Ro­ma­nia con­fronts ugly past of abu­sive or­phan­ages

20K chil­dren died in state-run homes in com­mu­nist era

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Vadim Ghirda

BUCHAREST, Ro­ma­nia — When­ever he re­turns to the or­phan­age where he grew up, Florin Catanescu is over­whelmed by sad mem­o­ries.

“I remember fam­i­lies show­ing up and vis­it­ing other kids, but no­body came for me,” said Catanescu, now 41.

Walk­ing through the ru­ins of what was his home be­tween 1988 and 1997 in the moun­tain town of Busteni, in cen­tral Ro­ma­nia, he pointed to where the bread cab­i­net used to be in the mess hall. Back then, it was a cher­ished site for the kids.

“We wouldn’t quench our hunger at lunch, so we ate bread to fill our stom­achs,” Catanescu re­called. “The only good times were when for­eign aid work­ers would come over and spend time with us.”

Af­ter Ro­ma­nia’s rev­o­lu­tion over­threw its com­mu­nist regime in De­cem­ber 1989, news me­dia from around the world fo­cused on the ap­palling con­di­tions of Ro­ma­nia’s state-run or­phan­ages. Tes­ti­mony from sur­vivors and doc­u­mented ev­i­dence re­vealed fre­quent beat­ings, emo­tional abuse, chil­dren tied to their beds and some even kept in cages.

With an es­ti­mated 100,000 chil­dren in state care at the time, only a few were lucky to be adopted by fam­i­lies abroad.

Most of them, in­clud­ing Catanescu, stayed in the or­phan­ages, suf­fer­ing beat­ings and go­ing hun­gry un­til Ro­ma­nia de­cided to shut down the in­sti­tu­tions and move or­phans to foster fam­i­lies or smaller homes with spe­cial­ized staff. The change came slowly but has led to bet­ter con­di­tions over­all, although re­ports of abuse still oc­cur.

“Al­most all or­phans dream of hav­ing a fam­ily. Those that don’t (have one) are try­ing to im­prove the sys­tem,” said Catanescu, who is lead­ing by ex­am­ple and turn­ing trauma into com­mit­ment.

He now runs a tran­si­tion home for young­sters who are com­ing out of state care homes at 18 with few life skills or job prospects. The home is funded by do­na­tions of money, equip­ment and sup­plies from at home and abroad. His cen­ter, cur­rently with room for 18 boys, of­fers so­cial ser­vices, coun­sel­ing, ad­vice on writ­ing re­sumes, coach­ing for job in­ter­views and fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion.

The ef­fects of Catanescu’s work, how­ever, stretch be­yond those im­me­di­ately in his care.

He is a big fan of “Pay it For­ward,” the 2000 film about Trevor, played by Ha­ley Joel Os­ment, a young boy who launches a good­will move­ment. It in­spired Catanescu to ask the boys he cares for to do their own char­ity work and help those in even greater need.

Some of the boys, for ex­am­ple, have taken food pack­ages and gifts to fam­i­lies liv­ing in deep poverty, like they did this year be­fore Christmas.

An­drei, 19, came to Catanescu’s cen­ter three years ago. He’s not an or­phan, but he came from a bro­ken home and was in­volved with a “bad en­tourage,” Catanescu said.

“The first time I went to a poor fam­ily to bring them some gifts, I cried,” An­drei re­called. “It made me re­al­ize that there are peo­ple far less for­tu­nate than I am. I was taught to ap­pre­ci­ate what I have and the good peo­ple around me lend­ing me a hand.”

As Catanescu deals with the present, Ro­ma­nia is also tak­ing steps to set­tle its past, try­ing to bring some sem­blance of jus­tice for the chil­dren who suf­fered so deeply.

Based on avail­able records, as many as 20,000 chil­dren may have died in the com­mu­nist-era or­phan­ages.

Re­searchers at the Ro­ma­nian In­sti­tute for the In­ves­ti­ga­tion of Com­mu­nist Crimes have doc­u­mented the deaths of 771 chil­dren at just four state-run homes dur­ing the com­mu­nist era. They have also filed crim­i­nal complaints against those con­sid­ered re­spon­si­ble, such as or­phan­age of­fi­cials and staff, with the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s of­fice.

Prose­cu­tors will now in­ves­ti­gate as well, gather ad­di­tional ev­i­dence, file charges and seek guilty ver­dicts in court.

“When the first con­vic­tions start rolling in, we wish the Ro­ma­nian state will rec­og­nize th­ese chil­dren as vic­tims of the com­mu­nist regime and thus pro­vide some help plan for them to lead a nor­mal life,” said Florin Soare, an RIICC re­searcher.

Back in Catanescu’s home, the boys, as­sisted by vol­un­teers, have learned to cook a tra­di­tional Christmas meal.

Sit­ting all to­gether for a Sun­day lunch, Catanescu en­vi­sioned cel­e­brat­ing next Christmas with an even larger group — he is ren­o­vat­ing a build­ing with space for 30 more boys.

“It’s hard for me to help my­self. I find it much eas­ier to help oth­ers,” Catanescu said. “Since my life was tossed aside (by my fam­ily), I might as well ded­i­cate my­self to lend­ing th­ese kids a hand.”

VADIM GHIRDA/AP

Florin Catanescu walks through the ru­ins of the state or­phan­age that was his home as a child in Busteni, Ro­ma­nia. Now he runs a home for boys re­leased from state care.

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