Fri, Dec 22, 2017 - Page 9 News List

From China to Romania, orphanages are becoming history

Journalists and aid workers reported vastly improved conditions for children in foster care in some of the previously most notorious countries — but even so, children with disabilities often still faced hard realities

By Alison Mutler, Gillian Wong and David Crary  /  AP, BUCHAREST

Illustration: Mountain people

Soft toys on the beds and posters on the walls. No more than three children to a room. One of the girls living in the four-bedroom home gushes about getting makeup for her birthday.

In this group home on a leafy street in Bucharest, Romania’s orphanage nightmares seem far away. The horror stories, along with images of hollow-eyed children lying in row upon row of dilapidated cribs, emerged quickly after the 1989 toppling of former Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu: shocking accounts of thousands of children beaten, starved and humiliated in overcrowded, underfunded state-run orphanages.

“There was no heating, no windows, no bedding, no running water,” recalled Rupert Wolfe Murray, a British free-lance journalist who accompanied an aid convoy that reached an institution for disabled children soon after Ceausescu’s fall.

In a single year in the 1980s, 30 children died of cold, malnutrition and disease, according to records found at the orphanage, said Murray, who joined the aid effort there after he saw the appalling conditions.

Flash forward to today. The number of children in Romania’s orphanages has plummeted from more than 100,000 to about 7,000, with a goal of closing all the old-style facilities by 2023. Legions of children have been reunited with their families, placed in foster homes or relocated to cheerful family-style houses run by well-trained staff like the one in Bucharest’s 6th District.

Across the globe, intensive efforts are underway to get children out of orphanages. Bulgaria and the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova have made strides. Rwanda is set to soon become the first African country to eliminate orphanages.

China has said it is now able to provide care for three-quarters of its orphans and abandoned children via foster homes or adoption.

It is a goal that remains elusive in many other countries — in India, where privately run, poorly regulated orphanages abound, and in Nepal and Haiti, where unscrupulous orphanage operators sometimes pay parents to relinquish their children and then profit from donations from sympathetic foreigners.

However, aid groups working to phase out orphanages believe that momentum is on their side.

“We are almost at the brink of achieving a global movement — putting orphanages back into history books,” said Delia Pop, the Romanian director of global advocacy with Britain-based Hope and Homes for Children, which has worked to dismantle orphanages in 30 countries.

There is no precise global tally of children living in orphanages.

UNICEF’s latest estimate is 2.7 million, but the agency has said that many countries do not accurately count children in privately-run orphanages.

Whatever the type of facility, 80 to 90 percent of the children in them have at least one living parent, UNICEF has said.

“Most often it is poverty driving these families apart,” Catholic Relief Services senior vice president for overseas operations Shannon Senefeld said. “Parents believe ... their child will be given a better way of life if they live in an orphanage.”

Yet research suggests that orphanage life often harms a child in lasting ways. Even well-run institutions generally lack the affectionate care that maximizes a child’s potential, while many expose children to abuse and exploitation.

“You can never do enough to try and supplement the need for affection from a parent,” said Mihaela Ungreanu, a child-welfare official in Bucharest. “It is very hard to meet this challenge.”

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