From Thu Jun 15 16:43:31 2000
Date: Wed, 14 Jun 2000 23:18:57 -0500 (CDT)
From: Carol <
Subject: Nobody's children: savaged by the “free market” in Eastern Europe
Article: 98475
To: undisclosed-recipients:

Abandoned, abused and untaught in Eastern Europe: Nobody's children

By Philippe Demenet, Le Monde diplomatique, June 2000

Medias, a town in Romanian Transylvania, used to have a lot going for it. It had been manufacturing shoes, crystalware, baby carriages, electrical goods and car panels since before the second world war. But in 1990 the “restructuring” started, and it hasn't finished yet. The old industrial combines have been stripped of the holiday centres, crèches and dispensaries left over from the communist era. In their place, the free market has spawned a colourful array of shops, a petrol station, two pizzerias, a private nursery school and a couple of distilleries.

This may have improved the look of the town, but it has done nothing for employment. Three thousand of Medias' 65,000 inhabitants are out of work and another 5,000 have lost their social security rights. “For two thirds of the local population life is a daily struggle for food” says Reinhart Guib, the local Lutheran pastor. Like 3,000 other families in Medias, Iosif and Iby Lörinkz have had to stop heating their home. Iosif is 47. With his invalidity pension and two child allowances of 60,000 lei (just under $3 per child), the family has about $38 a month to live on. But communal heating costs them $34. “If we used less heating”, says Iosif,

“We might be able to eat a little better and buy shoes, washing powder, notebooks and textbooks for the children. Schoolbooks used to be free, but as from this year families have to pay for them.

Their daughters, aged 20 and 14, have grown up anxious of the future. Carmen, the elder, has been unable to continue her studies. Under the strain, her younger sister, Doris, has tried to commit suicide. Iosif used to work at Carbosin, a carbon-black plant at Copsa Mica that covered the whole area in a blanket of soot. It was suddenly closed down in 1993. Angry and resentful, Iosif spends his days between an unmade bed and a television set that is always on. Iby is 43. She has been chasing cleaning jobs ever since the saucepan factory she used to work at was restructured. “The first thing they did was to sack the women,” she murmurs.

The misery can be felt on all sides, but people keep it to themselves —as if shamed by the well-stocked shop windows, restaurants they cannot afford and bright advertisements for the delights of the west. “A handful of wheeler-dealers are making a packet,” explains Nora Godwin, a Unicef representative in Bucharest. “But family incomes are falling all the time and the value of money is eroded by inflation. The IMF is demanding the restructuring of the industrial sector, which forces unemployment up and up, and social protection is disappearing.”

The mayor of Bucharest has announced that he can no longer help families pay for their heating. In Medias, the mayor has stopped paying emergency allowances to the 240 families with no income at all. “We have asked the NGOs to supply them with food and medicine,” he says. In Romania, as in other eastern European countries, the authorities have got used to “privatising” social assistance by shifting the burden to the NGOs. With 7.6m Romanians living below the poverty line (1), it is very much a last resort.

Because of poverty and the state's lack of power, 2,000 children are now on the streets. One in five of them has run away from an orphanage. Two-thirds of them prefer cold and hunger, and even begging and petty theft, to the daily violence that went on in their families. “My dad drank all the time and my mum kept running away. I used sleep in a video-games shop,” says Andrei, a 12-year-old with a mop of ginger hair. He was lucky enough to stumble across social workers from Salvati Copiii (2) and now he lives in their hostel, along with more than 40 other battered children.

Although there are a dozen such hostels, almost all run by private associations, there are still children sleeping in stair wells, railway stations and heating ducts. Marian has trouble remembering and getting words out, so he writes his story down with a shaking hand: “I ran away from my village near Tulcea six years ago because of my stepmother. She was always going on at me.” He and his mate Vasile hang around the Eroilor metro station. They say they are 14, but they look about 10. They spend their days sniffing a bottle of grey varnish. At night they shelter under a nearby florist's stand. With them are Stefana, a teenage Gypsy, and her eight-year-old brother, Florin. These two beg by day and sleep at their uncle's place. In search of affection and cheap presents, they are easy prey for the paedophiles from all countries who have put Bucharest and Budapest on their list of sex tourist resorts.

Romanian parents do not have a history of abandoning their children, any more than Bulgarians or Russians. “On the contrary,” says Claude Karnoouh, a French anthropologist and visiting professor at the Babes-Bolyai university in Cluj, “Romanian children were more pampered than average middle-class children in western Europe, and greater attention was paid to socialising them.” The Ceaucescu dictatorship enforced a policy of increasing the birthrate. Contraception and abortion were banned, and children from “inadequate” families were put in Soviet-type institutions, on the grounds that the state would do a better job of raising them. “The Romanian state gave them lodgings and employment when they left the orphanage,” Karnoouh recalls. He has since witnessed the breakdown of family ties with the advent of out-and-out capitalism, which he calls a “more violent social upheaval than the one imposed by the communists in 1948.”

A recent opinion poll asked Romanians what their “reasons for satisfaction” were: 56% answered none (3). “I used to be able to breastfeed in the crèche at my workplace,” says Dana Crisan, who runs a family support centre in Medias. “The town had 10 free crèches. Now there are only two, and you have to pay for them. Why didn't we keep the best of the old system? What are we going to pass on our children apart from looking for a fast buck?”

The health service is in the throes of chaotic reform on the Polish model (inspired by Thatcher's attack on British social security). Many doctors at the Medias hospital look back to the old system with growing nostalgia. They have even forgotten the shortages of the Ceaucescu era, when thousands of children were infected with the AIDS virus through vaccination because of the lack of syringes. Faced with mounting numbers of premature births and pregnant women suffering from anaemia, they feel bitter and helpless. “We're unable to save new-born babies weighing less than a kilo,” says Dr Elena Paul, the head of the maternity unit. “Natural selection is having the last word.”

Natural selection, maybe. But social selection is also at work. Upstairs in the paediatric ward, eight abandoned babies gaze listlessly at their fingers. “Sometimes their mothers come and get them, but they bring them back as soon as they've used up the ration of milk powder we give them,” Paloma Doinea, the head of the department, explains. “They've no money to buy any more.”

Poverty is why babies are abandoned. In Romania—as in Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia—many abandoned children come from impoverished Gypsy families -but by no means all of them. Unemployment, low pay, lack of decent housing, high price of contraceptives, growing number of teenage mothers, and the habit (acquired under the old regime) of considering the state as a surrogate parent, are all part of the tragedy.

Under pressure from NGOs and funding organisations, some so-called orphanages (4) are sending social workers to remind families to visit their children and urge them to take them back when things get better. But the number of under-fours taken into care still far exceeds the number leaving institutions. It has risen by 45% in 10 years, to 10,000 a year (5), although the birthrate has fallen dramatically. The same has happened in most of the neighbouring countries except Hungary, where reforms have been more gradual.

A million children in central and eastern Europe now have the state as parent. That is half a million more than in 1989. “If living conditions go on getting worse, the number of children in care is bound to increase,” says Cristian Tabacaru, formerly a state secretary in the Romanian child protection department. His duties have been taken over by the National Agency for Child Protection under a reform imposed by the European Union as a condition for opening accession negotiations with Romania. With responsibility scattered among various ministries, the EU was anxious to bring all 147,000 children in state care (including 30,000 placed in foster homes) under a single authority.

“We've made a tremendous effort,” Tabacuru stresses. It is a bit late though. As in Poland, where parliament created a legal framework for foster families only last winter, reform of the child protection system had to wait until 1997. And there are still many gaps. Home support is embryonic and legal protection for young people virtually non-existent. Worse still, the decentralisation measures demanded by the EU have produced total chaos in the country's 33 hostels for the handicapped, known as camin spital, where 4,000 children have been left to rot in abominable conditions.

Hostels housing hundreds of handicapped children, usually located well away from urban areas, are a standard feature of all the former eastern bloc countries. In Romania, each of them employs a couple of hundred untrained village women, paid 600,000 lei a month (under $30). Last year's decentralisation left rural councils unable to fund these huge institutions, and the women got no wages for six months. “Surprisingly, they still came to work every day,” says Dr Teodora Avram. She is the director of the camin spital in Gradinari. In September, she received money from the Eurobingo TV show and a little aid from France and the EU, which allowed her to stock up on food and pay the wage arrears—until the next crisis.

Should these shameful places be closed down? “Not until family support services are in place and the camin spital employees have been retrained,” says Nora Godwin. But for that to happen, Romania must be governed more efficiently and the EU stop making conflicting demands. The NGOs must also recognise their mistakes. Gérard Luçon, who runs the local branch of Handicap International, admits that for 10 years his organisation was “bogged down in building repairs and the supply of toys, water heaters, and so on. Enormous sums of money were spent. What we didn't do was make sure staff were properly qualified.”

In an emergency, Romania can always rely on help from its friends abroad. Ukraine cannot. On the other side of the Carpathian mountains, the 132 children in the home at Zaluch live in the same dreadful conditions as in Gradinari, but their misery is made worse by the anguish and solitude of a country closed in on itself. Without electricity one day, heating the next, the “home for children” stands abandoned on the edge of a dilapidated country estate. Children are moaning, others dance around naked. Some are in straitjackets, most are lying in bed. The staff lift them up to show their dreadful deformities which “resemble the effects of exposure to post-Chernobyl radiation”, as Dr Philippe Josué reported on a fact-finding mission for Médecins du Monde in 1998 (6). A few miles away, in a contaminated zone 40 miles in diameter, potatoes and sweetcorn are being grown without any regard for the consequences.

In these uncertain times, the staff keep the 20 pigs in the sty for their own use. They also cultivate 50 acres of wheat, potatoes and beetroot, without fertiliser or seed. Two doctors have left for Italy to work as cleaners. Their replacement has no antibiotics and is unlikely to stick it out much longer. The 80 nurses and assistants have no choice but to remain in Ukraine on an official salary of 105 hryvna (under $20). In fact, they only get $1 to $10, plus some vodka, sweets, sausages or butter.

“After the presidential election last October,” says Luba, one of the nurses, “they told us we could no longer count on any wages or payment in kind.” Since then, the children have had nothing to eat but potatoes and oil. And according to official statistics, a third of all seriously handicapped children die before the age of 18.

Both in Romania and in Ukraine, healthy children get in to these death houses by mistake. The staff at Zaluch proudly exhibit “the two who can talk”: Stiopa, 7, who belts out a Ricky Martin number, and Misha, 5, such a pretty child you wonder what he is doing in all this stench. “Mentally deficient, retarded, both parents alcoholic,” say the men in white coats. In Ukraine, as formerly in the Soviet Union, it is enough to be the child of an alcoholic or a criminal to be labelled ill.

With their anaemic children and well-fed directors who are happy to accept a bribe, the orphanages of the Ukraine stink of corruption. But that is how all Ukrainians survive. Phantom salaries are rife and tax evasion widespread. In a country where the official currency has lost all value and only the dollar counts, all services are at risk. Hospital patients bring their own bandages, pillows, syringes and medicines, as well as a $400 backhander for the surgeon. Outside the big cities, crowds gather by the roadside, waiting in vain for a bus. Yet on market days you see as many cars as horse-drawn carts.

In contrast to the clothing in Romania, overcoats are fashionable and warm, hats stylish, and their owners look far from downtrodden. Corruption still pays off for most people, but for how much longer? Katya Lavrentovich, a soft-spoken 14-year-old, has no illusions about the “transition”. She lives in Snyatyn, a town a few miles from Zaluch. “Many people of my age drink,” she says. Older teenagers “take drugs because they can't find work”. Meanwhile, Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches are springing up like mushrooms. “The only people taking on workers round here are the church-building foundations”, says Katya, “and even they pay in petrol, not hryvna.”

In her school, some of the classrooms are heated, others not. At the grammar school, there is no heating at all. The parents have repainted the classrooms. Katya's parents are more confident than most. “People who complain are just thinking about their stomachs,” says her mother, Jana. “They're unable to give any meaning to their lives.” Katya's father, Mykola, blames everything on the mafia, who “dream of a union between Ukraine and Russia”. Yet neither parent is officially receiving any income at all. Mykola is a former fireman, now an invalid, and Jana is a veterinary surgeon in a poultry kolkhoz (collective farm).

But Mykola has a “private” poultry pen with 100 laying hens, and Jana moonlights as a local vet. She also sells eggs at the market, plus the produce of their small plot and any goods she can wring out of the kolkhoz manager. The Lavrentoviches and their daughter are better off than the Lörinkz family. They own a car and a hut in the country, and go on holiday once a year to the Black Sea coast.

Jana hopes things will improve by the time Katya has finished her studies. Meanwhile, the family is saving the hundreds of dollars needed for her to get into the university at Ivano-Frankivsk. Katya would like to be a journalist, but her mother insists she becomes a vet or a doctor because “we don't know anybody in the journalism faculty.” Katya consoles herself with the thought that doctors “have got more chance of being paid than most others”. Her father urges her to “learn foreign languages”, like many young girls looking for work in the west. Many fall foul of the mafia, which bases its traffic in women, like in Poland, on recruiting victims through small ads for babysitters, barmaids and dancers “with their papers in order”.

Far away from the bribery and corruption, the little village school at Zbuvdvichi, near Snyatyn, is running out of coal. The winter frosts are a grim prospect. The teacher sits huddled in her coat, as tired little faces look up to welcome the visitor with a polite “Good morning!” Some of them have got up at dawn to walk the four miles to school. “There used to be a bus,” says the headmaster, Igor Volodamerovich, “but the parents can't pay for it any more. They've got no money for textbooks either, and we can't supply them second-hand any longer. Four years ago we used to provide free meals for over a dozen under-fed children. We've still got hungry children, but there's no money for food.”

His large, earth-stained hands show how he supplements his own salary. The teachers no longer receive even their monthly salaries of 130 to 150 hryvna (about $25). They still come to work but they lack motivation.

Ukraine is still drowsy from the Soviet anaesthetic. What will happens when it wakes up? The prospect worries neighbouring Poland, which already considers itself part of Europe. Many eastern European countries are jealous of its success. Nevertheless, fiddling is rife and the underground economy is on a grand scale. It is now 10 years since the first street hawkers set up in central Warsaw, right outside the Palace of Culture. Since then, all child-care institutions have fallen prey to business mania. Nurseries have been privatised, hundreds of private schools have sprung up (300 grammar schools in 1999 alone), and headteachers spend most of their time chasing after sponsors to make good their budget deficits.

“I've let the walls to an advertising agency,” boasts Jolanta Drobot, the smartly dressed head of the Stefan Sterzynski school in Warsaw's Praga district. She also hires out classrooms for private dance and sports classes. The school canteen is rented to Jehovah's Witnesses, who have 30 or so followers among the 700 pupils and have given it a new coat of paint. Parents are asked to contribute to the maintenance costs of the colour photocopier, as well as to a “foundation” that has enabled the head to acquire a dozen computers and pay a bonus to “leading” teachers, who have already been awarded a 30% supplement by the local authority. These benefits are part of a reform that began last September at the start of the new school year, with the aim of separating “good” teachers from “bad”. It is the brainchild of Solidarity, whose political wing is the cornerstone of the ruling conservative coalition. “People who can't get a job anywhere else end up in teaching, the worst-paid profession,” says Jozef Niemiec, a top Solidarity official. “We have to break this vicious circle and prepare children better for the labour market. They need a broader grammar-school education that teaches them to be more mobile and competitive”.

Romania is following avidly in Poland's footsteps. School number 150 in Bucharest, located near the presidential palace, requires parents to pay an annual contribution of up to 600,000 lei (just under $30), the equivalent of a modest monthly salary. As in Poland, where funding is also decentralised, the inequalities in the Romanian education system are compounded by sponsoring. “The reform mainly benefits the upper social strata,” says Kazimierz Frieske, an expert on poverty and founder of a private university in Warsaw teaching law and business studies. “The government's counting on this reform to make young people more employable. I doubt it will.”

Half of the 2m Poles living in extreme poverty are under 19. “The government's spending just enough to avoid revolt and starvation, but not enough to get the excluded back on the labour market,” says Professor Frieske. Unemployment benefit is around 400 zloty ($90) a month for one year, irrespective of previous salary, but prices are at German levels.

There is not much sign of poverty in Warsaw or Gdansk. It is concentrated in pockets around the former state farms and in middle-size towns badly affected by restructuring. The excluded make up 10% to 15% of the population. In Bialolenka, on the outskirts of Warsaw, 2,000 to 3,000 homeless people shelter in hostels funded partly by private sponsors. But the bulk of the money comes from the local authority, whose coffers have been filled by capital investment from Coca Cola, L'Oréal, Auchan, Daewoo and other foreign companies.

Poland, a front runner for EU membership, has no children living on the streets. But just in 1998, parental stress, domestic violence and alcoholism made 8,500 youngsters aged 7 to 17 run away from home. The police, more active than in Romania, eventually found them all. They have been put in children's homes or returned to their families. “These children are crying out for help,” says police commissioner Alicja Tomaszewska, a specialist in missing persons. “Parents used to have time for their kids. Now they're too busy trying to make money.”

There has been a dramatic increase in suicide, juvenile delinquency, sexual abuse and violence against children (7). Like the Czech Republic and Hungary, Poland is becoming a “normal” country. It is discovering the blessings of the consumer society. Alicja Ziarnik, educational adviser at the Stefan Sterzynski school, is pleased that Polish children are more open and assertive. But she sadly produces a confiscated ball-bearing pistol and a bag of marijuana: “I arrange things with the police to make sure there aren't any dealers hanging round the school.”

Can she really make sure? The Institute of Psychiatry recently conducted a study of 10,000 schoolchildren in the Warsaw area. It showed that 15% of all pupils aged 15 to 16, and 30% of all 18-year-olds, have already tried drugs—mainly marijuana, but also amphetamines and ecstasy. With their baseball caps, jeans and mobile phones, the youngsters of Gdansk and Warsaw have jumped firmly into the consumer age. “We failed to see that capitalism has its downside,” Professor Frieske admits. Not much consolation for the children sacrificed in the process.


(1) In 1998, compared with 4.4m in 1996. Of these, 39% are wage earners and 26% retired, according to a survey carried out by GUS, the Polish national statistics office.

(2) The Romanian branch of the International Save the Children Alliance.

(3) Poll conducted by Metromedia Transilvania, October 1999.

(4) The term is a misnomer, since most of the children placed in these institutions still have legal links with their parents.

(5) The vast majority have been placed there by their mothers, as compared with 3,000 in Poland, where placements are generally made by judicial order.

(6) Médecins du Monde decided to take no action. The only NGO concerned with the children's home at Zaluch is a foundation for children in Trzebownisko, run by a journalist who is a member of Solidarity.

(7) A recent survey conducted by the foundation Niczyje Dzieci (Nobody's Children) in the Praga district revealed “levels of child abuse and sexual abuse of children comparable to those of western Europe”.