COVID-19 parenting for the parentless

In Romania, about 12,000 children lacking parental care live in residential centres in the country’s child protection system. UNICEF delivered protective equipment to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in centres across the country.

Roxana Grămadă
Ștefan plays with a furry friend at Casa Felicia, in Piatra Neamț, north-eastern Romania on May 21, 2020.
20 July 2020

PIATRA NEAMȚ, Romania – “This was a difficult time; we’ve never dealt with anything like this before. Everything happened so fast, requiring us to rapidly make decisions to ensure the health and safety of over 1,000 children and adults in our care,” recalled Cristina Păvăluță. Păvăluță manages the Directorate General for Social Assistance and Child Protection (DGSACP) in Romania’s Neamt County.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping all children at DGSACP’s residential centres healthy and safe was the responsibility of workers who form part of Romania’s child protection system.

For both Păvăluță and Vasile Panțîru, manager of a centre housing 82 children in Piatra Neamț, the lockdown brought countless worries and some pleasant surprises.

Most children living at the centres come from rural Romania. Some have parents working abroad, others have parents or extended family that cannot raise them and some are orphaned. Newborns abandoned in maternity wards are given to foster families and sometimes adopted. Either way, they are raised in a family.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF in Romania works with national, regional and local partners to rapidly assess the situation and provide support to vulnerable children and their families. From its own resources and funds raised through a national TV campaign (‘Save Lives Safely,’) UNICEF procures and distributes much-needed sanitizer, gloves and face masks to frontline professionals and child protection workers staffing residential centres for children and adults with disabilities.

During April and May, UNICEF delivered more than 658,000 face masks and protective gloves across Romania. About one third of this equipment was destined for residential facilities to protect beneficiaries and staff members during the period of quarantine.

UNICEF staff produce packages of protective equipment in Bucharest, May 18, 2020, before distributing them throughout Romania to frontline professionals supporting vulnerable children.
UNICEF staff produce packages of protective equipment in Bucharest, May 18, 2020, before distributing them throughout Romania to frontline professionals supporting vulnerable children.

Child protection specialists, heroes of the day

Ștefan is one of 12 children living at Felicia house in the city of Piatra Neamț. During Romania’s lockdown, educators and caregivers remained at the house with the residents for two-week shifts. To further protect the children from exposure to coronavirus, the professionals did not go home after their 12 hour shifts.

For Ștefan, their presence was a cause for joy. “It was a wonderful surprise! We’ve got these amazing humans with us.” How they made their family lives work or who took care of their own children Ștefan does not know, but it was certainly not easy.

Teachers and other caregivers sought to keep the children busy and engaged during the lockdown. Stefan recalled that “in the evenings, we all gather in the living room. We pick a topic and take turns to say what we think. Last time we watched a movie, The Last Samurai. Everyone had loads of fun.” One of the educators is a former jiu jitsu instructor, who carried out physical and personal development activities. “We have a backyard, too, we’re really lucky,” recalls a delighted Ștefan, for whom lockdown passed very quickly.

“It gave me more time to study for my final high-school exam and for my personal development” says Ștefan, who wants to apply for acting studies at the university in Iași.

To participate in online learning, children used the home’s laptop and Internet connection as well as their phones. For six of them, who have disabilities, Ștefan printed the homework emails, and sent pictures of what they did back to the teachers.

Every shift change, like leaving camp

With help from the County Council, Vasile Panțîru hopes to restructure the Ion Creangă service centre into several homes housing 12 children each. Until then, along with his 59 colleagues, he takes care of 82 children under the same roof.

Sixteen of the children are already students and live on campus during the school year. Most are from nearby villages; some are Roma and the first in their family to attend college. Vasile Panțîru speaks proudly about each of them and their hard-earned victories.

When restrictions were first put in place, many of the centre’s residents were in college or visiting their extended family. This made things a bit difficult, Panțîru recalled. The 50 children and 20 employees returning to the home had to go into insolation on the upper floor, at the infirmary. And everyone needed to be aware how to protect themselves from the virus. “The problem was to [get everyone] to wash their hands and not touch their faces.”

Here, too, staff members were organized around a two-week rotation schedule. These measures were vital given that other centres in the county had confirmed cases of COVID-19.

As was the case at Casa Felicia, the face masks delivered by UNICEF to residential centres in Neamț came in very handy.

Mateo plays in the “Ion Creangă” centre in Piatra Neamț, on May 21, 2020
Mateo plays in the “Ion Creangă” centre in Piatra Neamț, on May 21, 2020

“For the children it came as a shock when the staff slept there, ate with them…in the end it was extraordinarily beneficial. Rank ceased to matter, night-time supervisor, educator or worker. They played football with them, danced and sang karaoke tunes. At night we could project a movie, indoors but also outside in the summer theatre. They kept the social distance and only sat every other chair, but it was extraordinary. They formed a connection I don’t think would have been possible otherwise.” At every change of shifts, the children asked for a campfire, as if they were attending summer camp instead of enduring a lockdown.

“When [the lockdown] ended and they started going out of the centre again, all children continued to use masks and gloves. All staff members have two masks and pairs of gloves for daily use and caregivers have more. The nurses have facial screens. We can’t complain now, we have enough, [but] I’m trying to manage it wisely and have an emergency reserve. You never know,” Panțîru explained.

In Romania – where more than 2,000  people died of COVID-19 and over 38,000 cases were confirmed by -July 20th – UNICEF works closely with World Health Organization, national authorities (Ministry of Health and National Authority for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Children and Adoptions), regional authorities (DGSACP and Directorates of Public Health), local authorities and the national Red Cross to closely monitor the situation.

UNICEF has developed and continues to develop and distribute communication materials for children and parents, to help them protect themselves and their loved ones, preventing the spread of the virus, as well as recommendations for parents about how to discuss the situation with their children. All these materials are available on the UNICEF in Romania website.