For child protection practitioners it is no secret that child protection institutions (the so-called ‘orphanages’ where less than 2% of children are actually orphans) are harmful for children’s development. The famous Bucharest Early Intervention Project proved, scientifically and beyond doubt, that children in institutional care suffer profound deficits and delays in IQ and social & emotional development when compared to children assigned to foster care. Sometimes institutions are so harmful that they simply kill their residents. Yet the practice of institutionalization continues although there is an entire list of internationally acknowledged services to avoid institutionalization.
In the ‘90s some of the Romanian orphanages managed their own graveyards so that the bodies of the small children who were too harmed to survive could be buried as quickly and secretly as possible. Those ‘private’ graveyards for the special use of care institutions may not be so frequent any longer, but in Romania as in other countries in the region, institutions still kill.
In many countries child care institutions (‘orphanages’) are a legacy of the communist past and in these last 25 years from the fall of the communism, NGOs have continuously worked to alleviate the consequences of institutionalized life and advocated for child protection reforms that prevent institutionalization and create alternative services for children. But states resist these reforms, so what to do?
Valentin Câmpeanu, a Romanian citizen, was born in 1985, in Ceauşescu’s Romania, when some 100.000-150.000 children were put in orphanages particularly if they were from poor families, of Roma origin or with a disability. Vulnerable families who needed to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime (because they used to have ‘too’ much property in the past, resisted collectivization at some point, had been helped in any way by the authorities, etc.) were encouraged and in some cases bullied to put their children in institutions as a sign for the whole community that the state institutions can be trusted for the most delicate private matters: the lives of their own offspring. On top of being from a Roma family and having a disability, Valentin Câmpeanu also had HIV. He lived in the child protection institutions for the ‘regular’ 18 years but then he was ‘evacuated’ according the usual rule that says that upon their 18th birthday children have to leave the institution and make it on their own. But where was he supposed to go, barely conscious, with no family and no resources? He was put in a psychiatric hospital, closed down in a storehouse and left with no medication and adequate food and clothing. In 2004, just one day before he died, Valentin Câmpeanu was found by a monitoring mission of the Center for Juridical Resources. Although he was incapable of using the toilet or feeding himself, the hospital staff refused to touch him for fear of being infected with HIV. The Center brought the case up to the European Court of Human Rights and 10 years later, in July 2014, the ECHR accused the Romanian state for violating Câmpeanu’s right to life.
You can bet that this is not a singular case in Romania or in the region. Every country where institutionalization is still accepted has dirty secrets like that. Now NGOs fighting for de-institutionalization have a new instrument in their hands: the ECHR not only did justice to one unlucky Romanian citizen, but changed the entire Court jurisprudence! From now on NGOs, acting on behalf of institutionalized people, can bring offending states to Court!
Câmpeanu’s case made history and we can only congratulate the brave and perseverant team of the Center for Juridical Resources. But what is next? Romania will probably pay a relatively modest fine and the bureaucratic machine will efficiently work to bring the case to oblivion in a few years if not months.
Unless… unless other NGOs of the 47 CoE countries follow suit and start using the instrument for what it is: the ultimate defense of the right to life of children who are victims to a system – the network of so-called ‘orphanages’ – that is organized in such a way as to take this right away from them. A wave of similar cases from every country where institutionalization is still accepted would make more than history: it would contribute to changing systems and mentalities that allow for killing under state supervision, with public funding, before the public’s wide closed eyes.
In conjunction with the evidence from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project and the double celebration of more than 25 years from UNCRC and the fall of communism regime which created this abominable system of child internment, this instrument leaves us all (child protection NGOs, inter-governmental organizations, human rights activists) standing there, with no further excuse…
For more info please see this press release.
 Charles A. Nelson, Nathan A. Fox, Charles H. Zeanah, Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery, Harvard University Press, 2014.