Features

Disposable children

International | Ceaucescu is no longer a legitimate excuse; Romania continues to throw away its kids

Issue: "Veggie Mania," Dec. 12, 1998

in Zalau, Romania - The snow falling in the Transylvanian foothills means more than a white Christmas for most Romanians; it means another hard winter for a country ravaged by nine years of near-anarchy since the fall of communism. Food and fuel shortages are inevitable, Romania's weak, centrist government says. It will be a dangerous season not only for the hundreds of thousands of abandoned children in the orphanages, hospitals, gutters, and trash bins of Romania, but also for the nation's ruling coalition government. A survey released last week reveals that half of all Romanians say life was better under communism; three-quarters say they want a "single, strong leader" to govern the country. But even in the bleak midwinter to come, missionaries working in Romania have hope. "Most people are ready to listen," says Gary W. Moore of Florida-based Leadership Training International. "The other things have failed them.... I see a great readiness for the gospel, for the comfort of Christ." And one form of comfort just might come in the unlikely form of cookies, he says. A month in the United States, at the expense of the Romanian Ministry of Child Protection, appears to have been enough to transform Elizabeth Ciulean into a born-again Hillary villager. This regional orphanage director has a few photos in her office, most noticeably one of her standing with a few bulky, frowning apparatchiks. She's wearing communist drabs and her thick, dark hair is cropped. She's frowning also. When asked, she says the photo is about three years old. Now, she wears a smart linen suit, low-heeled shoes, and an understated gold necklace. She smiles often, but it's not a warm smile; it's an efficient smile. There's something odd and unnerving about her office, with its clean desktop and its posters promoting children's programs. After a few moments, I realize what it is: There are no pictures of actual children. This well-meaning bureaucrat loves children, no doubt. But is there not any individual child she loves? "Do you have family?" she is asked, through a translator. She smiles. "No time. So much to do. These are my family." She adds an operatic flourish, intended to indicate, perhaps, the half-dozen orphanages she governs from her office building in Cehu Silvaniei, a couple of hours outside of Cluj, Romania, in the Transylvanian foothills. She keeps smiling as she lays down the rules. "It is good for journalists to see the orphanages," she says. "We have much improved them. But please do not use names of children; we have confidentiality laws, just like in the United States. We must protect our children." But are the children of Romania protected? It's true, the orphanages are much improved from the nightmarish conditions the world saw when communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu was ousted in 1989. But Romania is still throwing away its children. Hundreds are abandoned daily in hospitals and at the front doors of the orphanages. There are nearly three abortions for every live birth in Romania, the highest rate anywhere in the world. And an estimated 350,000 street children huff inhalants, panhandle, and live underneath bridges and in the municipal dumps of Bucharest and other cities. Orphanage overseer Elizabeth Ciulean offers a firm handshake to the missionaries who have stopped by on their way to a children's home in nearby Zalau. She has accepted their offer of donations of clothes and books, antibiotics and other medical supplies; they promise a December delivery. "Moral support for us is good at the outset of our reforms," she says. "You realize that Ceaucescu made illegal all forms of birth control and abortion. We are working against that." Outside, missionary Gary Moore shakes his head. "At the outset of the reforms?" he says to a co-worker, Rita McClure. "They've been at it for nine years. But that's Romania. Still blaming Ceaucescu. It's not Ceaucescu anymore; it's something in the culture. Something deep." The "cradle home"-orphanage for babies-in Zalau is something of a relief after a decade of news footage of filthy barns full of rocking, vacant-eyed children. If the home isn't cheery, it's at least clean and warm. In fact, it could pass for a nursery in any small American church. The walls are painted with pastel colors and copyright-infringing portraits of cartoon characters. Here's a thin Ernie, there's a smiling Superman. A young woman wearing a clean cotton smock (light blue, not clinician white) leads the missionaries to the rooms where the home's 89 babies and toddlers are either sleeping or playing in small groups. Two or three workers are in each play area, and a question or two reveals the workers know every child's name and background, likes and dislikes. "This is Marcia," says an older woman who lifts a dark, grinning, wiggly two-year-old onto her lap. "Her parents are coming from Norway; they will take her next month. We will miss her." "That's Valentine," says another worker of a 4-year-old who has leapt to the lap of one of the missionaries. "He goes to Australia." In fact, most of the children at the cradle home are being adopted. Of the 89, more than 20 will be with their new families by Christmas; another 32 will move through the court system by the end of the year (a Romanian judge must declare them adoptable, but that's usually just a formality). Still, the orphanages remain full. The on-site director of this home, a small woman with high cheekbones and a sweater around her neck, says new children come from the hospital almost daily. "The parents take the child to a hospital," she explains, "with some small complaint. The child is coughing, they say. Or had a fever. When they fill out the papers, they give false names, false address. And they leave." The Americans look a little confused: "They just leave them?" Their hostess nods. But now it's her turn to look a little confused. No, she responds, it's not illegal. "You mean in America, they can put people in jail for that?" The Ministry of Child Protection is run by Romania's youngest-ever cabinet minister, 29-year-old Cristian Tabacaru, a pediatrician. He says some 100,000 abandoned children are in the state's care. Only about 10 percent of those are under 3 and readily adoptable. Nearly half are over the age of 11. He knows the abandonment of children is epidemic, but he has no answers. "Communism has given Romania one of the most refined systems for damaging children," he told the BBC earlier this year. "It's impossible to continue like that. Governments can do a lot of things but they can't raise children." He hopes to reduce the number of kids in state care by 40,000 in the next five years, but Dr. Tabacaru realizes he's battling a cultural acceptance of throwing away children. And that's something money won't help (even though European Union countries have agreed to give his department $12 million). "It's a spiritual problem," says Mr. Moore of Leadership Training International. "Yes, part of it comes from communism, but communism is long gone. It will take the love of Christ-people must be shown that God loves and values every single person, wanted or unwanted. God wants them." It is rare to meet someone who is so clearly blessed by being exactly where God wants her-and so obviously suited to that calling. Rita McClure grew up a poor Southerner, slow of speech and wobbly of grammar (her interpreter admits he's often confounded by her colloquialisms). But her strengths are perfectly suited to her work here. She's raised two children through their teenage years and into responsible adulthood. "And that's what it's like here," she says. "The [child welfare] system here in Romania is like a big ol' teenager, wanting independence, but also wanting someone to come in and be the parent, to make the decisions and make everything better." Most government officials, for example, admit that the improvements in the orphanages have come because outsiders have come in with money, medicine, and better methods. Westerners have also taken home thousands of Romania's unwanted children (Americans have adopted more than 15,000). But mixed with the gratitude is a touch of resentment. Adoption regulations have been arbitrary and unpredictable. One British couple spent two years in a Romanian jail after they became frustrated with the bureaucrats and tried to smuggle their new daughter across the Hungarian border. A court convicted them of kidnapping, though they were later granted a pardon and allowed to go home (without the child). "But in the long run, adoptions aren't the only answer," says LTI's Gary Moore. "The unwanted children grow up into unwanted, unprepared young adults. When they turn 18, they're out of the system, and that's why the highways to Budapest are lined with teenage prostitutes." And that's where Leadership Training International comes in (the name was chosen because it doesn't give bureaucrats the willies). Rita McClure, for example, is focusing her main efforts on three young girls, all orphans who have aged out of the system (the LTI workers met the girls years ago when they began bringing supplies to the girls' orphanage). In school, the girls received a nominal amount of vocational training, but jobs are scarce and there's a palpable distrust of orphans with dark, gypsy features. Two of the girls have found temporary work in a candy factory; the other worked at another factory until it shut down last month. The girls are living in a 12-by-18-foot room; one light, three beds. There's an Iron Maiden poster, a hotplate, some curling prints of Eastern Orthodox icons on the wall. There's no hot water today; the pipes are busted again and the basement is flooded, but the landlord plans to sell the building and is slow to fix things. But he's quick to collect the rent ($10 a month from each girl, or about a third of her monthly wages). And most disturbing to Westerners is the slowly dawning fact that the building and the room-and consequently the girls-are louse-infested. Later, when they get Rita alone, they ask for some shampoo that might help. When they're not looking, Rita quietly cries. Rita, Gary, and their translator take the girls to a Tom che Jerry Fast Foods restaurant in downtown Zalau. After prayer, Monica, Nadia, and Claudia order pizza and giggle. But there's some disappointment, too; they want Rita to take them away, to solve their problems, to take care of them. "No money," Gary reminds her. "That's the one thing we can't do." And it's so tempting. A measly $10 guarantees each girl shelter for a month; $20 means meals every day. And $50 seems a life-changing fortune. By the time they are ready to leave Zalau, Gary and Rita have paid the girls' rent (to the landlord's girlfriend), bought some groceries, and made plans to return. "That's exactly how it is with teenagers back home," Rita says. "They're your babies, you want to take care of them, especially when it's so easy. But you have to teach them, not take care of them.... You know, discipleship hurts." For now, Rita will spend some time looking for better lodging for the girls, while Gary looks into establishing a cookie-baking business that the girls could run, under Rita's motherly eye. It wouldn't take much capital, he says, and the girls would learn a real trade. It might sound like a long shot, Gary smiles, "But I know lots and lots of people here who complain you can't get a decent chocolate chip cookie in this country." Rita gathers all three girls to her. "You are precious, precious young women," she says. "Jesus loves each one of you."

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