BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Friday, 8 July, 2005, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
What happened to Romania's orphans?
By Kate McGeown
BBC News

It is now more than 15 years since the world found out about the thousands of children locked away in Romania's state institutions. In the first of a series of articles, Kate McGeown - who volunteered in one such institution nine years ago - finds out what happened to them.

Archive picture of a child in a Romanian institution
Tens of thousands of children grew up in Romania's institutions
Ioan Sidor is a soft-spoken man who works with disabled and disadvantaged children in the Romanian city of Bacau.

"I try to offer them something I never had myself when I was a child - affection and attention," he said.

Ioan grew up in one of Romania's 600 notorious institutions - a by-product of then-President Nicolae Ceausescu's overwhelming desire to increase the population.

The vast majority of children in Ceausescu's so-called orphanages were not actually orphans.

Banned from any form of contraception, many couples had more children than they wanted or could afford to keep, and left them in state care.


These children - whom Pierre Poupard, the head of Unicef in Romania, calls a "lost generation" - were closeted away from society, often malnourished and subjected to physical and even sexual abuse.

At the age of 18, the majority were simply sent out to fend for themselves.

Some - like Ioan - have made a success of their lives, and now have jobs, flats and even families of their own.

Others, though, are still traumatised by their early experiences, and remain on the fringes of society, addicted to drink and drugs.

Looking for blame

Sorin Brasoveanu, the head of Bacau's child protection department, agreed that in the past many children "hadn't learnt much about the outside world" before they left state care.

They did not just lack basic skills such as how to cook or manage money - they also lacked emotional support.

"I used to think: 'Why me? What had I done?" said 27-year-old Cornel Anton, who grew up in a series of institutions.

Nicolae Ceausescu (1980s picture)
1965: Ceausescu becomes head of Communist Party
1967: Forbids abortion and contraception, leading to huge rise in birth rates
1970s-80s: Number of children in state care rises, reaching more than 100,000
1980s: Ceausescu tries to repay foreign debt, leading to shortages at home
Dec 1989: Anti-government protests mount. Ceausescu flees but is captured and shot on Christmas Day

In his early teenage years, Cornel was already out of control, stealing and fighting other children. At 15, he hit someone so hard they were in a coma for a week.

"I wanted love and a stable identity. But I couldn't find it," he said. "On the outside I was strong, but on the inside I was crying."

Cornel was lucky. A social worker from a Bucharest-based charity called City of Hope helped him turn his life around. He now lives independently, earning money as an artist.

But others who need help have slipped through the net. Twenty-eight-year-old Nicolae is one of them, having spent the past 10 years living on the streets of Bucharest.

"When I left the orphanage... I didn't really have a choice about what to do next," he said, pointing to the slab of concrete under a billboard that is his home.

In the early 1990s, Save the Children started compiling a database of institutionalised children and what had become of them, but found it impossible as many had simply disappeared.

"We never found out what happened to them. Some could have ended up on the streets, or been trafficked to other places. No one knows," said Silvia Boeriu, the head of Save the Children in Romania.

A few, of course, remain in state or charitable care. Some are mentally or physically disabled, but it is difficult to know what others would have been like if they had not had such a horrific upbringing.

"If you'd been in an institution for so long, how could you end up 'normal'?" said nurse Sandra Frampton, a regular volunteer from the UK.

Family reunions

When they left their institutions, many young people decided to search for their families.

They found mixed success. Ioan is now in regular contact with his mother and brothers, while Cornel discovered that his father had died some time ago after years of violence and alcohol abuse.

Other young people, such as 30-year-old Mihaela, have started their own families instead.

"We don't need anyone else any more," she said, proudly showing off photographs of her husband and children.

Feraru next to the building where he lives. The institution is in the background
Feraru lives next door to his old institution
In fact, children from Romanian institutions are now leading all kinds of lives - from having children of their own, to living and working throughout Romania and abroad.

British fireman Phil Pitt, a regular volunteer in Romania, was amazed a few years ago when he recognised one of the nurses looking after his wife in a Birmingham hospital.

The last time he had seen her, she was living in an institution in Bucharest.

"It was like we'd come full circle," he said. "We'd been there to help her, and here she was, helping my wife."

But at the other end of the scale, some have yet to find their feet.

After many nights sleeping rough, 23-year-old Feraru recently managed to find accommodation - a small room in the grounds of his former institution.

After nearly 20 years of being locked away, he has ended up living right next door to the place he hated - but which is also the only world he really knows.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | World | UK | England | Northern Ireland | Scotland | Wales | Politics
Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health | Education
Have Your Say | Magazine | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific