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For Richer, for Poorer

© UNICEF Romania/ G. Pirozzi/ Children’s services in wealthier urban districts are on a par with the best in Europe.

He is fast spoken but very precise and clear. In a time of economic stringency, the Director of DGASCP* for Sector 1, Bucharest, puts his money where his mouth is. Mr. Danut Fleaca is business-like and, seemingly, on top of things. Unlike so many of his colleagues in charge of social services across Romania, his hand has not been forced to make crippling cuts to his budget. True, he has had to let go 340 qualified and unskilled staff since 2009 but the children and families looked after by his agency are well provided for.

Between January and December 2010, at the height of the crisis, the number of families on income support in the district rose only by 20, making a total of 140. This figure is negligible not only in terms of national statistics for that period but it is less than 20% of Sector 1’s own case load for 2003 when poverty was endemic. Now the sector is ahead of the rest of the country for per capita income, tax revenues and keeping its own house in line with EU standards.

Sector 1’s looked-after children get nearly double the food allocation money of their counterparts elsewhere in Romania. Needy families receive generous subsidies for heat and electricity. Children in residential homes enjoy meals from menus that any decent restaurant would be happy to offer to its clientele. Apart from the in-house staff, visiting psychologists, nutritionists and specialist subject tutors care for the young people better than most middle class parents could afford to do for their own offspring.

The crisis has in no way disadvantaged the vulnerable clientele of DGASCP. Paradoxically, there are beneficiaries receiving greater allowances than the professionals looking after them could earn in a month. But Sector 1 is not representative of the rest of the country. Although it has its fair share of social issues, it is commonly perceived as the sector of the rich and fortunate in the heart of the capital city. But it is also an example of how dedicated professionals can run an administration successfully in shaky economic and political conditions. Sector 1 has a reputation as a national leader in the field of social service reform and improvement at local level.

Meanwhile, in the northeast of the country, Vaslui’s Director of Child Protection, Mrs Chariton-Hriscu, is no less dedicated to serving the most vulnerable children and their families in what is, according to recent statistics, the poorest county in Romania. Unemployment is rife. Industry and services are underdeveloped. And it is not unusual to come across rural communities where two thirds of the population is in receipt of family allowance as parents are unable to secure even the minimum monthly income of 200 RON ($68) per family member. At least that used to be the case until early 2011 when the criteria for calculating benefit packages became nothing short of draconian. In rural areas where local authorities are trying to make savings on everything, not only smallholdings appear as income in official papers but an old car or a rusty chainsaw in the possession of a family can considerably reduce the amount of social assistance due to its members, or, indeed, completely cancel out their entitlement.

© UNICEF Romania/ G. Pirozzi/ A pastoral scene with a sinister twist: a young boy left behind by parents working abroad. He takes care of himself and his sick granny.


Mrs Chariton-Hriscu says that overall, the department is coping well in the sense that the standard of care for children has remained consistently good. Certain perks, including summer camps, extracurricular activities and, more worryingly, subsidies for medical treatment have had to be relinquished although in urgent cases, such as life-saving operations, the staff have managed to raise the necessary funds even if that meant putting their own money in the pot.

On the upside, the agency is up to date with the payment of wages to its employees. A project run jointly by the county council and an NGO has secured financial assistance for the carers of children whose parents are economic migrants, totalling 90 RON ($30) a month. There has been no significant rise in child protection cases or children entering the care of the state system.

However, between January and April 2011, 160 social assistants have left their job in search of greener pastures. Nearly half of those are foster mothers (asistente maternale) who have been unable or unwilling to continue to take care of their charges, often children with mental and physical disabilities. For comparison, the equivalent figure for Sector 1 in Bucharest is 7. The number of children left behind by parents desperate to earn some money abroad has doubled since 2010 in Vaslui to a staggering 3000. Last year 40 children were abandoned at birth in the county against none at all in Sector 1.

Mrs Chariton-Hriscu considers her two biggest challenges to be improving services for disabled children in the county and retaining well-qualified staff. Of the 2000 children with disabilities registered with the department, only half have access to formal education. Most schools do not have disabled facilities and there are not enough purpose-built minibuses to go round. By contrast, in Sector 1, disabled transport is widely available. There are specialist clinics dealing with autism and Down syndrome. Respite centres exist where children with severe disabilities are looked after by dedicated personnel for up to a fortnight to allow their carers to take a break or attend to urgent family matters.

Even in affluent Sector 1 there is a chronic deficit of social workers, child psychologists and special needs teachers. This is because, as Mr Fleaca puts it: ‘Public sector salaries are demoralising and a mockery of the country’s human resources, disregarding the effort and years of study young people put in qualifying.’ Insiders of the social protection system unanimously agree that 2010, the darkest year of the recession yet, hit hard not only the beneficiaries of the system but equally the staff who serve them. Some fear that, following the changes in allowance allocation criteria which began to be enforced in January this year, the situation might have been reversed already. The truth will out once the statistics for 2011 have been published next year.

*Government Directorate for Social Assistance and Child Protection

 

 
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