A disastrous intervention by the Romanian state in the life of families provoked a little-known tragedy: thousands of homeless and helpless children, victims of diseases such as hepatitis and AIDS
In early 1990, shortly after Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed and executed in one of the many revolutions which swept socialist regimes from Eastern Europe, the rest of the world began to know the truth about one of the most isolated countries of the region.
Among the revelations made then, none shocked more than the images of thousands of orphanages all over the country: an estimated number of 100 and 170 thousand children were kept in foul institutions, with lousy health and hygienic conditions, forsaken by the government and practically estranged from every human contact. Many of them developed psychological disorders and were infected by diseases such as hepatitis B and AIDS. Today, almost 30 years later, the survivors are fighting for justice.
When dictator Nicolae Ceausescu seized power in Romania, in 1965, his country was poor even by Eastern European standards. Everything was yet to be done in that which was one of the most obscure countries of the socialist bloc, and the grand plans of the new leader for the future of the nation involved promoting a quick population growth. His idea, based on the economic tenets of Stalinism, seemed simple: the younger the Romanians, the bigger the workforce and the production – and, consequently, the more richness would be available to the state.
It did not take long for Romania to become, next to Albania, one of the most closed countries behind the Iron Curtain. Unlike nations such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Soviet Union, the Romanians did not even have famous dissidents: its totalitarian regime controlled dissension in a manner that was hard even when compared to its neighbors, and dictated rules for all aspects of daily life, including intimate issues such as reproduction and the “adequate” size Romanian families should have.
“Sons of the decree”
In order to achieve more easily his economic goals, Ceausescu implemented Decree 770 in the beginning of his government: the new law established rules and punishments in order to discourage citizens from having small families. The dictator imposed a fee of up to 30% of the wages on couples over the age of 25 who did not have children. Sterilization surgeries were forbidden for women under the age of 40 (and, later, 45) who did not have at least five children. Another law then established that homosexuals exposed by the Securitate, the country’s secret police, would suffer harsher punishments than before: the “crime” could be jailed for up to five years – and frequently would be killed before regaining their freedom. The official agenda was that every Romanian home should have children.
The law was effective immediately: in the first year after the decree, the birth rate went up by 13% in the country. The Romanian “baby boom” which followed during the next decade gave the children born during this period a nickname: “decretei”, the “sons of the decree”.
With time, however, women who did not want more children began to use clandestine methods to avoid or interrupt their pregnancies – abortive pills, for instance, began to be smuggled into the country and, although sold illegally and at extremely high prices, reached the hands of many Romanian women. Affluent families could also count on a blind eye from the authorities. According to Human Rights Watch, it is estimated that the number of deaths related to abortion procedures went up by 600% in the years following the decree.
That is how, during the 80s, when population growth began to wind down once again, Ceausescu tightened his control policy, creating the “Demographic Command Bodies”, medical groups which were nicknamed “menstruation police” – gynecologists sent by the government to do trimonthly exams in women, in their workplaces, in order to detect any pregnancies before they could be interrupted. Pregnant women who did not give birth, for whatever reasons, were investigated by the state and could be arrested.
No food, water or electricity
After Decree 770, Romanian orphanages began to have a role different from that which made them exist in the first place. Now, instead of serving primarily to children who had lost their parents, they also became repositories for children who came from families unable to afford having many children at home. The state itself encouraged such decisions, and government propaganda ensured that these children would be taken care of and prepared for adult life.
Indeed, during the first years the “decretei” destined to these orphanages did not suffer as much as the ones who were born during the next decades – despite being far from the quality announced by Ceausescu’s regime, these institutions had enough resources to operate within certain standards.
From 1982 on, however, when the government began to try to pay Romania’s astronomical foreign debt, most of its public services began to face a constant lack of funds – and an adequate maintenance of these orphanages became one of the government’s last priorities.
In the late 1980s, in the years which preceded the dictator’s downfall, there were shortages of food, clothes and medicines for these orphanages. Water and power cuts were common, in and out of the institutions. With the whole country in a state of misery, whatever was sent to help the children was routinely stolen by the employees, according to the children who survived this ordeal, years later. In 1989, the daily budget destined to a Romanian orphanage was less than two dollar cents per child (14 lei, in the undervalued local currency).
The government protocols also stopped being followed closely. Originally, children would be placed in an institution until they reached the age of three and, after that, would be transferred to a different one, where they stayed until they were six years old. Finally, they would go through physical and psychiatric evaluations, and those that were considered “normal” would remain in institutions kept by the Ministry of Education, while those classified as “irrecoverable” or “unproductive” (due to some deficiency of learning difficulty) were handed out to entities associated, ironically, with the Ministry of Labor.
Due do the lack of resources, the aforementioned controversial criteria were loosened – children now were sent to any place which had any space to house them, regardless of the philosophy followed by the institution. Those responsible for the orphanages were oriented not to talk to the children, and not to answer them whenever they cried. The goal, according to government experts, was to “get them used” to not depending on anyone, since there were not enough employees to provide attention to all of them.
Children were not hugged, did not take part in any activities or games nor did receive any emotional stimuli – they were merely fed and cleaned. In institutions destined to those who were deemed “unrecoverable”, like Cighid, near the Hungarian border, they lacked even that: the lack of attention and hygiene caused death rates of up to 50% in a single year.
Opening and shock
Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal regime came to an abrupt end in December 1989. With the fall of the Berlin Wall serving as an example to movements which demanded the end of socialist regimes, Ceausescu saw himself cornered: he became more and more unpopular after two decades of abuses, and lost the control of his subordinates in face of economic pressures, and eventually tried to flee, in December 22nd, after a series of protests took the streets of Bucharest.
Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were captured three days later, and, after a summary trial by a court set up by the new provisional government, they were convicted of the crimes of genocide and illicit accumulation of wealth – before Christmas night was over both had already been executed by a firing squad.
The end of the communist dictatorship in Romania did not bring immediate changes to the country: many members of Securitate took advantage of the destatization of the economy and took control of important sectors and becoming oligarchs following the Russian model – deeper reforms would only come about in 1997, after a member of the opposition was elected.
Still, despite the slow transition, in the early 90s the new government’s drive to differentiate itself from the Ceausescu days made Romania open itself to the West, denouncing the horrors committed by the previous regime. The most shocking scenes to the rest of the world were those recorded inside the orphanages, and their reality became public for the first time, both in and out of the country.
“The two things I remember most vividly, and which will remain with me forever, are the smell of urine and the silence of so many children”, described Bob Graham, a reporter from British newspaper Daily Mail who was among the first foreigners to visit one of these Romanian institutions, in 1990, who was interviewed by GlobalPost.
“Usually, when you walk into a room filled with cradles and children, you would expect to hear noise, people talking or crying, sometimes weeping. There was no such thing, even though the children were wide awake. They would just lay down in their cradles, sometimes two or three in the same bed, and just stare. Silently. It was frightening, almost sinister.”
The international cameras showed a fraction of the reality lived daily in Ceausescu’s orphanages: children dressed with similar clothes, which often did not fit them right and were dirty, and always had the same haircut – very short, regardless of their sex, in order to avoid lice.
When a visitor entered the halls, children would run and hug them. If was “indiscriminate affability”, described like this by neuroscientist David Eagleman in “The Brain: The Story of You”: “Although this sort of indiscriminate behavior seems sweet at first glance, it’s coping strategy of neglected children, and it goes hand-in-hand with long-term attachment issues.”
The shock caused by those images started a wave of adoptions of Romanian children by families from Western Europe, the United States and Canada. During the almost thirty years which have passed since then, accompanied by psychologists, their behavior and development were studies – and helped understanding the importance of earlier years and how they reflect in an individual’s adult life.
The terrible conditions of these Romanian institutions left many children with physical and psychological sequels that to this day have repercussions. Charles Nelson, a doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital, has examined 136 children in Bucharest: after putting them through electroencephalograms, he realized their neural activity was extremely reduced – their IQ varied from 60 to 70, when the average among children of their age would be around 100 points.
Another study, which included children adopted by families in the United Kingdom, showed that, although the IQ level usually became normal as the years went by, these young people would still have sociability issues – they would have, for instance, higher unemployment rates than young people who had also been adopted but did not have to go to Ceausescu’s orphanages.
Still in the 90s, neurobiologist Mary Carlson and her husband, psychiatrist Felton Earls, both from Harvard University, also studied the situation of children who attended those institutions, who still had not changed much at that point in time. Their study was focused on cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, and showed that children had levels of it completely outside of the normal standards of their age: among them, the cortisol peak would begin in the early afternoon and remain high until nighttime.
Cortisol helps us to be prepared for dangerous situations but, in excess, has deep effects over the brain: it may reduce memory capacity and cause symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Since they were being raised without human bonds, many Romanians believed these orphans were being used in the ranks of Securitate. For Mary Carlson, the theory was plausible: “they were excellent members for the secret police”, she said in an interview to Harvard Magazine. “Since they lack any sense of social loyalty, they lose the most basic social emotions”.
Another drama which plagued those who grew in the Romanian orphanages was a shocking AIDS epidemic.
In order to circumvent the lack of food, it was common for the nurses in many of these institutions to administer small blood transfusions in the children they were taking care; and since they injected blood which had not been properly tested for diseases and reused non-sterilized syringes, viruses such as HIV and HBV (which causes hepatitis B) were spread to whole orphanages.
In the early 1990s the shocking figure of 94% of AIDS cases in Romania affected children under the age of 13. In the turn of the century, the country answered for 60% of HIV infections in all Europe, most of them among children who were contaminated via blood transfusions.
The situation of the Romanian orphanages began to change drastically during the 2000s, when the country sough to join the European Union and one of the demands made by the bloc was the complete revision of the system of care administered to unaccompanied minors in Romania.
Since then, the government has introduced a national program which aims to replace the large institutions of the past for a temporary adoption system in family homes or in smaller orphanages.
It has also become illegal for families to abandon their children in state institutions before they reach the age of two years, except in cases of severe deficiencies. The draconian policies which required a minimum number of children per couple were also immediately suspended after the end of the dictatorship.
As a result of the policies adopted after the 1989 Revolution, the number of institutionalized children, which was over 100 thousand when Ceausescu’s regime ended, had dropped to 8 thousand by 2016. Romania also promised to put an end completely to the old system of the orphanages by 2020, a deadline which was later shifted to 2022. Although the country is still the poorest of the European Union (Romania joined the bloc eleven years ago), the country’s economy is undergoing an accelerated growth cycle in the latest years, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts a 5.1% growth in its GDP this year. As the population changes its socioeconomic profile, the artificial need for orphanages caused during the years of Decree 770 has plummeted.
Many young people who grew in state institutions and were not adopted, however, now live as indigents, marginalized with Romanian society. Since 2014 Federeii, an organization made up of Ceasescu’s “orphans”, tries to draw attention to the problem of the “decretei”. Now adults between the ages of 30 and 40, they demand from the government reparations and compensations policies for the damage they suffered in their childhoods.
READ IT IN PORTUGUESE: Como a Romênia comunista destruiu uma geração inteira de crianças