What Happened to Romania’s Irrecuperables?

Posted September 14, 2014

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

In 1990, the issue that catapulted Romania into the headlines in the West, after the rise and fall of Ceausescu, was the country’s orphanages. Journalists and foreign health care workers were appalled to discover the condition of babies and children in the many state-run institutions in the country. During the Ceausescu era, abortions were difficult to obtain, and many families were simply too poor to handle another mouth to feed. The 700 orphanages scattered around the country were filled to bursting with 170,000 children.

Many of the children were healthy. Adoption agencies began to match children to eager parents abroad. In that first year, Romania sent 10,000 children abroad, and tens of thousands more before the Romanian government, citing corruption, imposed a moratorium in 2001.

But there were also many children that didn’t fit the profile that most adoptive parents wanted. These were the “irrecuperables,” the children with mental and physical disabilities who were warehoused in “hospitals.” Romanian authorities, both during and immediately after the Ceausescu era, had deemed these children beyond recuperation.

In 1990, I tracked down one of these “hospitals” in the tiny village of Gradinari, about 20 kilometers outside of Bucharest. It was a sobering experience. “Since the weather was nice, the children were outside, in the backyard of a large institutional-looking building,” I wrote at the time (the report is reproduced below). “There were over 100. The supervisor explained: 120 children and only 2 nurses. There were two long picnic tables crowded with children. A group of pens were set up underneath a tent. Several older children stood off to one side. One child, with only one leg, ambled around using his arm as a second leg. All the children were filthy, some with cuts, some only half-clothed. The children in the pens, their heads shaved, rolled around in their soiled diapers, some malnourished to the point of apparent starvation. The mixture of disabilities was staggering: Downs syndrome, autism, amputees, physical birth defects and so on.”

On returning to Romania in 2013, I planned to go back to Gradinari to see what happened to the irrecuperables. It turned out, however, that I needed to apply for permission beforehand, and I ran out of time to get the necessary paperwork.

I did, however, have a chance to interview Bogdan Bobolea. He works with the Irish charity Comber which focuses on children and adults with disabilities in Giurgiu County, where Gradinari is located. A quarter century after the fall of Ceausescu, there are still many institutions and orphanages throughout Romania. Comber is working to close them down and build homes in the community for the residents. They’ve built two residential homes in Gradinari for 16 people. In the much larger Giurgiu city, they run two houses and four apartments, along with a day center that organizes activities.

Several recent news accounts have reported on the persistence of dreadful conditions in the remaining orphanages and institutions. The BBC made a secret film of its visit to several places in Giurgiu County, and this had prompted the government to institute its new permitting procedure.

Bobolea thought the BBC report one-sided. “We have improved, not much perhaps, but compared with what was in 1990, I think we’ve progressed a lot,” he told me in Bucharest in May 2013. In terms of the institutions that haven’t yet been closed down, “the buildings are better. The sanitary conditions are better. There are clothes. There are cleaning staff. The food is okay. What is missing is the specialized staff.”

The institution that I visited in Gradinari, for instance, has been shut down. The children, now grown up, have been moved to other facilities. As Bobolea explained, children with disabilities have several options when they turn 18. “As soon as they reach 18, they have four options,” he told me. “They can go to a big institution. They can go to an NGO if there are spots open in the residential facilities. They can go back to their families. Or they can go to a foster family.”

The reality is a bit starker for most of these children, however. Foster families prefer children without disabilities. The original families are often reluctant to take on the challenge. And there are not many spots open in the residential facilities.

“The only available spot is when someone is taken home,” Bobolea said. “But nobody is taken home. What we’re doing now in Giurgiu is to put a couple beds in an office to house two persons. Or we’re adding a fifth person to an apartment and that person will stay in the living room. It’s better to use the available space if it’s possible. But we cannot put more than five in an apartment.”

The worst situation is when a child with disabilities has been living in a residential setting, turns 18, and there’s no spot available in any of the houses or apartments for adults. They face the possibility of returning to one of the remaining large-scale institutions and losing the progress they’d made in the more supportive environment.

The EU has declared it a priority to close the orphanages and large-scale institutions. But it has not made sufficient funds available to build the houses and apartments that can serve as replacements.

I asked Bobolea how long it would take, if the EU funds were available, to close all the institutions.

“If the money is here on the table, it would take 10 years, maybe less,” he replied. “We would have to build the houses. It takes one year of construction, and then you have to train the staff…maybe ten years. But without the money: indefinitely.”


The Interview


You were explaining what’s happened since I was here last and why it requires a permission to visit Gradinari.


I spoke with the deputy manager, and she said in order to have access you have to send an official request. But it’s possible. It means that you can visit, but you need to sign a document that say that you won’t use hidden camera, that you have a translator/interpreter.

Two or three years ago, a BBC crew, using a hidden camera, took some photos and actually recorded a video in Gradinari. It appeared in a movie broadcast on BBC. What they showed was true, but they didn’t show the other side, the good things that have happened since 1990. They didn’t speak with Comber or with the DGASPC [General Directorate for Social Assistance and Protection], because in that case it would have been a balanced documentary. We have improved, not much perhaps, but compared with what was in 1990, I think we’ve progressed a lot.


Why did they have to bring a hidden camera?


I don’t know. You see now what’s happening in the UK, with Bulgarians and Romanians there. Probably someone wanted a huge headline in the newspaper or on TV about what’s happening here.


I’m interested how you became involved in this work.


Three or four years ago, when I was working in England, Comber had an advertisement in Romania for a project coordinator. One of my friends read that advert and sent it to me. I applied, and I had a phone interview with Fiona Dowling, who was the director at that time. Then we had a meeting in Dublin outside the airport. And then they hired me.

I came here at that time with another colleague who started work for Comber two or three years before I started. He showed me around. I visited all the institutions, and that was the start. I was involved at the beginning in the supervising of the building of a house in Izvoarele. We’re still trying to open it. Then with this project over the summer, we had professionals, students, fresh graduates, or people with a lot of experience in fields like social work, social care, and psychology. They came here for four or five weeks and stayed in Giurgiu. We had many interpreters, high school students, who worked with the Romanian staff in our homes and apartments. This project ran for three years. This year we don’t have any candidates. With trainings for the staff we opened a center with another NGO from Bucharest, and I also was involved in that. So basically, I was supervising the building of various structures, recruiting volunteers, and involved in this center.


Before you took the job, did you know very much about the situation here for children with disabilities?


For children, yes, because before that I worked only with children. So I knew about SERA from France. They closed two or three huge institutes in Bacau. There were children with physical disabilities and mental health associated with this. But regarding the adults, I am ashamed to say but I didn’t know much about it.


Tell me a little bit about what happened since 1990 in terms of for the facility for children at Gradinari as part of the larger change.


What I know is that it was closed. It was refurbished, enlarged, and then it was closed. They were moved to Tantava. Some of them were sent to Bolintin. When I came here it was all shut down, so I don’t know much about that. I saw the empty building, I was there several times, and I tried to imagine how it was at that time.


It was a big, big building. A lot of kids. And my understanding at the time was that there were one or two of those facilities in each county in Romania.


Maybe two or three. Still now there are many. If you have access to the national database, you can see there are at least two in each county, more than 50, 60, maybe 100. But, again, it’s better to check again to have real figures.


Some have been shut down, but —


Most are still open. There was pressure from the EU to close the orphanages. And we invested a lot of money doing that. But regarding adults, even the EU Structural Funds (ESF) allocated money only to refurbish the old buildings or renovate them. We’re building something nearby. But they didn’t allocate money to build small residential care homes. So because it wasn’t eligible for an NGO to apply to build two or three houses, Comber couldn’t apply.

I was at a meeting in Bucharest two or three years ago. It was a huge table, and almost all the managers from religious charities were there, as well as someone from the financial ministry.

We asked,“What can you do?”

And this Romanian from the finance ministry, who also was the president of the body coordinating all the ESF funds in Romania, said, “The code is not written, and we cannot give you the money to refurbish or to build new small houses.”


They knew that they couldn’t get the money from the EU, and therefore they couldn’t provide the money.


Yes, because it’s not eligible. There are people putting pressure to change that, but I don’t know what will happen. We’ll see when they will launch a new line of finance.


Let’s go back to the EU pressure to close the orphanages. They provided money.


Yes. And probably training. There were weekly meetings. The Baroness Nicholson was much involved, as far as I remember. Everybody knew that there was a problem that had to be solved. The same thing could have been done for the adults, but that didn’t happen and I don’t know why.


Calin is 32 years old and lives in the Comber apartments in Giurgiu, after spending 12 years in an institution when his extended family were no longer able to care for him. Photo courtesy of Comber.
Cailin is 32 years old and lives in the Comber apartments in Giurgiu, after spending 12 years in an institution when his extended family were no longer able to care for him. Photo courtesy of Comber.






Was the EU amount of money sufficient to address the issue of the orphanages?


I think so because as far as I know many were closed. I’m talking about Giurgiu and Bacau because I work in these two counties. So, for example, Giurgiu doesn’t have orphanages anymore. They have small houses and a transit center. I left Bacau in 2002 but at the time SERA was closing the institutions for children with physical and associated disabilities. But regarding the orphanages, I don’t know what happened.


But for the facilities for children with physical and associated disabilities, are there any still open or have they all been closed?


I don’t know. In Giurgiu, again, there are four or five small houses for children with mental and associated disabilities.

In Gradinari, we have two houses built by Comber and the running costs are covered with money from OSI. We’ve paid for staff and now we’re in the process of trying to cover the costs. There are 16 residents, very dependent. We had two people who were like kids, but they were 18 years old. Some of them are not able to speak. They are in wheel chairs, and there’s a guy with two amputated legs. So it’s a lot of people with a lot of needs. So, again, we need staff there.


And those houses in Gradinari, they might have some of the children from 23 years ago?


Those in the Gradinari house are actually from Carpenis. So from that original institution in Gradinari, some moved to Bolintin.


So large facilities have been closed and the residents have been moved to the smaller facilities.


Yes. They were moved to houses, which were refurbished. There are basically around ten, maybe 12 residents in each house.


So the ratio of caregiver to resident has been reduced considerably?


Yes, because now there are more staff and fewer children.


That’s a very important improvement. When the BBC came here where did they go?


I think it was in Carpenis and Bolintin.


It was for adults?




It was still an institution. They hadn’t gone yet to the smaller houses?


So in Giurgiu there were four institutions for adults: Bolintin, Carpenis,Gradinari and Tantava. Gradinari was closed, officially, but actually one of the buildings is used still, because Tantava is in the process of upgrading with EU funds. As the building is finished they move back to Tantava, and Gradinari will be empty. And Carpenis has the fewest residents, down to 30 or 40. There was pressure to shut it down because the owner wanted to receive back the land and the building. Comber, OSI, and a Dutch NGO saw that we could help this to happen. So Comber had in mind to build houses and refurbish apartments. The Dutch already started at that time to build a duplex house near Carpenis, and OSI also had a plan in process. The Dutch had some difficulties raising money. OSI has a plan to rebuild two new homes, one with Habitat for Humanity for Romania and another with EU money.


It seems like a very complicated financial situation because you have some EU funds but those are for children. Then there are private funds. Then, presumably, there are some government funds somewhere in there. In order for me to understand all this, let’s start with the orphanages. The EU funds were made available for a one-time transition, or the funds are available for a period of time for this transition?


I’m not sure, but I think it’s for a long-term process. Because there are still counties where they still have this transit center.


When it comes to the private funds, whether it’s Dutch or OSI or Comber, the commitment is made for how long to build the new facility or the new houses? Who pays for the staff, who ensures that there’s long term care?


There are three directions: Comber, the Dutch, and the OSI NGO. Comber raised the money in Ireland, they built or bought houses or apartments, refurbished them, then they handed over for free to the DGASPC. The County Council pays for the staff and to run all the utilities. Comber was involved in recruiting the staff, training the staff, recruiting and selecting the residents that moved there, and providing job training. We also provide small amounts of money for activities like summer camps where the residents went to the seaside and to the mountains. A group of high school teenagers from Ireland came three or four years in a row for one week. They raised their own money, the students and teachers, to come here.

The Dutch, as far as I know, wanted to run everything by themselves. They didn’t want to have the DGASPC involved. OSI did something similar for Gradinari. We bought the land and we paid for the house, OSI gave the money to the DGASPC, paid the staff, and ran the utilities for two years. Comber sent volunteers for one summer last year. The OSI NGO ran everything by themselves, except that finally they received the allowance from the state for each individual. If the institution moves to an NGO, the money follows the person. And now we try to do something similar as OSI.

So we have now one house and two apartments in which we try to relocate people. The apartments were given for free to Comber for 25 years by the local council. The house was built using Comber’s money, but the land belongs to the local council, and they gave the land to us for 20 years. After 20 years the house goes back to the local council. So we have 15 empty places. We cannot fill them because the IMF said to the Romanian government that the state institutions cannot hire people unless they fire some. If you fire seven members of the staff, then you can hire one.


The IMF made such a detailed demand!?


There are exceptions where you can avoid the IMF’s ratio, but every government-run institution has to follow that request.


So this wouldn’t apply, for instance, to the Dutch because they’re running it themselves.


Yes. And we wanted to become service providers. But because there is less money raised and because we are now in the EU — and because the County Council and the DGASPC in Giurgiu were not 100% sure that they could provide the specific amount of money in the future to be co-partners — Comber started to change its direction. It’s a lot of money, and the Romanian side is not 100% sure that it can help us. Because of the IMF, we cannot foresee the future regarding the budget. So now we are stepping back a little bit and trying to negotiate having the same system as we have in Giurgiu city where we have two houses and four apartments. These are our options here. The staff is hired by the DGASPC and Comber, with Comber and not the County Council paying the staff. And next year the local council from Izvoarele will give a small share. So there are three stakeholders. The County Council will pay for one social worker and provide an allowance for each individual. The mayor will provide 10,000 Euro. But Comber will be paying the major part.


That’s very complicated. What is the age cut-off?


As soon as a person reaches 18 years old, they officially have to be taken out of the children residential care home and moved to those three remaining institutions. We have three or four who reached that age limit, and we moved them to Giurgiu to our homes and apartments so they wouldn’t be sent back to the institutions. After living for 10 years in residential care, they might have to go back to this institution where they’ll lose everything. So they’re on a waiting list. We hope we can move them to this house in Izvoarele.


Are other NGOs working in other parts of the country?


There are. In Timisoara they have a day center for adults staying at home. They have a print shop, a bakery, and a place where they work with plastic bags, electronic circuits, and other small activities. There’s a report saying that there are ten counties in the same situation as Giurgiu, with the same amount of people taken out of the institutions. But in some counties, only a few persons or no people have been taken out of institutions.


Children in residential care, when they become 18, have two options. They either go to this institutional setting in which they lose everything, or they go to another residential-style facility.


Now we are talking about children with disabilities. As soon as they reach 18, they have four options. They can go to a big institution. They can go to an NGO if there are spots open in the residential facilities. They can go back to their families. Or they can go to a foster family.

The children without disabilities have other options: they can go to school or to university. They can also be fostered in foster families. But the number of children with disabilities raised in foster families is fewer. Usually these families are taking normal kids.


Do a lot of children with disabilities, when they hit 18, go back to the institutions. Or is that still a relatively rare or unusual situation?


I don’t have the data. It depends on each county.


But the ideal situation would be that the EU changes its specifications and makes money available for adult residential facilities.


Yes. This is the only option.


And how likely is that?


When they set up that application guide to access the money, all they would have to do is, under eligible activities where it says “refurbishing, enlarging existing institutions,” add “building new houses.” They can specify how big it can be, how many people can stay in that, because otherwise it will be just another big institution. Refurbishing old houses meets the previous conditions, and that’s enough. There are many old houses in the countryside that the ministry can give to us for free so that we can refurbish them and move people in straight away. But the problem is that the operational cost per person in a residential care home is bigger than in an institution. For Giurgiu it costs a lot because now they have both systems at the same time. But who on earth would give you enough money to build, let’s say, 12 houses so that we could move everybody straight away from all these institutions to those houses? So we have to go side by side. And probably the institutions will never close…


Because there won’t be enough money. And you said that this has been done largely because of pressure from the EU.


For the children.


When I was here in 1990, fundamentally the government did not care about children. Do you think that attitude has changed as a result of either pressure or training?


It’s more and more obvious that the Romanian press wants to discuss this subject. For example, two weeks ago there was a scandal in Calarasi county. Each year the people with disabilities living in families are called to a meeting to be reassessed to see if they are going to continue to be certified and receive an allowance. And they showed people with one leg limping with a plastic bag where the urine was dripping. The press and the politicians were astonished, as if they were seeing for the first time. But it’s been happening like that for many years.

But now I think that people are starting to think about others and not just themselves. They are starting to give food, clothes, shoes, and in-kind donations. It’s a process. This pressure, this exposure wasn’t there before. There would be small headlines before, and it seemed like isolated cases. But now people are appalled because of what they see. So the press can influence the population, the population can start to give in-kind donations, maybe money.

Regarding Giurgiu, we had a good number of teenagers trying to apply to become volunteers with us. And each year their number increased, and many of them came back from previous years.


These are Romanians?


Romanian students. So they’re very good at English, and when you are good in English it means that you are good in other subject matters. Many of them are now students at different Bucharest universities. It’s a long-term outcome because they go back to their families, they speak with their parents, and when they finish their studies in 10 or 20 years they remember us. So it grows like a snowball.


Has Romania signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?




So there can also be more pressure for the government to abide by these principles. It’s not a particularly easy place for people with disabilities whether they’re in institutions or even living at home with their families.


In Giurgiu there’s a branch of an NGO that’s like a support association for children with physical disabilities. They have four or five branches. The president called someone from Bucharest saying that they are not fulfilling the requirements to provide payment to people in wheelchairs. And nothing was done. That happened three or four years ago. Still now people who live on the second floor cannot get out because of their disability. The laws are there, but they are not applied. Or, to get them applied, you need money. So, again it comes down to money – and the will of the person who has the power to give the money.


Are there very strong disability rights organizations here in Romania lobbying for this?


Not much. Otherwise we would have heard of them. We tried to do something in Giurgiu with a parents’ group, but we stopped. In Ireland, they had the Special Olympics Games, and one of the volunteers gave me the DVD. I selected specific parts, and I subtitled it in Romanian. I presented it to this parents’ group, and we tried to do something similar. But the fact is that their energy is focused on taking care of their children. They don’t have enough time and energy to do something else. They want to do something, but they can’t. It’s only if someone, like an able-bodied person, joins their cause and pushes them forward.


The level of care in the remaining institutions, has that improved at all?


The buildings are better. The sanitary conditions are better. There are clothes. There are cleaning staff. The food is okay. What is missing is the specialized staff. We can go there and try to develop their skills, whatever is still possible after so many years. We are at the moment when there should be a shift. I read a report saying that we should change the ratio of care staff and specialists.


But the IMF restrictions – have they been applied already to these institutions?




Have people already been let go?


No, I don’t think they were fired. But the IMF said that if they want to hire more people they have to follow this ratio.


So they can’t hire more people?




And they can’t bring in the specialists?


Yes. So the ratio of specialists to children or adults is not good enough. You can imagine that many graduates, after they finish their degrees – where are they? Unemployed or maybe working in jails or in another field.


I talked with someone working on children’s issues in general in Cluj, and he said that they have a number of different day care facilities for children with special needs. It might be for children with disabilities, it might be Roma children, but it was after-school, it was day care, a variety of different programs. They’ve had to fire so many of their staff. It wasn’t the IMF. They just couldn’t get the funding from the EU. Many of the outside organizations have left–American, European. And the EU funding is contingent on a number of different factors. You have to apply for a lot of money, and you have to put up some of the money yourself. It’s very complicated, and ultimately they fired 2/3 of their staff, and they had to close all of these programs.


Because they needed extra money from the Romanian government?


Yes, exactly.


This is another issue that the press can help us with. They can lobby. The Romanian people give money because they see child orphans or children with high skills who play an instrument or are good at math, physics, so on. So people are more open to give money to these two categories. But these are not children with disabilities. The other two categories at the bottom of the list are the elderly and, at the very bottom, adults with mental health problems. It’s sad that they had to fire so many people. In Giurgiu, as far as I know, nothing happened like that.


When I was here in 1990 these institutions for children with disabilities had a large number of Roma children, and some of the Roma children had no disabilities at all, they just put the Roma children there because it was a form of discrimination.


As far as I know in Tantava, there are people who actually shouldn’t have been there: children from poor families, children from huge families that couldn’t afford to raise all of them. But they were normal kids. Many of them can be easily relocated to society with the proper support. They can find a job. In this case, the state, instead of paying to keep them there, can do something. I don’t know the ratio of how many Roma are there.


With the population you’re working with, is there a large number of Roma?


We didn’t take this into consideration. There are fewer, I think.


On the residential side, tell me a little bit about the programs you’ve set up and the existing ones. I know you you’re waiting for empty apartments….


In Giurgiu, we have two homes and four apartments. In each house we have ten residents, males. There are four residents in each apartment, males and females in pairs. We have two couples who are staying together. The age limit is from 18 until 60-something. The majority of disabilities are mental disability, epilepsy. We had two persons who didn’t have any. One was an alcoholic but otherwise normal. The second one was beaten in a forest during the winter and tied to a tree. He had severe frostbite, and that’s why his legs were amputated from the knees down (two guys hired probably by his former wife did that). He had prosthetics and was able to walk normally. But then he had a stroke. He cannot move one of the remaining limbs. He cannot speak any more, but he understands everything He used to help out a lot.

We opened a day center a few years ago for those living in the apartments. A bus collects them. Some of them go there between 9 and 12. Those in the houses do their chores and in the summer do some gardening, watch TV. Those who are more able go outside and buy some small things. But those who are not going out are staying indoors almost all the time. Some of them are working. Four have been hired by the DGASPC. Two are working as cleaning ladies. Two guys are working at a small warehouse, loading minivans and are distributing things to the house and apartments that belong to the DGASPC or to the children as well. They go to church on the weekends. The ones who are more independent don’t need supervision. They know the city. They are able to cross the street. There’s no problem with that. Some of them are able to take care of themselves completely or with some support. Others need a lot of support. Some of them are able to cook small meals for themselves. Some are just given a specific part like cutting the onion or cutting the bread. At one of the houses, the big house, they have a disco night on Saturday, so they listen to music and dance.
How many all together?


All together, around 46.


And all of them have come out of the institutional setting as children? Or did some of them come in as adults?


Out of them, only three came from children homes. They reached 18 and are still going to high school because they started later. But the others, 43, came from the institutions, and one of them had been living on the streets before he moved into one of our homes.


And what percentage are these 46 of the overall population?


In Giurgiu? We’re getting hundreds. Maybe around 20 percent.


So 80% are still in the institutions?


But the best way is to check with the database.


And because of the lack of money, it’s likely that these both will continue. Ideally, if EU money becomes available, then the percentage who stay in residences increases.




And how many in children in Giurgiu are aging out of the residential setting?


I don’t know exactly. There are eight houses, so between 100 and 150. Maybe around 10 or so a year who reach 18.But if we are talking about children with disabilities who will reach 18 in the medium term, that’s probably 40 or 50.


The other children have other options: live with a family, live independently, go to school. So, with 40 or 50 children with disabilities, that means maybe every year 3 or 4 become 18.




And how many spots become available in the residences?


The only available spot is when someone is taken home. But nobody is taken home. What we’re doing now in Giurgiu is to put a couple beds in an office to house two persons. Or we’re adding a fifth person to an apartment and that person will stay in the living room. It’s better to use the available space if it’s possible. But we cannot put more than five in an apartment.


Have you visited facilities outside of Romania for people with disabilities?


I was in England for the first time in 1994-95. I worked as a volunteer at a high school for teenagers with physical disabilities. The second time I worked in a care home as a care staff, and there were three adults there. So it’s the only thing I saw in England. In Ireland I visited two or three day centers. We worked there to see how we could do the same thing with the day center in Giurgiu. And I visited a residential care home. So I didn’t see big institutions.


Given two scenarios – with EU money or without EU money — how long will it take for Romania to meet the standards of what you’d seen in England and Ireland?


If the money is here on the table, it would take10 years, maybe less. We would have to build the houses. It takes one year of construction, and then you have to train the staff…maybe ten years. But without the money: indefinitely. Ireland still has big institutions, so maybe this vision to close everything will happen in a few years there. But there are fewer people to build housing for. Here, in the last two years, there were fewer than five new homes for people with disabilities opened in all of Romania. That’s not much.

Bucharest, May 29, 2013



Trip to Gradinari (1990)


Gradinari is located roughly 20 km outside of Bucharest: a village of one street which few people in the capital have ever heard of, a village which just barely makes it onto a map of the country. I had gotten the name and some vague instructions from the Medecins du Monde people, so one Saturday afternoon I steeled myself and went looking for a cabbie with whom to bargain.

I was lucky, more or less. The cabbie I flagged down didn’t speak English and had never heard of Gradinari. But a young waiter just off his shift and looking for a cab home smelled a deal–he mediated between me and the cabbie, cut himself something off the top and off we went, the three of us, ten bucks down and ten more if they didn’t abandon me out in the middle of nowhere (“you can trust us,” the waiter said, “we’re not gypsies or black marketeers,” but the thought of being stranded in a village that no one had ever heard of made me cautious). On the trip, the waiter talked about his upcoming marriage in October. His wife didn’t work: she stayed at home “like a flower.” But he trusts her. After all, he hired a detective to follow her twice and she didn’t do anything suspicious. Well, no detective is perfect, he admitted: therefore he trusts his wife about 90 per cent. A good percentage for a betting man.

We soon passed the outskirts of Bucharest and left the grey apartment blocs behind and entered the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside. Peasants began to appear on the road, in slow-moving carts with weary horses. Tractors were rare. The landscape was often beautiful: streams and grazing sheep, villages of brightly painted wooden houses with rich flowering gardens and fruit trees overhanging iron fences. As the roads worsened and the sight of our speeding cab became more and more noteworthy for the peasants, it soon became clear that neither the cabbie nor the waiter knew where Gradinari was located. We began to ask a succession of peasants–old women in shawls, men with beer bellies loitering outside of the local pubs, young kids fishing off the remains of a wooden bridge. They pointed, we drove, they pointed and we drove. Finally, after going over a bridge clearly not meant for cars and driving through a gully that would have been impassable had there been recently even the slightest rain, we reached the “hospital” of irrecuperables. All three of us got out and hesitantly walked through the gate, looking for a supervisor.

Wearing a Los Angeles Rams T-shirt, the supervisor came out of his office, wary and not at all pleased at our arrival. Yeah, many foreigners come here, he said through my waiter-interpreter. They all come and express their outrage, promise all sorts of aid and assistance, go off and probably paint a most negative picture of Romania and nothing more is heard of them. He was not particularly impressed with my business card nor with my profession. But, well, we had travelled all the way out to this place, we might as well have a look around.

Since the weather was nice, the children were outside, in the backyard of a large institutional-looking building. There were over 100. The supervisor explained: 120 children and only 2 nurses. There were two long picnic tables crowded with children. A group of pens were set up underneath a tent. Several older children stood off to one side. One child, with only one leg, ambled around using his arm as a second leg. All the children were filthy, some with cuts, some only half-clothed. The children in the pens, their heads shaved, rolled around in their soiled diapers, some malnourished to the point of apparent starvation. The mixture of disabilities was staggering: Downs syndrome, autism, amputees, physical birth defects and so on. Perhaps I was imagining it but it seemed as though there were a pecking order establishing a hierarchy between the mobile, the articulate, the sturdy, the reasonable. For those who survived the ordeal of living in such a place until the age of 20, they moved across the street to the adult section. I gave one of the nurses the box of chewing gum that I had brought with me. As she began distributing the pieces, the supervisor remarked that virtually none of the children had ever had gum before. Some might choke to death. This didn’t seem to bother him particularly. The mortality rate at these institutions must be enormous. As we spoke, the children crowded around, chewing their gum, staring at our clothes, our watches. One small child sang a little anti-Ceaucescu song and then ran off.

The lack of staff is the major problem, the supervisor explained. There are fights over food and they can’t be prevented. The children are lucky if they get one bath a week. There is no heat in the winter. Of course food and oil are critical needs, but it was the lack of staff that the supervisor lamented most. Perhaps the most depressing statistic that he quoted was this: the Gradinari instition is not unique. Each district in Romania has two or three. Romania has nearly 40 districts.


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