The life here and the life there
Although the cold is whipping her hands and face, Cristina, 8-year old, is running around the yard with no jacket and no hat. “Cristinica, come right away and take your hat”, her mother calls to her. “No way! I’m hot!”, shouts the little girl as she continues playing with the other kids. There was a time when having a home was just a sweet dream for Cristina, Dana, Costel and Andrei.
The four children spent several years in an institution at the request of their mother, Natalia Dabija. It was easy to institutionalize them - after listening to the mother, the social assistant immediately authorised the placement.
Andrei was the first one to go. “At home, there was no one to get him ready for school, while in the boarding school, I knew he would be supervised. He will do his homework; he would eat and go to bed on time”. Natalia says that she was unable to take care of Andrei because she was in the hospital with the youngest son, Costel, for long periods of time.
Natalia and her husband worked for a railroad company. They had to leave for Chisinau at 5am every work day, and would return home at 10pm. The girls were also sent to an institution because there was no one to supervise them.
Andrei lived in an institution from 2003 to 2007. During this time, he rarely saw his mother and siblings. Dana and Cristina were sent away in September 2007 and stayed there for one year.
One day, Andrei, a child with a strong character and a bubbly personality, refused to stay in the institution and nothing could convince him to change his mind. Andrei recalls: “I couldn’t stay there anymore. I was missing home and my parents. Children need a family. It was OK over there, I wasn’t lacking anything, but ….at night I would think about my parents and my sisters. When I was younger, I was crying a lot throughout the night. Then, I stopped crying...”
Cristina and Dana never questioned or opposed their mother’s decision. Had the social assistant not intervened, they would have stayed in institution for several years until their graduation.
Thinking over that period of her life, Natalia says that not only is she happy that she took her children back, but she even feels ashamed she sent her children to the institution in the first place. She knows reintegration would have been almost impossible had it not been for help and caring of the local social assistant and specialists from the UNICEF project, which focused on the reintegration of institutionalized children back into their families.
These days, she argues passionately against placing children in institutions. “When they grow up, they might think I sent them because I didn’t love them. Even after all this time, Andrei still asks me: “Why did you send me to that place?” Natalia explains. “The institution is not a solution for a family facing difficulties”. Natalia says that her daughters do not talk about it, but Andrei cannot forget his experience. He says that in his class, there were more children with parents than orphans. He just doesn’t understand that.
The story of Natalia and her family is unfortunately not rare in Moldova.
The Government of Moldova, supported by UNICEF, is progressively reforming the residential child care system and aims to reduce by half the number of institutionalised children by 2012. Since 2006, the number of institutionalised children has dramatically decreased from 11,544 to 8,813. The improvements in the social protection system, advocated for and supported by UNICEF, mean that there are now social workers helping vulnerable and poor families, that social assistance targets those who need it most and that keeping children with their families, or at least placing them in a foster family, is slowly becoming a priority.
Today, Natalia and her children are happy to be a family and live together. But the global economic crisis is threatening Moldova’s recent development and many families remain vulnerable. Without a sustained effort, UNICEF fears that children will start going back to institutions in the coming years.