Transforming Romania’s child protection system in partnership with civil society

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Romania's childcare institutions were once among the worst in Europe. [ELEPHOTOS/Shutterstock]

Romania should use its presidency of the EU Council to champion the move from old-style care institutions to community-based child care and show other EU member states it can be done, writes Jana Hainsworth.

Jana Hainsworth is secretary general of Eurochild and director of the Opening Doors for Europe’s Children campaign.

27 years ago Romania became known internationally as home to over 100,000 orphans growing up abandoned in old-style institutions. Images of row upon row of cots and the vacant stares of infants craving human attention flooded the international press.

Thankfully the situation looks very different today. Romania has undertaken huge reforms to its child protection system, most recently adopting a national strategy for the promotion and protection of children’s rights (2014-2020). Most of the old-style institutions are now closed. Local authorities have the responsibility to provide the necessary community services that support families and prevent children being separated (even if coverage and quality is in reality patchy). A majority of the children who are placed in public care grow up in foster care or kinship care.  Small group homes of up to 12 children are also designed to respond to children’s individual needs and offer a nurturing, family-like environment.

Nonetheless it is fair to say that the deinstitutionalisation process in Romania is far from complete. Over 7,000 children are still living in old-style institutions, roughly half of them children with disabilities.  Most of these children end up institutionalised for life. Romania’s progress in reforming institutional care for adults with disabilities or psycho-social difficulties is notoriously slow-moving. Abuse in these care settings is rife.

So recent commitments of the Ministry of Labour and Social Justice to invest just over €100 million of EU Structural Funds to close 50 old-style institutions (around one-third of the total) and importantly at the same time invest in prevention measures are very welcome. Part of the push has definitely come from the EU itself, as Romania is one of 12 countries that have been identified by the EU with a need for deinstitutionalisation reforms. The regulations that govern the structural fund programmes explicitly prioritise investment in the transition from institutional to community-based care and prohibit spending to build or renovate institutions.

The adoption of a national strategy and the ring-fencing of national resources are important but more needs to be done towards the complex process of deinstitutionalisation reforms. Civil society organisations – especially those with significant practical know-how on institutional closure and development of alternative services – are concerned about the government’s approach so far.

The money is being allocated through a restricted call for projects to be implemented exclusively through the local and regional authorities. There is a real fear that lack of coordination combined with a lack of know-how will mean resources don’t get to the right places. Whereas the needs of children, young people and families should be front and centre of how the process of transformation is designed, they may turn out to be collateral damage as potential beneficiaries put all their time and energy into jumping through the administrative hoops in order to access the money.

Working in partnership with civil society is an important principle required by the EU when member states plan and implement the spending of structural funds. The EU gives guidance in the Code of Conduct on Partnership. Unfortunately few countries are implementing this effectively, and Romania is no exception.

But two civil society organisations with expertise in deinstitutionalisation reforms, Hope and Homes for Children and the Federation of Children’s NGOs in Romania, partners of the pan-European Campaign for the end of institutional care “Opening Doors for Europe’s Children Campaign” have stepped up to the plate and have established an NGO support council with the aim of becoming a real partner of dialogue and a strong support for government in implementing EU funded projects. Dialogue and cooperation between stakeholders will be the foundation for success.

And Romania needs to make this crucial next step in the deinstitutionalisation process a success. Keeping in mind that the EU is now preparing the next EU budget, Romania has an opportunity to show a positive example of how EU funds can contribute to real social progress and inclusive societies. At a time when social rights are beginning to take centre stage in the European project, Romania can show real leadership among its peers.

Let’s fast forward to the first six months of 2019 when Romania holds the presidency of the European Union. It would be great if Romania could point to how the EU has helped it get a step closer to ending the era of institutional care and how, after once being the worst place for children in institutional care, it is now a true champion of children’s rights and investment in children.