placed to support them.
They arrived with 9 staff members and are now being homed at a bright and colourful orphanage in Bucium. The relevant authorities in Romania are involved in their care and we are working closely with them to ensure the children here are looked after properly and supported with any additional needs they have. We are funding two psychologists who are working with the children to offer the support they need.
Children on the Edge have a long history of supporting children growing up in these kind of institutions; who are without parental care and often in need of a great deal of psychosocial support.
We began working in Romania in 1990, when the full extent of the orphanage crisis was exposed to the world after the fall of the brutal Ceaușescu regime in 1989.
WHAT WAS THE ORPHANAGE CRISIS?
In the late 1960’s, Romanian dictator Ceaușescu decided to ban abortion and stop the sale of contraception in an attempt to increase the population, believing this would boost the economy. Tax penalties were imposed on people who were childless, and women who gave birth to five or more children were celebrated as ‘heroine mothers’.
As a result, state orphanages began to fill up; parents were financially unable to care for so many children at home and were persuaded to hand them over to severely underfunded state institutions. Whilst many parents believed their children would be cared for better than at home, these places were generally run by untrained and often abusive staff.
Children were packed together and often subjected to horrific abuse and neglect, especially in homes for disabled children. They were given minimal attention and stimulation; no toys or space to play, and few received any form of education.
In 1990, this network of ‘child gulags’ was exposed, where an estimated 170,000 abandoned infants, children, and teens were being raised. The fall of the Ceaușescu regime meant that reporters were finally able to visit the country, so the full extent of the orphanage crisis became apparent. Images of emaciated children, packed into cots, staring quietly at their surroundings flooded screens around the world.
Bob Graham was one of the first British journalists to visit one of the Bucharest orphanages in 1990. In a 2015 interview he said, “Usually, when you enter a room packed with cots filled with children, the expectation is lots of noise, chatter or crying, sometimes even a whimper. There was none, even though the children were awake. They lay in their cots, sometimes two to each cot, sometimes three, their eyes staring. Silently. It was eerie, almost sinister.”
Human Rights Watch described how “Children suffered from inadequate food, shelter, clothing, medical care, lack of stimulation or education, and neglect”.
As journalists began to expose what was going on, people around the world responded, including what was to become ‘Children on the Edge’.
WHAT DID CHILDREN ON THE EDGE DO?
While larger agencies focused on the easier to reach areas, our initial work involved helping three orphanages in the remote village of Halaucesti in the Iasi district of Romania. We wanted to reverse the damage caused by Ceausescu-era orphanages, so we also worked to train staff and campaign to reform the childcare system. and by 1992, we had developed considerable expertise in working with institutionalised children, successfully integrating around 4,000 back into the society that had rejected them.
Children used to be shunted from institution to institution as they grew, moving from baby orphanages when they reached five years of age, to various different institutions until they left the care system. Children on the Edge refurbished one of these baby orphanages and campaigned to keep the 50 children living there together as a group, attending the local school, rather than having them separated and uprooted. In 2006 they were still together living in six apartments, used as family group homes with live-in carers or trained ‘parents’. As they were preparing to leave at age 18, they still had access to support from our partners if they had any problems.
The care system in Romania vastly improved over the years following the 1990 exposure of the orphanage crisis, but the question of how to support teenagers leaving this system emerged as a challenge in the late 1990s and early 2000’s.
After years of institutionalisation, young people leaving state care lacked the necessary skills and access to services to live independent lives. Without anyone to care for them, they were at risk of abuse and exploitation and those with special needs were even more vulnerable.
Together with our partner organisation, we worked closely with the authorities of the Iasi region of Romania until 2012, to help change the pattern of institutionalisation.
We ensured that young care leavers were equipped with social and practical living skills and coached them to access services that would help them as they moved into adulthood.
Many of the young people we supported all those years ago went on to do university degrees and become confident, happy and eloquent individuals with bright hopes for the future.
CONFLICT IN UKRAINE
As the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine causes millions to flee from their homes; we have gone back to our roots in Eastern Europe. Our relationships with former partner organisations in the region remain strong to this day and we are supporting them as they respond to the crisis on the ground, which is changing rapidly each day.
Through our Ukraine Appeal, we are helping to provide accommodation, food and clothing for refugees, and now longer term support for those staying in Moldova and Romania.
We are ensuring that our partners have the resources to quickly identify and respond to the needs of Ukrainian refugees as they arise, and supporting them to cover the naturally emerging gaps left by the larger international aid effort, especially as the conflict continues and donations and generosity wane.
REFUGEE CHILDREN WITHOUT PARENTAL CARE
Whilst the Romanian care system has now vastly improved, Save the Children estimates that in Ukraine, there are still an estimated 100,000 children living in orphanages and institutions. The country has one of the highest rates of institutional care in Europe, with about 1.3% of all children living in some form of residential care facility.
In March over 200 children fled their state institution in Ukraine after it was bombed, crossing the border into Romania with their carers and staff.
Our partners were on hand to help ensure these children were housed and supported properly, working closely with the Child Protection Department to move them to be cared for in centres within Romania and beyond. There are now 44 children left in Romania, being housed at a centre in Bucium, in the Iasi region.
The children are slowly being integrated into local schools, but they don’t speak the language, and have already missed out on two years of learning as children living in institutions in Ukraine were not given opportunities to learn online during the pandemic.
The children have recently been to the theatre and are attending a local adventure centre; these have been offered for free by generous local businesses, but this support may dry up and the months go on, so we will need to be ready to step in and ensure the children continue to have opportunities like this. Through all our work with children and communities around the world, we treat people with dignity and respect, ensuring they have not only the basic things needed for survival, but can enjoy the things that bring hope, life, colour and fun. Read more about our approach and values.
With our long history of working with children without parental care, in Romania, we truly have gone back to our roots. In the coming months, together with our partners we will be using this experience and expertise to support these children in the best way we can, focusing on their wellbeing and providing them with much needed psychosocial support.