Why does abuse persist in Romania?

Twenty-three years after the fall of the Ceausescu regime, when harrowing images from Romanian institutions shocked the world, Luke Dale-Harris reports on campaigners’ ongoing fight for disabled rights.

The footage is shaky and out of focus, as if shot in a hurry, but the situation in this Romanian care home is clear. Young men lie buckled in children’s cots, their limbs contorted with disuse and atrophy, tied to the metal bars with bits of ripped-up old bed sheets. One struggles violently to free himself, another lies face down and motionless, a cord tied round his shoulders fastening him in place. Around the room cots line the walls, back to back. Their occupants are doubled up and emaciated, some rocking back and forth, others hidden under blankets. As the camera pans, they stare blankly into the lens. No-one is making a sound.

This is the Gheorghe Serban Social Care Centre in Bucharest, a government-run institution holding 57 people with varying degrees of mental and physical disability. Set in an old orphanage, it is reminiscent of the darker days of Romanian history, when institutions like this were common in hundreds of towns and villages across the country, keeping those deemed unfit for Ceausescu’s Romania firmly out of sight and barely alive. Twenty-three years on, Romania is now a liberal democracy and an EU member state, and the days of orphanages and asylums are officially over. Yet this footage was shot in May 2013. Here, and in many other institutions across the country, little has changed.

Endemic neglect

The video comes amid a campaign, led by three NGOs, to end human rights violations in Romanian care centres. They claim the footage actually shows the Gheorghe Serban Centre at its best, tidied up for the camera. ‘This is a strategy we see all the time,’ says Georgiana Pascu at the Romania Centre for Legal Resources (RCLR). ‘They clean up, throw open the windows and then sedate the patients so they cannot speak to the camera and answer questions.’ Her report chimes with that of a former nurse at Gheorghe Serban, who recently reported that ‘young adults are always kept in the dark... sometimes beaten, sometimes screamed at.’ These conditions, under the European convention, amount to torture and breach EU law.

Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI) exposed filthy and degrading conditions in Romania’s institutions in January 2006. This boy spent every day tied to a chair at the Siret Psychiatric Institution.

Mental DisabilityRights International

Yet the authorities have denied any wrongdoing and, unbelievably, directed the blame back to the NGOs. They have accused them of ‘damaging the reputation of Romanian institutions’ and claim that ‘the centre’s arrangement and living conditions and medical rehabilitation meet the standards in power’. In response, they have barred any outsiders, including NGO workers, from entering the institution. As far as the government is concerned, the case is closed.

But Gheorghe Serban does not exist in isolation. ‘The authorities are very eager to cover up this case, not because it is an anomaly, but because it is in Bucharest,’ says Pascu. ‘Institutions like this are normally found in the countryside or in small towns where they can be forgotten. To have one exposed in the capital city is very embarrassing for the government.’

Indeed, denial and dissimulation have been constants of the Romanian government’s approach to disability. A dearth of public records and individual documentation means that reliable statistics on how many people remain institutionalized are near impossible to come by. Even the exact number of institutions is unknown. Official figures put the number of disabled people living in care centres at around 17,000, while NGO estimates come close to three times that figure.

People who don’t exist

In 2006, Disability International reported that 9,000 babies were abandoned each year, largely due to birth defects. Of these, nearly 50 per cent have no documentation or identification, meaning they enter the state care system off the record. All around Romania, people who were never officially born are living in institutions that don’t officially exist.

Even where institutions are on the record, the division of responsibility is extremely complex, often split between various government ministries, local authorities and private companies or charities. No single authority or policy can be held accountable, making both campaigning for better conditions and legal action profoundly difficult. In the case of the Gheorghe Serban Centre every politician that the RCLR contacted, including Prime Minister Victor Ponta, declared that they were not in a position to act on disability issues. ‘It’s like a state within a state,’ says Pascu. ‘Because of this, the government is almost inviolable to any pressure.’

‘Young adults are always kept in the dark... sometimes beaten, sometimes screamed at’

This may explain, in part, why conditions in Romanian institutions remain among the worst in the world, despite the country’s accession to the EU, its ratifying of the UN Convention for Disabled People and huge pressure from international NGOs. In reality, the problem runs much deeper, embedded in a stubborn prejudice among Romanians against people with disabilities, and manifested in a state intent on the privatization of care services. With only 19 per cent of the country’s public funds directed towards social services – by far the lowest in Europe – and only a fraction of that spent on people with disabilities, much of the work has to be carried out by charities and NGOs.

Children and young adults with disabilities confined to cots, where they were forced to eat and defecate, at the Sasca Mica Rehabilitation Centre.

Robert Levy/AP Photo

‘The reliance on NGOs and charities should have been a transitional phase after Romania emerged from communism,’ says Andreia Moraru of the Academic Network of European Disability Experts. ‘We need radical reform in the public sector and for this we need democratic pressure. Everything else is just window dressing while the problem continues.’

But public pressure to reform is a long way off. For the majority of Romanians, the idea of rights and social inclusion for the disabled is still a foreign concept, at odds with a culture that has long cast them as varsa (weeds). ‘Romanians don’t think of disabled people as human beings,’ explains Moraru. ‘They can’t conceive that they feel pain like the rest of us. They don’t believe they can improve, even the ones with low- or mid-level disabilities.’

Prejudice runs deep

This attitude is rooted deep in Romanian history. Disability was fundamentally at odds with Ceausescu’s understanding of communist ideology, which was based on a social vision of the ‘New Man’ where imperfections were not admitted. By the time the dictator fell in late 1989 over a 100,000 disabled children and adults were locked away, with thousands more living in sewers, city parks and on the beaches of the Black Sea.

When Western journalists descended, Romanian orphanages and care centres became infamous across the world, conjuring up images of half-starved children locked in dark rooms. A flood of aid dollars and hundreds of charity workers followed. But amid the ruins of the Romanian state the work they could do was limited. In the years that followed, as the country adjusted to its capitalist future and the aid money began to run dry, hundreds of institutions remained, unchanged and forgotten.

Since Romania’s accession into the EU in 2007, things have gradually improved. New care centres have been built, smaller and better equipped than their predecessors, and laws have been introduced to prevent the institutionalization of children with only minor disabilities.

But it will take more than legislation to change such long-standing prejudice. Until Romanians are ready to accept disabled people as legitimate members of their society, they will continue to be kept behind closed doors, whether in institutions or at home.

Luke Dale-Harris is a freelance journalist based in the Transylvanian city of Cluj Napoca. He writes about ecology, politics and human rights.