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The Teacher, the Educational Psychologist and the Social Worker

© UNICEF Romania/ G. Pirozzi/ Green is for hope: local communities have united in these harsh times

Our teacher, Patri, works just outside Alba Iulia at the foot of the Romanian Carpathians. The educational psychologist, Dana, is based in Bucharest, the capital city. And Flavius, the social worker, is trying to make ends meet in Arad, in the west of the country, on the border with Hungary. Children are in the care of all three. Two of them are employees of the state. The psychologist, Dana, works alongside FICF*, an NGO. On the one hand, all three have been personally affected by the crisis. On the other, they have seen the effect the economic slump has had on those they work with.

Worst off is Flavius, the social worker. Although he has more than five years experience in the job, his monthly salary is under 1000 RON ($342). He would not be able to pay his bills were he not living with his parents whose pensions, added to his earnings, and having no rent or mortgage to pay, just about allow them to survive. Other colleagues have had to take on additional jobs to supplement their income. After struggling for a while they normally opt for a career change even if that entails another four years of university study. This is precisely what Flavius intends to do as soon as he has obtained his Hungarian passport. Being a Romanian of Hungarian origin, he has set his sights on more prosperous neighbouring Hungary. He is planning to train as a lawyer and have a very different life to the one he has been navigating thus far.

The last couple of years have been very depressing. Although social services provided by the state have remained stable, over 60% of NGOs working with children in Arad have had to fold. Prohibitive heating and electricity bills, escalating food prices, the contraction of funding from businesses and the reduction of private donations, have meant that teen homes and shelters for mothers with infants have had to close down. After-school clubs and recreational holiday activities are a distant memory. Parents on low or no income cannot afford to look after their own children and are making placement requests with state institutions. For the time being, there is capacity to absorb the requests but residential homes are filling up rapidly.

Flavius believes public awareness of social problems in Romania should be improved. Beside the extreme poverty in some rural areas, alcoholism is rearing its ugly head. Children and old people are the most vulnerable, suffering malnourishment, neglect and abuse. Since the freeze on public sector appointments in 2010 and the continuous exodus of social workers from the profession, social services have become hit or miss in many parts of the country.

This is what Dana thinks too. She is one of few educational psychologists to still be finding enough work to keep going in this capacity. Projects for social integration, which were set up in the poorest rural areas in Romania a couple of years ago, have presently come to a halt because the money has run out and there are no fresh sponsors. Her colleagues have gone to work for banks and businesses or left the country. The projects in the city for which she has been a consultant have been extended for three years in a row but just a few months at a time. She lives in a constant state of job insecurity.

In urban areas, small friendly homes, where children who had been raised in large institutions were finally experiencing family life, have had to close down because local authorities cannot afford them anymore. Upon re-entering the large institutions, up to 80% of children with severe emotional and educational needs who had been making steady progress towards social integration, have regressed to a state worse than when they began therapy. The decentralised model of care provision is failing due to lack of funding. School absenteeism and anti-social behaviour are only the tip of the iceberg of the unwanted side effects of this process.

© UNICEF/ K. Holt/Money for maintenance, electricity bills and heating has run out. Smaller NGOs have not survived the crisis

In a number of cases, FICF had helped children reintegrate into their biological families but some have had to return to the state system because their parents cannot afford their keep. These children, many of them in their teens, feel uprooted. They rebel, get into fights, refuse to attend school and end up begging on the street. Understaffed and underfunded state residential homes cannot cope with these cases. They cannot afford to call in professionals who might be able to help either. Other children and staff are deeply affected and it is a downward spiral for all concerned.

Dana is also of the opinion that social awareness in Romania is wanting. There are individuals who engage in charitable acts out of a strong belief in God but at the level of the community little has been done. ‘It is important to educate the population and develop a community consciousness. I have participated in a project supported by UNICEF which aims to bring stakeholders in the community together to deal with problems which concern everyone at local level. Businesses are not making enough profit at the moment and hardly any sponsorship is coming from that direction. Individuals normally remember to give only when the big religious festivals are approaching. With the exception of Christmas and Easter, when donations are ample, the rest of the year is bleak for NGOs which depend on public generosity.’

Community consciousness is oiling the wheels of the small primary school where teacher Patri has worked for the past two years. She is a philology graduate from a good university and could have found work within the private sector but ever since her first undergraduate year she has been volunteering with children charities. She has a calling and she has luck.

Many of her colleagues have been disillusioned with their jobs not least because of the 25% cut in public sector salaries last year. Patri is young and does not have a family of her own yet so money matters do not preoccupy her excessively. What she most cares about is the wellbeing of the children she teaches.

Her small rural school is an example of what can be achieved through community cohesion. The Transylvanian Saxons who form a tiny percentage of the local population have come together, using their contacts in Germany, to ensure that all the pupils at the local school, regardless of ethnicity or class, are fed, clothed and have good supplies of stationery and textbooks. The community provides an after-school club, a bus service for children living in more remote locations and assistance to parents who are struggling financially.

‘It’s difficult to tell that there is an economic crisis if you visit our school. Everything’s in order. The place gleams with cleanliness. We have everything we need and, most importantly, the children are happy.’

Is there a moral in the stories of the three professionals? Should we look solely to the Government for solutions to the social and economic difficulties which Romania is currently experiencing? Or does the solution lie with individual and collective social responsibility?

*International Foundation for the Child and Family

 

 
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