Some while ago I was invited by an inter-governmental organization to a study-visit on child protection issues. I was the only guest from the civil society and all the other participants were representatives of their national parliaments. I had the privilege of being invited as I had helped with the drafting of an official document of the said inter-governmental organisation. Actually, to be honest and not modest (for once), together with my team I had made available the copy-paste material.
Ahead of the study visit I received an official agenda that included two days of official meetings and one day for a trip to some touristic attractions that the hosting country was proud of. I took a day off for the respective day so that I was not a cost for my organization while visiting the attractions and prepared for intense debates (some of the countries that were represented were not exactly the best friends on Earth so I was expecting hassle and tension). To my greatest surprise on the first morning, during the coffee break, I was discretely informed that the group had unanimously ‘decided’ to cram the two days of work in one half of a day so that the participants could have more time for ‘side meetings’ and sightseeing. So much so about the intense debates that I was hoping to witness and my one day off became two days off.
But not all study visits have to go that way. The last week World Vision Romania and FONPC (the ChildPact member in Romania) hosted a study-visit for other four ChildPact members: the ones from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Republic of Moldova. The aim of the study-visit was to create a moment of regional cooperation, where child protection professionals can learn together and discuss the biggest aches of child protection systems in the region. We hosted 11 people who represented civil society organisations, ministries of social affairs and one national parliament. These people learned a lot from each other and here I want to share some of the most important learning points.
- How the child protection crisis started in Romania
At the headquarters of FONPC, where we started the study-visit on a Tuesday morning, we learned from Bogdan Simion, the FONPC Honorary President and Executive Director of SERA Romania, that the well-known humanitarian crisis in the field of child protection was actually created by the communist state with two laws: a law from 1966 which banned contraception in Romania so that Romania could grow its population and become a middle-sized regional power; and a law from 1970 that encouraged parents to leave their unwanted children in state-run institutions where the authorities were promising ideal conditions for children to grow. The state started to create an ‘infrastructure’ and opportunities for child abandonment so that very soon children started to be abandoned not only in ‘orphanages’ but in many other places such as psychiatric hospitals, boarding schools, maternities, etc. In 1989 these children have been discovered in horrifying conditions that shamed Romania in front of the whole world as one of the worst performers in the field of child protection.
Many donors made available relief materials for Romania so that the ‘orphanages’ started to be refurbished, creating the illusion that children there are now properly taken care of. But the mortality rate in these renovated institutions was still very high (in some cases up to 30%), which was an obvious sign that children require much more than nice buildings.
The first time Romania counted its abandoned children was in 1997 when the reform of the child protection system was started. Bogdan also explained the important role that the European Union had in this reform process, with the reform in this field becoming a condition for EU accession.
- How foster care helped improve children’s lives
At the newly re-created Authority for Child Protection and Adoption, Gabriela Coman (former FONPC President and now President of the Authority) explained that Romania introduced the foster care system in 1998 when the first ‘maternal assistants’ were been selected and trained. We learned about the challenges posed by this system such as: the growing requests from the unionized foster care workers (ex. supplementary payment, given that the ‘assistants’ work for 24 hours a day for 365 days per year); the over-reliance on foster care solutions that were initially conceived as being temporary, but became permanent for too many children (some children remain in foster care from cradle to adulthood). In spite of such difficulties the foster care system represents a much better solution for children, not to mention that it is also much cheaper than care in institutions.
In 2001, in the face of a new humanitarian emergency in the Romanian ‘orphanages’ (as a result of insufficiently prepared decentralization process), the Authority requested support from the international donors such as the EU, USAID, UNICEF, etc. The focus of the investments was on de-institutionalization, creation of alternative services and re-building of legislation.
Romania now has approximately 12.000 foster families who take care of almost 20.000 children. In 2004 Romania was one of the first countries in the world who banned the institutionalization of children under 2 years ago, in front of massive evidence that institutionalization is profoundly damaging for the brain development of small children. Romania is now preparing a new law to extend the ban until three years of age and hopefully the next Parliamentary session will approve this new law. At the time being a new Strategy for Child Rights has been created under the Partnership Agreement with the European Commission and this strategy is focused on 4 main objectives: a. increase the quality of the services; b. social inclusion of vulnerable children; c. fighting violence against children; d. child participation.
While discussing the lessons learned in Romania, Gabriela showed that it is very important to ensure that ALL the resources are available when starting a reform process. Such resources should include the financial envelope, of course, but also the needed expertise, communication instruments and so on. Gabriela showed that it is important to have a general agreement of the reforms, not only at political level but also among those who will implement the reforms.
The Q&A session was extremely lively. At some point one of the participants asked:
– Does Romania have standards of care and standards of cost for child protection services?
– Of course we have! It was not easy to develop them and we surely can improve them, but…
– Haha, you say ‘yes, of course’, as if this was a small thing! But in my country we do not have such a thing, we struggle and struggle. I want to know everything about how you built these standards!
- How alternatives to big institutions can be created – the SOS Children Villages model
At SOS Children Villages participants learned that in Romania 52% of children are at risk of poverty and 92.000 do not go to school. The SOS ‘villages’ are groups of homes where a small number of children are hosted. Each home is headed by a social mother. The social mother is helped by a family assistant who replaces the mother upon need (ex. Vacation, personal time, etc.).
At SOS we met Misses D., a nice lady in her fifties, speaking in a soft voice to the four children she is now taking care of. Misses D. raised 10 children until now and she is now waiting for two more little girls to join the four children already living in ‘her’ home.
A standard SOS home would have a kitchen, a living room, the mother’s room, and several rooms for children. At SOS we learned about success stories: children who grew up in the SOS homes and are now accomplished adults, the kind of people that newspapers write about in the ‘Exceptional people’ columns. For the SOS staff success is defined as ‘raising children who become adults who start their own families and would never think about abandoning their children’.
At SOS participants debated various models for helping the children at 18 years of age, when they are expected to start an independent life, very often without the necessary skills. One of the participants showed that in Armenia the government created social houses for these children, but the program was a big failure as independent living is practically impossible for adults who only knew about common living as children.
At the end of the visit one of the participants shared: ‘It is obvious that children are much happier here than in any institution that I ever visited and the solutions developed by the organisation to keep both the staff and the children happy are exceptional! I am only wondering if the costs for such a model could be sustainable in my country’.
- How the role of inter-governmental organizations is changing
At the Unicef Romania office, the participants learned how the role of this inter-governmental organisation has changed in Romania in the recent years. Thus, Unicef’s role in Romania is not in service delivery any longer, but in advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable children, such as the Roma children (in Romania 70% of the Roma children live below the poverty line). At the time being Unicef develops models of action and works in poor rural communities where they model interventions to understand if these could make a difference when compared with the ‘standard’ services. Unicef is thus hoping to be able to show a way for how the EU funding could be better spent for children and bring evidence to the state authorities for policy development. Asked if Unicef itself is eligible for EU funding, the Unicef representative showed that Unicef cannot access funding directly as the inter-governmental organisation cannot be subject to local courts and local legislation. However, Unicef Romania frequently helps with project development, provides match-funding in some cases, and offers technical assistance to the government.
Unicef’s next important campaign in Romania will address the issue of violence against children and in this context one of our participants from Azerbaijan shared that in this country the government has created a special fund for the victims of violence and trafficking that allows for monetary payments and housing to help the victims cope with their difficult situation.
- How a broken child protection system can kill a child
At the Association Valentina, we learn the story of a baby-girl who had been abandoned in the maternity by her mother, a young woman who was too poor and too scared to deal with her heart illness. These were the early ‘90s, when tens of thousands of people had lost their jobs in a very difficult transition from the planned to the market economy. The horrific situation of the children in the Romanian orphanages had just been uncovered by the global media and thousands of Western volunteers arrived in Romania to help with these children. Some French volunteers fundraised for the newborn to go through a heart surgery and then an expensive rehabilitation program that saved her life. The little one spent a few years in hospitals and eventually she grew strong enough for the volunteers to start believing that she will be able to have a normal life. The volunteers and the state authorities thought that the best thing for the baby was to be reunited with her mother. Initially the mother was reluctant but in the end she accepted to take her little girl home. The fragile little one arrived ‘home’ just to die because of inadequate care and poor hygiene. Wonders happen but sometimes wonders are not enough. The name of the little girl was Valentina and out of her unfortunate experience the association bearing her name was created.
The aim of the Association Valentina is to help vulnerable children, in particular sick children and children at risk of being abandoned. Valentina operates in the poorest neighborhood in Bucharest, Ferentari, where criminality is so high that ‘not even the police dares to enter’. The children of Ferentari only rarely go to kindergarten. Though pre-school educations is officially free of charge in Romania, the hidden costs for putting a child in kindergarten can be as high as 100 euros / month, which is a huge amount for un-employed people who live in slum-like conditions and need their children not to study but to beg or work on the streets for some extra income. These children are usually more aggressive, less educated and sometimes smell of the dumps they collect their food and clothes from. They are usually not wanted in the kindergarten and the other children and their parents are happy when they drop out. But if children drop kindergarten their access to school is even more difficult afterwards. Valentina is one of the very few associations which works in this difficult neighborhood. In a few spare rooms the Association runs an after-school program where children can have a warm meal (very often the only meal they have in a day) and do their homework. The Association is aware that focusing on children is not enough so that they have also started programs to help their parents find a job and go back to the labor market. The resources in this neighborhood are so stretched that when local authorities learn that the Association a certain family they avoid to provide any other type of support to that particular family.
- How an orphanage can be transformed in a service center for vulnerable children
At the General Direction for Social Assistance and Child Protection (DGASPC) in District 6, we are welcome by the director, a man who joined the Direction in 1998 as a social worker and witnessed the Romanian child protection reform from this public institution. When he came to work here, this was still an orphanage, one of those places where children were rocking back-and-forth for hours in a row and struggled for adults’ attention with their little shaved heads and imploring big eyes. Now this is a modern building, with the summer light entering well-designed windows and big rooms where children attend dance and sports classes on shiny parquet, in front of wall-large windows that reflect images of happy children who are proud of their accomplishments. Instead of being institutionalized here, children and their families are now helped by a small army of psychologists and social workers to stay united: the DGSAPC offers services to 900 disabled children and pays the salaries of 70 maternal assistants (foster care mothers) who take care of 100 children. The children who, 10 years ago would have been institutionalized here, are now playing in the park of the DGASPC backyard and then they go home to their families. Maybe these families are penniless and have it hard in this world, but a mother’s or a father’s love comes for free anyway and nothing can replace it.
The director explains that making the transition from an orphanage to a service center involved many changes, including the re-training of the staff and a focus on prevention. He showed that there are three major prevention services that the DGASPC is now offering: a. day-care services for children; b. direct for families (support for paying the rent, clothing, school supplies for children) based on a plan through which families have to meet specific objectives (this support is not considered a ‘right’ of the poor families); c. extra-curricular (free time) programs for children as an incentive for children at risk of dropping-out to continue their studies (children can only attend these programs if they continue to go to school).
The funding for these activities is only partially provided by the central government (20%) – the majority of the funds are provided by the local administration. In Romania, the child protection system was the first one to be decentralized.
- How faith-based organizations help
The Marists Brothers welcome us in a well-ventilated room on a hot day. Such a relief after the taxi ride in the chaotic Bucharest traffic! Our volunteer translators (many thanks to the Moldavian team!) translate a Romanian with a very strong, but funny, foreign accent. The Brothers are from Spain and learned Romanian to be able to communicate with the children they help, with the local authorities, with the local staff and anyone who wants to help. They manage 4 houses in which 32 children are hosted. Each house is taken care of by four professionals. The teams are mixed and include both males and females as the Brother’s ambition is to provide a ‘mother-father’ model in each house. The Brothers tell us about the countless difficulties that the institutionalized children encounter in their lives and how they strive to convince the community that these are ‘just’ normal children. A few children take us to see the house and they talk proudly and convincingly when explaining to the foreign guests how their lives are organized.
- How a former orphanage director embraces change
At World Vision Romania, the advocacy director explains the structure of the child protection system and clarifies a few legislative aspects regarding the child protection legislation. In 2004 for the first time the law enshrines not only child protection aspects, but also children’s rights. If until 2004, the focus was on children on institutions, in an effort to end institutionalization, in 2004 Romania gave itself a law that looks at all children and creates rights such as children’s right to association, to free time and participation. We learn about the various roles that the central, regional and local authorities have in protecting the vulnerable children and we discuss the importance of having a monitoring and tracking information system so that children are not ‘lost’ in the system.
After these conversations we visit World Vision’s services in a former orphanage, where children from community receive various services that help them stay in their families. Once more, we can see how children who, just a few years ago, would have been separated from their families and put in an institution, are now provided the support they need for staying with their families.
In this center we meet a graceful lady in her 50s who started her career here as an educator in the 1980s, when this place was a creepy orphanage. In time, the young educator became the director of the orphanage and now she continues in the same role, with a small difference: the orphanage was transformed in a community center that offers services to children who need help to stay with their families. A bit shy because of her imperfect English, the director smiles with unassertive proud and shares her story when a few questions are asked to her.
– You saw many generations of children? Do some of them come back to visit you?
– Some of them do. Those who made it in life. And we are very happy for them. But to be truthful, not many come to visit. Not many were happy here in the old days…
– So you think children are much better now….
– Yes, of course. No doubt about that! I saw all the changes in this institution in the last 30 years. It is impressive if you think about it…. There is such a wealth of experience between these walls and in my team. So many things have changed for the better not only for the children, but also for us, the staff who takes care of them.
- How a study visit can be made to be useful
Our group was formed by both government and civil society representatives and we found that this is a very good mix of people. In the evenings the learnings of the day were debated in ‘national’ groups or by comparison with other countries and many of the participants left with concrete advocacy ideas that they want to bring to the professional community in their country. After this study visit, some of the participants will organize parliamentary hearings where some of these learnings will be further discussed in the broader conversation about child protection reforms in the region. As one of the participants said (government representative):
‘It was important to see with our own eyes how traditional orphanages can be transformed into service centers. In our country we are now in front of a big question: how to de-institutionalize so many children and how to create alternatives for them. I could almost feel the trustful relation that the children in these service centers now have with the staff. I never saw that in any orphanage that I ever visited. There is a different quality of the relation between children and their care givers. After this trip we have to make some important choices and I wish more people from my country could come and see with their own eyes. Here I realized how important it is to have a big group of people – from decision-makers to policy implementers – that think in the same about the priorities for children. In my country we fear that closing institutions will create unemployment, but here I realized that staff can be re-trained and actually people can be much happier. In the end of the day nobody wants to see unhappy children, but the system is sometimes so alienating. We have to change the system – this is clear. I hope that we can meet again in 5 years to talk about the progress we made: not about how to de-institutionalize children (that would have been done!), but about the quality of the services that we offer to children at risk of being abandoned’.