Romania's problems must not halt childcare reform
This summer a group of Cornish women have been working to raise funds for washing machines for Romanian orphanages. Remember those? Those scandalous institutions in which sedated, shaven-headed and severely undernourished children rocked to and fro, mindlessly, in cots from which they rarely escaped and within which many were permanently tethered.
The shame of the Romanian childcare system – that obscene contradiction in terms – was exposed to the world when the Ceausescu regime was overthrown in 1989.
The story isn't over yet. One of the Cornish fundraisers, Reverend Canon Pat Robson, reflected wryly on how many people thought the problem had been solved. She said: "A lot of the children from orphanages at the time Ceausescu died are still in institutions now. Now they are 28 to 30 years old – who is going to give them a home?"
This is the heartrending tragedy. Many of those children were irrevocably damaged goods by the time journalists and former Westcountry MP Emma Nicholson found them and highlighted their plight. It was relatively easy then to raise funds for the children. The world was rightly aghast. Raising funds for adults, however, is always harder – and yet no less important.
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People's needs do not vanish overnight when they turn 18. That generation of orphans should never be forgotten and still have a claim on the world's compassion now they are adults.
But what of today's children? Has Romania actually changed? Can a country that knew nothing of democracy and which, less than 25 years ago, blithely accepted those hellish orphanages as normal, really turn itself round and wipe out such abuse?
Romania's democracy and its courts may yet be fragile, but its childcare system has changed radically. It was helpful that the EU made the closure of those ghastly institutions a condition of membership, but much of the real work has been done with the support of a pioneering British charity Hope and Homes for Children.
Founded by British Army officer Col Mark Cook, it came into being after he served as a UN peacekeeper in Croatia during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. He was horrified by the plight of abandoned children and set up Hope and Homes to help them. Its aim was quite simple: to ensure that all children could grow up with the love of a family. Its staff are leading experts in closing children's institutions and reforming childcare.
Hope and Homes moved into Romania in 1999, when 100,000 children were still in those institutions. Today, fewer than 9,000 youngsters are housed in orphanages. The charity hopes to have all orphanages closed by 2020.
This is a complex ongoing operation that goes far beyond shutting individual institutions. Alternative family homes have to be found for the children. In many cases help is provided to enable their own relatives to take them back and to then function as stable families. Local childcare professionals have to be retrained and support services for children rebuilt, almost from scratch.
Hope and Homes cannot deliver on this alone. It gets some EU funding, but works with two principal partners: Absolute Return for Kids – set up by financier Arpad Busson to help disadvantaged children worldwide – and the Romanian government. Only that, truly, has the authority to make such sweeping reforms. Yet it is a delicate flower of dubious stability. Its president and prime minister are at each other's throats – but whatever the ructions in Bucharest, they must never be allowed to slacken the pace of childcare reforms.
In the meantime, those who grew up in those Ceausescu institutions have grown into equally needy adults. Jean Baker from Truro, who has been leading the fundraising for the White Cross Mission in Truro, met just some of them when she visited the orphanage in Remeti that is struggling to care for 74 young people with just a couple of working washing machines.
The laundry was full of dirty, wet bedding and clothing, much of which would have to be washed by hand. In another room, a further four washing machines stood broken. There was no money to repair them.
The women of Truro intend to replace them. Good luck to them. It's valuable work.