Mioara stands on her doorstep in rural Romania, an infant clinging tightly to her neck and a toddler attached to each leg.
The 36-year-old Roma woman is the mother of eight. Her two oldest children are blind and attend a free boarding school in Iasi, on the border with Moldova. Mioara — whose last name has been withheld out of concern for her children — is eligible to collect a small amount of money from the government to help with the three youngest kids, who won't leave her side.
Until recently, her middle three children were wards of the state. She gave them up, she says, because she couldn't afford them. Two of them were just returned home through a trial program that reunites at-risk and abandoned Romanian children with their biological families.
"When we started the project, we were anxious whether it was OK or not," says Ionel Armeanu, head of the Department of Child Protection in Vaslui County, where the project is taking place. "The program was very good in the end."
The project is a joint effort between the county and SERA Romania, a nongovernmental organization, with the two groups splitting the tab of more than $500,000. Organizers of the project hope it can serve as a model for child-protection departments nationwide.
Assessment, Incentives For Reintegration
Romania continues to struggle with the legacy of abandoned children nearly a quarter-century after the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In early 1990, journalists discovered that tens of thousands of abandoned children were living in squalor in state-run institutions. Today, 75,000 children are still in state care, and it's believed some 150,000 others are living on the streets.
In a little more than a year, Vaslui County has reintegrated 160 children — out of a goal of 200 — back into their biological families. Some had been living in orphanages, but most were in foster care.
Their reintegration was a multistep process. Social workers and psychologists examined 530 cases, considering everything from whether the families could be located, to the physical and mental health of the parents and children, organizers say. Two hundred families were selected for reintegration.
Of these, 40 attempts didn't work out, says Catalin Ganea, head of the project for SERA. Some of the children rejected their families, and some biological parents refused to take the children back. In other cases, project managers found home conditions to be unsatisfactory.
A social worker is charged with visiting participating families once a month for eight months after the initial homecoming. But one of the program's psychologists admitted that sometimes — namely, in the winter — it's not possible to conduct the home visits. Much of rural Vaslui, where most of these families live, is only reachable by truck along long, bumpy mud roads.
In return for accepting the child back into the home, the families received goods based on individual need. For example, the project organizers gave building materials for a home to some, and a washing machine, a refrigerator or a heater to others. There were no cash payments involved.
In some cases, families who had heard about the program from others approached the group, proposing they would take back their child in exchange for appliances or building material. Ganea says these proposals were turned down, as were "strange requests for material help" that came from families who had been accepted into the program.
Much of Vaslui County is rural. Much of it is poor. The majority of these kids have gone home to basic dwellings, often two or three rooms made of concrete blocks, dirt floors and open doorways. Few have electricity, running water or indoor bathrooms.
Mioara, the Roma woman, explains that Ionuts, one of the two children who just rejoined the family, is having problems breathing. It's probably asthma, says Ganea, the SERA official. Without the ability to control the humidity, the house can be damp.
"Sometimes the material condition is not very good, but it's important to have the child in his [biological] home," Ganea says. "The first question is if he is safe in his family or not."
Mioara's family started out living in a cave they dug into the ground. All that remains of it now is a small ditch in the side of a hill. They then moved into a one-room cement block house that neighbors built for them. Now, that structure sits, slowly crumbling, beside their newest home, which was built by Mioara's husband and neighbors using materials provided by the reintegration project.
"We have mothers, we have fathers, we have grandmothers, we have aunts: Our objective is to bring the child into his family," says Ganea.
Biological Ties Vs. Foster Care
Some of the children in the program have been living in orphanages, but most come from foster families — some had lived with the same family for a decade.
There are 1,500 kids in foster families in Vaslui County. The role of the foster parent, known as a maternal assistant, is a paid job in Romania. Foster parents make 600 lei, or about $200 a month — the same as a schoolteacher or nurse — and they can't have another job. Vaslui has a high poverty rate; being a maternal assistant, though low-wage, is one of few employment options.
"Maternal assistants — it's not for the love," says Ganea. "It is a contract that can be broken at any time."
But there's an ongoing debate about whether foster parents in Romania do it for love or money.
Many who foster do rely on the money to survive. However, some say they would like to adopt their foster children but don't because they fear it might prompt the biological families to take the child back if they are old enough to work.
And then there's the issue of stability.
"I don't believe that a kid should be taken out from a good foster home after 10 to 15 years, to be placed back with his parents just because the government offered the parents an incentive to say they wanted the kid back," says the head of another foundation in Romania, who asked not to be identified for fear that her statements might negatively impact her relations with the government.
"I believe that family is very, very important. But I also believe that family is where your heart is, where you feel peace, and where you are protected," she continues. "And when your own flesh-and-blood family is not giving you that protection that you need as a kid, then no, it is not good for the kids to be with their biological family."
Oftentimes, children have significantly better living conditions in foster families, and it's often the only home they know.
Even Armeanu, the head of child protection for Vaslui County, concedes that moving the children from foster care can be problematic.
"Sometimes the children have a good, or a very good, condition in a foster family compared to what is happening in the biological family," says Armeanu. "And maybe it can be a demand on the part of the child to come back to the foster family."
But the overarching belief in Romania is that the child should be with the biological family, regardless of how long he's been with the same foster family or whether the foster home is better able, materially, to care for him.
"It's not good to have kids in foster care or foster homes for a long time. It's a broken connection. Sometimes the foster family has an interest because it's the only job to have here," says Ganea.
A program like this one in Vaslui could help dramatically decrease the number of children in the care of the state. It also could save local and national governments money that's currently paid out to foster parents and used to run orphanages and group homes for abandoned children.
In recent years, austerity measures have cut salaries for government workers, including foster parents, by 25 percent. The government also slashed the number of foster-parent jobs by 25 percent. There are more than 20,000 foster children in Romania.
Armeanu and Ganea say the local reintegration program is a success: Of the 160 children who have returned to live with their biological families, only one has rejected his new situation. The officials plan to present the project to Romania's parliament this winter as a possible model for a nationwide program.