The receptive, smiling children at ‘Crinul Alb’
By Blessy Savu
Globally, there has been a marked shift away from clans and extended families to individual entrepreneurships. This redesign of the social fabric to nuclear families and entrepreneurships is leaving less room for the “dependents” and even less for the “life-long dependents”. Many children with disabilities in Romania are being abandoned at maternity hospitals or left in the hands of state child care institutions. To understand what possibilities can exist for such children, I decided to visit a UNICEF supported project at ‘Crinul Alb’, a state center for children with disabilities in Sector 3 of Bucharest.
As we drive in to the center, the view fits my mental image of a child care “institution”. It is a fairly large building, plain, clean, with three entrances, not much different from a hospital or a school or any other institution. Led by the coordinator for children in residential care in sector 3 of Bucharest, Mrs. Camelia Cristian, we enter into a corridor, and as I prepare to peek around, a boy, perhaps in his early teens, approaches and starts to say something I can barely make out.
I am taken by surprise, as he puts his hands on my shoulder and simply continues to talk. Despite his incomprehensible, muffled expression, I gather he is being friendly as he wears a big smile on his face. A social assistant notices this exchange and interprets, “Radu just wants to know if you are going to be working here”. I look to him and shrug to indicate that I am not going to be working there, and watch as Radu walks away.
With Radu of my sight, I begin to notice that from the inside, the place is not quite what I had expected. The corridors are long, paralleling the institutional labyrinth I had imagined, but the rooms along the corridor are teeming with people, laughter, and music; I figure perhaps there is a celebration. Leaning forward, I notice that at the end of the corridor some children and adults are gathered together in a dark room, watching a home-video, exchanging comments and laughs.
Following Mrs. Cristian upstairs, I am engrossed by the bright and colorful decorations along the way, most of which appear to be the works of children, almost giving the sentiment that you are in a friendly kindergarten. As I continue the way upstairs, I manage to capture snippets of the Mrs. Cristian’s explanation on how children come to attend this center. “Often children with disabilities do not have the opportunity to either live with a family or belong to a community. A child that enters the system is often affected. They are affected by a break in routine. They are very receptive … sometimes they can be sad.”
The nameless stories
Partly perplexed by what she said and at the same time keen on having a deeper understanding about the children around me, I probe Mrs. Cristian to tell me more. With a straight, earnest glance, Ms. Cristian tells me that as these children do not have a voice on how their story is being told, she cannot divulge the case history of any specific child in the room. Shortly, the stories - with no names - start to flow.
A 10-year old boy (let’s call him Vasile), who now attends this center, was not identified as having a health problem until a fairly late stage in the progression of his condition. The condition, hydrocephalus, has left him with turbulent behavior, auto-aggression, problems in walking and frequent fainting. Because his single, working mother could not keep up with the pace of his condition or his uncontrollable strength, Vasile was soon moved to a special school for children with disabilities and later to the ‘Crinul Alb’ Center. Having professional care and time being allocated to Vasile, his mother is now rebuilding their bond, visiting him regularly and even accompanying him on the trips organized through the center.
George – a child with Down syndrome – and his parents, all striving to cope with the news of his condition, approached the ‘Crinul Alb’ center seeking counsel. The specialists at the center were able to pass on good news to the family: George’s condition was not as grave as was considered. George stayed under the supervision of ‘Crinul Alb’ specialists for 3 years, and has now been re-integrated with his family. The center continues to monitor his condition and progress. George is leading an almost normal life.
Mrs. Cristian is on a roll, swiftly recounting one tale after another. A young boy walks up to us and hugs Mrs. Cristian around her knees. Interrupting her flow only to run her fingers through the boy’s hair, while he twirls around her and then walks away, Mrs. Cristian continues narrating.
Abandoned at birth at a maternity ward in sector 3 of Bucharest, Andrei was born with severe locomotive disability. Having abandoned Andrei, his mother declared false identity so that he could not be traced back to her. Over the years, Andrei was never visited by anyone, and no one enquired of his well-being. Andrei is now 14 years old, with slow mental progress. One of his teachers, having developed a fondness for Andrei, has taken him into her family, where he lives with her other children. The center has worked intensively with maternity hospitals, police and schools in an effort to bring a normal childhood for children like Andrei.
As I hear these stories and a few others from Mrs. Cristian, I feel armed with affection and keenly continue exploring the center. We enter a room where about 6 young children between ages of 8 and 12 are each working with social assistants, some with blocks of colors and shapes, while others with pictures of animals and objects. I walk up to a little girl and her social assistant explains that the girl, Diana, has autism. In an effort to befriend her, I hold Diana’s hand. Her grasp is strong. Diana puts her arms around me, and drawn in the moment I decide to lift her up and start to walk with her to the room next door. She squeals. I put her down in a hurry and remember what Mrs. Cristian had said earlier: the children are very receptive … they are affected by a break in routine.
We continue from room to room, watching children involved in activities with social assistants. I notice a young girl with a teenage boy, chatting to each other in signs and working on blocks. The girl tells me that she is a volunteer, visiting Romania. The center hosts students over 18 years old, coming from different countries, volunteering and doing their practice for a career in occupational therapy or social assistance.
Once we are back in the hallway, I come across a well-dressed father holding a baby girl in his arms, facing a wall. Curiously I stare at them. The little girl reaches out to a monkey figure on the painted wall displaying a tropical forest with animals. I am then led by Mrs. Cristian to the room where they provide kineto-therapy. As soon as I enter, I am captured by the sight of a little baby on a huge red ball, being rolled around and stretched, while she bobs her head and giggles candidly at herself in the mirror. I am told that early intervention is crucial in reducing the gravity of neuromotor disabilities for infants and young children identified with developmental delays or disabilities.
Almost at the end of my journey through the center, I stop to bid goodbye and thank the coordinator and the social assistants for sharing a day of their life. Some children gather around as well. A teenage boy (Gabriel), drawn to the camera, initiates a conversation with signs, telling us his name, age and interests. Soon he starts acting out. Watching his energetic movements, I decide to start guessing what Gabriel was trying to act out. I figure, after all, it is like a game of charades. It takes me a while to realize that he is miming a role from a movie. Gabriel is telling me that he is Spiderman! Bragging out loud for having guessed the mimes, I try to catch the attention of Mrs. Cristian and others around me, telling them “Look, he is Spiderman”. Mrs. Cristian responds by explaining to me that Gabriel was the lead character in a play that was organized by ‘Crinul Alb’. Her pride is visible as she lists the places where the spectacles were performed: Ion Caragiale high school in Bucharest, Children’s Palace in Pitesti, Cultural House in Curtea de Arges and others.
Back in the driveway, I ponder to myself. The most striking and rewarding realization of my visit is that even though the stories of 5-6 social assistants “caring” for around 500 children in institutions may be true, the story is different at this center. ‘Crinul Alb’ is clearly a place where I could see the freedom of interaction, sharing and kindness and above all, though I risk sounding flaky, I must say, I could feel the affection.
Around 6,000 children, representing approximately 10% of the total number of children with disabilities, are living today in institutions of the child protection system. Progress has been made in the last few years in terms of the closure of large institutions and the move of disabled children to smaller units, in which better living conditions are offered. Though, more measures are required in ensuring that children’s rights in residential care are realized.
The center for recuperation and assistance for children and youth with disabilities ‘Crinul Alb’ is a residential center under the responsibility of the General Directorate for the Social Protection of Children in Sector 3 of Bucharest. 56 children and youth with various disabilities are residents in this center, with ages between 2 and 18 years. The center also supports over 120 children from the surrounding community with recuperation services. UNICEF is currently supporting the center with procurement of equipment for kinetotherapy, tools for occupational therapy, courses for personnel development, and rehabilitation of the center. Carrefour Romania is the principal donor enabling the realization of this project at Crinul Alb Center in Bucharest.
NOTE: Names of children have been altered in order to protect their privacy.