My aim is not to deal with the children of Romania, as has been done many times before, but specifically with the institutionalization of the abandonment of children and the diabolical system that was put in place almost 30 years ago now.

In 1970 Ceaucescu had the Parliament in Bucharest passed a law which made the abandonment of children a question of national policy. This was aimed at encouraging population growth, of course, but it was also an affirmation of the state’s primacy over the family in matters of education. Over the next 20 years, orphanages sprung up all over the country, approximately 600 spread over 41 districts.

In 1989, Ceaucescu was driven from power and executed. The appalling truth was then discovered about these wretched institutions populated with forgotten, sick children who had often lost their reason, as though they had been wiped off the map of the world. In 1991, the new government repealed Ceaucescu’s birthrate law, which had made the use of contraception illegal and had decreed that women had to have 5 children. However, it failed to respond in any way to the tragedy of the 100,000 abandoned children then registered or even to stem the flow of newly abandoned children caused by the economic crisis that was cruelly shaking a country with half its population living under the poverty line.


10 years after Ceaucescu's fall, the harsh reality is that the number of children being abandoned is higher than it has ever been and that Romania is not respecting the terms of the commitment it made to the international community when it ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990. The deadlock id such that certain N.G.O.s like Médecins Sans Frontières have decided to leave the country in protest against the State's inertia and the misappropriation of subsidies allocated to this growing sector.

The election of Iliescu in January 2001 suggests things will get even worse: a return to the practices of the past and the end of all hope that a decent policy of family support will be introduced in Romania. Humanitarian aid can only do so much faced with a problem, which, in the absence of suitable government policy, is taking on enormous proportions. It is no longer a case of trying to help Romania improve a system that has tragic consequences, but rather of convincing it that it must radically change its system.

I became aware of this appalling situation in Bucharest in February 1998 when I was working on my first project with the French association SERA, which made this photo-reportage possible thanks to regular support. I first went to the Colentina orphanage which houses abandoned children with AIDS. Around 3.000 children have been made HIV-positive through the systematic injection of medicines, where more often than not a single syringe is used for a whole orphanage. I was struck both by the scale of the problem and by the fact that these institutions were like concentration camps. The institutionalization of child abandonment means that they can be knocked around like balls in a pinball machine. Abandoned at birth, they enter a rigid and inefficient system that they will never leave and which will inevitably lead to state homes, or for those who are most disturbed, to psychiatric hospitals.

In April 1998, I went to the Ionaseni orphanage, which is a "camin-spital", a kind of twilight home for children of all ages. In June 1998, in Ungureni, I visited another camin-spital but this time it was specifically for severely handicapped children.

On my fourth trip in September 1998 I saw another camin-spital in Beltini, which was somewhat less desperate perhaps as, for once, the staff were trained, and the children could receive better-suited care.

In May 1999, in Turnu-Severin, I took photographs of a "leagan", a home for children aged 3 and under. On this occasion I witnessed one of the very rare attempts to organize the care of children in volunteer families and even the adoption of some.

In July 1999, at the camin-spital in Horia and at a dystrophic centre in Tulcea, which cares for premature children, it became apparent that the threat of famine had become a tragic reality. The Romanian government does not currently have the means even to supply the orphanages with their meager funding. The only hope now is the possibility of a subsidy from the European Commission, which the head of the government has just officially requested.

During the year 2000 I worked in a maternity hospital in Vilcea. In order to bear witness to the vicious circle of institutionalized child abandonment, over these three years I went towards those who, having been deprived of a childhood, inevitably become adults who are weak, handicapped, and in care for life.

Along the way I also came into contact with another element in this tragedy - the families who live in such extreme poverty that they are forced to abandon their children, swelling the numbers of those that they call "the devil's children".

Jean-Louis Courtinat

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