Comber Romainian Orphanage Appeal



“A Personal Journey through Romania’s Institutions”


I was living in Australia in 1989 when all of Eastern Europe was undergoing changes. I remember the television footage of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife Eleana being executed during Romania’s revolution. Little did I know at that time, how much Romania was to become part of my life.

Having returned to Ireland and seen the TV images being broadcast of thousands of abandoned children in horrific conditions, I made the decision to go to Romania with a small charity based in Northern Ireland – known as Comber. Initially I took three months leave of absence, but quickly realized that I could achieve very little in three months, so extended my leave to 9 months and ultimately ended up handing in my notice in Ireland and spending over three years in Romania.

Ceaucescu was in power from 1965 to 1989, but the legacy he left behind will take generations to rectify. When Ceaucescu came to power the population was 19 million with zero population growth. Ceaucescu worried for future labour supplies and further industrialization. His dream was to increase the population to 25 million and to achieve this he introduced draconian measures. Incredibly, up to this time, abortion was the main form of contraception in Romania. In 1967 the decree number 770 was introduced – banning all abortions and all legal importation of contraceptives were stopped. Punitive policies were introduced – people over the age of 25 who remained childless were liable for huge taxes – every female was actively encouraged to have 5 or more children. This even went to the extent of physical examinations of women who didn’t comply with this. These measures led to almost 100% increase in population in its first year. This desperately economically poor country could not support this population growth. This directly led to hundreds of thousands of children - with and without disabilities - being abandoned in institutions.

In August of 1993, I first stepped foot in Gradinari institution. Gradinari is in a very small, rural village and was home to 250 children between the ages of 3 and 18 years with varying degrees of intellectual and physical disabilities. I don’t think any TV footage or newspaper reports could have prepared me for what I saw. I know its been said many times before – but it is so true – the smell is simply indescribable – it is the first thing that hits you when you walk in the front door and is something that never leaves you. So many children – many with twisted and deformed bodies from years of being left in cots, lying on filthy mattresses, covered in flies, no clothing, no sanitation, very little food and staff sitting in doorways – some with sticks ready to beat a child if they dared to move or make a sound.

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My first nine months were a firefighting mission. Death rates were very high with children dying on a daily basis – dysentery being a major cause. Our first priority was to introduce hygiene measures and improve dietary needs in order to reduce the number of deaths. Once this was accomplished we then focused our attentions to staff training and program implementation. This necessitated learning basic Romanian in order to properly communicate with staff. Once staff realized we were making an effort to understand and include them, their attitude slowly began to change.

These three years were without a doubt the most rewarding and enjoyable of my life but were not without major frustrations. The biggest obstacle in Romania was corruption - a carton of Kent cigarettes could have bought me anything I needed. Bureaucracy was also a huge daily frustration – for example, it could take me up to two hours to find the five necessary signatures to get one jumper from a storeroom. And I know for a fact that the director of this institution never knew how many children were in her care but could definitely tell me how many jumpers were in that storeroom.

During these years we became aware of a very sinister situation. There are two very separate services for children under and over the age of18. Children in Gradinari who had reached the age of 18, simply disappeared. After much detective work, we finally tracked these young adults to an institution called Bolintine Vale. Many cartons of cigarettes later, we were granted permission to visit this institution. Having lived in Romania for three years, I felt I had seen and experienced everything – I felt nothing could shock me. But I was wrong.

Bolintine Vale is the most shocking, upsetting and saddest place I have ever seen. A friend of mine, who visited with me, described it as evocative of black and white film footage of the survivors of liberated World War Two concentration camps. The absence of human dignity, the utter absence of hope and the complete sense of abandonment.

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Bolintine Vale is home to 150 adults, who are simply existing in this truly appalling institution. It is not just an institution for young adults with intellectual disabilities but is also a dumping ground for adults who don’t quite fit into Romanian society. For example, Mihai had both legs amputated from the above the knee as a result of a train accident and was thus unable to work. His family abandoned him in Bolintine Vale. Costel is a very gentle, quite man in his sixties. When his wife died, Costel became very depressed and drank a lot. His family abandoned him in Bolintine Vale. Viorel is an extremely intelligent man in his thirties. While studying at university, Viorel had a ‘psychotic’ episode and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and his family abandoned him to Bolintine Vale. Viorel is better read than anyone I know. He is fluent in three languages and acts as my translator. To have people like this, plus adults with severe to profound intellectual and physical disabilities, plus young adults with violent and challenging behaviors all in the one institution leads to Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest – which in turn means that the weakest do not survive in Bolintine Vale.

Here in Ireland we are actively trying to introduce the Social Model of Disability. What I witnessed in Bolintine Vale cannot be categorized under any Social or Medical Model. I can only describe it as a Romanian Tragedy.

Comber attempted to try and change things in Bolintine Vale, but eventually had to make the heartbreaking decision to stop all financial and voluntary input, because of the severe corruption and complete lack of will to change on the staff’s behalf. The director of Bolintine Vale, like most senior positions in institutions, was a senior member of Ceaucescu’s regime and was never open to change.

After three years as a volunteer with Comber, I needed to get back to Ireland and back in touch with western ways. I also badly needed to earn some money. Comber continued its work in Gradinari, and as I couldn’t forget about the children, I continued to visit Romania several times a year. On each visit I made that lonely journey to Bolintine Vale.

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Over the next few years, Comber gradually withdrew its volunteers in Gradinari, believing – probably rather naively – that the Romanian staff was now ready to take over. Unfortunately things slipped back in Gradinari. No children were dying but there was no stimulation, love or affection being shown to these children. Bolintine Vale remained the hellish nightmare it always was.

An ex-volunteer, Fiona, and I continued our visits to Romania and in 2003 we began to notice major changes. There was talk of Romania joining the European Union (EU). Things needed to change – Romanians desperately wanted to join the EU and in order to do so, realized they needed to address their corruption and human rights issues. This finally gave charities and NGOs the chance to really make a difference.

New policies and strategies were being introduced. Children’s services were definitely changing. Huge EU funding started flooding into the country. Large institutions were being closed down and children re-housed in smaller group homes. Gradinari closed its doors in September 2004 – a very happy day in my life. Things are by no means perfect for children with intellectual and physical disabilities. Yes – their living conditions have much improved but they still have no access to any form of education or schooling, no day services of any description and very little stimulation from staff.

As in Ireland, services for children and adults with Intellectual Disabilities is decentralized. Each county is responsible for its own children. So obviously, depending on the wealth of the county, the better the services. Unfortunately, both Gradinari and Bolintine Vale are in Giurgiu county, one of the poorer counties in Romania.

Although huge strides are being made in children’s services, there seems to be very little urgency in changing the adult services. There is a national strategy in place to reduce the size of adult institutions to a maximum of 50 adults per institution. But when this is to happen – nobody knows! There is no plan for smaller, family-type homes in the national strategy.

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Eighteen months ago, Fiona and I started negotiations with the Director of Services for the over 18s in Giurgiu county. We wanted to set up a pilot program in the county to provide suitable family-type houses for the adults in Bolintine Vale with a view to eventually closing it down.

Initially we were met with huge resistance – no money, no interest and no will to change. Yes, if we as a charity wanted to build, staff and sustain this project they would be delighted for us to do so – as long as they had no involvement. Our years of experience showed this could not be the way forward. For this model to work, it had to be an equal partnership between us and the local government. So, after many frustrating visits to and from Romania – in November 2005, a contract was finally signed between Comber, the local county council and Motivation Romania (a local Romanian NGO).

Thanks to huge fundraising efforts and an Irish government aid grant, we were able to purchase a house in July 2006. We have completed all necessary renovations to make it wheelchair accessible etc - and on December 18th (which is Monday week!) the first six ladies will move in. They will spend their first ever Christmas in their own home. I will be traveling in January to assist with the second six beneficiaries moving into this home.

This is just the first phase in what will hopefully be the closing down of this appalling institution.

Things are changing in Romania. But with its huge history of corruption and human rights issues, NGOs still play a vital role in the continuing development of Romania’s services for people with disabilities. We still have a long road to go.

Romania is joining the EU in January, 2007. During all my years in Romania I’ve had to remind myself that the Ireland of the 40s, 50s and 60s wasn’t such a great place for people with disabilities. We had our own fair share of horror stories. But with EU accession, things had to change. Ireland’s track record in this area has improved dramatically. Even over my 25 years working in the disability sector here, I have seen huge and dramatic changes. And this is what gives me hope for the future of Romania and for people like Mihai, Costel and Viorel.

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