Romania's street children have kids of their own

Elena Iancu, 20, clutches her 9-month-old baby George Adrian close to her chest and beams with pride. "When he grows up, I want him to be a soccer player," she says, softly caressing his dirt-covered face. Her partner, Bogdan Cosma, 19, smiles approvingly.

If life where the couple beg on the littered steps of Bucharest's North station is any indication, George Adrian is more likely to join an army of Romanian street children begging, stealing or getting high by sniffing paint.

Like Elena and Bogdan, many of the homeless children who filled the Balkan country's streets after the 1989 collapse of communism are now having kids of their own. "We are older now. Nobody wants to help us," Bogdan said. "If you don't have a place to live, nobody gives you work."

Touched by the images of Romanian street children in western media in the 1990s, many foreign organizations rushed to help and the authorities also made efforts to get many of the smaller kids off the streets.

Police figures show the number of homeless children has been falling from 2,500 in 2000 to 1,500 in 2002 but the children themselves have been growing up.

"The average age of street children and institutionalized children has risen," said Manuela Danescu of the National Authority for Child Protection and Adoption.

Because Romanian orphanages only accept children up to 18 and few state programs help young adults, older children often find themselves thrown back on the street.

Alina Moisa, 19, said she spent most of her life in an orphanage after her impoverished family abandoned her at birth. When she turned 18, she was told she must leave. "We grew up and they kicked us out," she said, pointing to some of her friends who also found refuge at the Concordia humanitarian organization house in the outskirts of Bucharest.

Back on the streets
The teen-ager said she made her way to Bucharest's main train station where she was raped by another street kid. She is now two months pregnant but is not sure whether to have the baby and give it up or have an abortion.
"I only have bad dreams. I dream about death," she said. "I don't know what I want to do with my life but I wouldn't want to get married. Why should I? Just to be abused by somebody?"

Street children and orphans are one of the most tragic legacies of megalomaniac dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who banned contraception and abortion in order to boost Romania's population.

Few women got illegal abortions and many unwanted children were crammed in huge state orphanages until the collapse of communism. In the ensuing poverty and confusion, many children ended up on the streets.

Romania has tried to deal with the problem as part of the impoverished country's drive to convince its western allies it is fit to join NATO next year and the European Union as early as 2007, officials and foreign aid workers say.

Nearly 50,000 children are now under some kind of state protection. Younger children are being adopted or placed with foster parents or at smaller, more humane orphanages.

But many young adults remain on the streets. At the North station, disheveled youths in their late teens and early 20s breathe into plastic bags filled with metallic paint, the cheapest narcotic, and harass passers-by for money.

Children having children
Ion Cosma, an aid worker from the Concordia humanitarian group, said it was crucial to give them food and shelter. "Once they're on the street, they are in trouble. The older ones teach the younger ones how to sniff paint, how to beg and steal," he said.

Non-state aid organizations say most of the young people who find refuge at their facilities are over 18 but younger children also prefer their centers because of their free come-and-go policy as opposed to the stricter rules of many state orphanages.

Concordia's Ruth Zenkert said institutions must stop putting older kids back on the streets and create special homes to help them deal with the realities of adult life.

At Concordia's St Lazar home, an old school north of Bucharest, young adults must respect meal times and clean up after themselves. The other rules are equally simple.

"No drugs, no cigarettes, no sex in the house," said center director Claudia Ciceu. "Violence is not allowed and older kids must hold the jobs we find them. Otherwise the door is always open, they can come and go as they please."

Often escaping abusive or alcoholic parents or state orphanages, the residents of St Lazar are up to 25 years old. For them, changing habits and holding down a job is even more difficult, Ciceu said.

"There are many nice moments when the younger kids come up to you to be touched or to talk," she said. "But for me the most beautiful thing is to know that one of our older kids has a job and is standing on his own two feet."

By Dina Kyriakidou
23 July 2003