Amid budget cuts, hundreds of Romanian children have lost their homes this year because their foster parents can no longer afford their upkeep

Brasov, Romania

Margareta Reman is one of thousands of foster parents in Romania. Called maternal assistants, they are usually women, often middle-aged, who receive a modest salary from the state to give short-term shelter and care to children abandoned by their families. In practice, most kids end up staying with their foster parents for many years.

Since the summer hundreds of foster parents have given up the profession as the state’s harsh budget cuts begin to bite.

For 50-year-old Reman, a widow who takes care of two girls in her home in Brasov, central Romania, the cut means losing 100 euros monthly, a 25 percent drop.

“I can’t buy things for them anymore, and a mother always wants to offer things to her children,” Reman said in tears, looking at the girls, ages 5 and 7, as they colored peacefully nearby. “This summer, the older one saw her friends go to camp and I had to explain to her why she couldn’t do the same. I don’t know how we’ll manage come winter, with heating bills exploding.”

At the start of 2010, more than 14,000 maternal assistants had 20,500 children in their care. The profession was created in Romania in 1997. Since then, an increasing number of women have turned to this job, particularly the long-term unemployed following the dismantling of state industry during the 1990s.

Maternal assistants take care of about a third of Romania’s abandoned children, the rest being placed in residential centers or smaller, family-type units.

A labor market closed to middle-aged women and emotional attachment to the children made most foster mothers stick to the job in spite of low remuneration.

At the start of 2010, foster parents earned about 240 euros per month if caring for one child and close to 400 euros for two children. In addition, the state provides 20 euros monthly for the children’s material expenses.

Those salaries, along with those of all state employees, were slashed by 25 percent in the summer as the center-right government hustled to reduce the budget deficit in line with conditions of a 20 billion euro IMF-EU loan.

In spite of these difficulties, Reman said she will continue looking after the two girls, “because of love.” Her husband died three years ago and she has no children of her own. She became a maternal assistant in 2004 and earlier fostered two other girls until they were returned to their natural parents.


An emerging child-care crisis

But many others could not take the pressure. In the first half of 2010, 543 maternal assistants had exited the system, the majority retiring, according to the most recent nationwide statistics from the National Children’s Rights Protection Agency (ANPDC). Citing local offices of the agency, media in many areas of the country have reported losses through September of 10 to 20 percent of maternal assistants.

ANPDC Director of Children’s Rights Monitoring Services Elena Tudor said “the trend is not yet worrisome” because the number of those leaving the system this year is not dramatically higher than in previous years: hundreds of MAs reach retirement age annually, Tudor explained.

But ANPDC data tell a different story: between 2007 and 2008, the drop in the number of maternal assistants was slight, from 15,225 to 15,023 (while the number of children in the system grew by 450). The next year, 591 assistants dropped out, and the trend is accelerating this year, with the number of foster parents now below 13,900.

Tudor said the Children’s Rights Agency itself had been concerned about the number of foster parents considering quitting this year. The agency commissioned a survey that showed that 140 assistants were considering quitting in June (the salary cuts were announced by President Traian Basescu in early May). “But these were just intentions to quit,” Tudor said. “We are not saying that there could not be a problem in the future, just that our statistics do not show it yet.”

Salary cuts, however, went into force in August, so most exits from the system are happening at the moment, not yet captured by official data.

What aggravates the situation this year is that retiring foster parents cannot be replaced because of a freeze on hiring new state employees.

Local authorities make efforts to place the children with other foster parents, but this can be difficult as most are having a hard time raising the children already in their care.

Pressures on foster parents are increasing.

“Maternal assistants are older people and, if they haven’t broken down yet, they struggle with the pressures of a system where more and more children are coming in for whom there are fewer and fewer maternal assistants,” said psychologist Mariana Grigorasi of the Brasov city social care and child protection agency.

The response of the Ministry of Labor, Family, and Social Protection is to place faith in the remaining foster parents. In a response to an inquiry about the consequences of maternal assistants leaving the profession, the ministry said although it was aware that budgetary restraints were forcing some to take this step, “We express our conviction that the majority will show solidarity with Romanian society and the children in their care.”

The children who cannot be placed with another foster family or family members end up in institutions, an environment for which they are unprepared. Additionally, many residential centers around the country work past full capacity.


Multiple traumas

“Just this week I saw two children, a brother and sister ages 10 and 8, who had to be taken into institutions because the maternal assistant who had them left to work in Italy,” Grigorasi said. “And there are hundreds of such cases.”

“This is an enormous trauma for the children, who suddenly lose their home, their family, their friends, school,” the psychologist said. “They feel a great loss. Children are not prepared to handle such pain.”

Grigorasi says the brother and sister are most likely to be separated upon placement in institutions, adding to their trauma.

In Brasov and some other towns, a peculiar issue arises because most of the children in all forms of state care come from Romani families and are often poor. For these kids, Grigorasi said, being sent from a foster family to a more impersonal institution sets off conflicts in their sense of identity, and they can end up rejecting their Romani identity in order to hold on to the foster family.

“Even though they are told very clearly what their background is and are often in touch with their natural families, the kids can find such a luxurious environment in foster care, with their own room and a family car, that it is hard for them to relate to their poorer birth parents. It’s common that they insist they are not Roma,” she said.

Margareta Reman said that her two girls – of Roma ethnicity – are sometimes mocked by children in the neighborhood. But Grigorasi said Romani kids in foster care are more protected from discrimination than those in residential homes, who face a twin stigma: they are both “orphan” and “Gypsy.” For Romani kids, losing their foster home means doubling the discrimination.


Social care seen as "parasitic"

Alina Tudorica, the head of maternal assistant services in Brasov, said it is becoming difficult to place children with families, even though the situation is manageable at the moment.

On average, said Tudorica, her service takes up to 10 new cases of abandoned infants monthly, while adoption and reintegration with birth families moves at a much slower pace. The block in new hiring of maternal assistants and financial problems forcing some to quit add to the pressure.

“Even though people working in social care do it because of other reasons than material benefits, we are starting to get very tired,” Tudorica said.

“Yes, we have an economic crisis, but you can’t cut just from the poorest. Efficiency should be increased, rather than salaries cut,” she added. As dozens of new positions in state social care agencies are being created, including quality control managers and public relations officers, Brasov has lost 20 percent of its social workers this year, she said.

According to Tudorica, social workers now handle three times the work load they should have according to legislation, with consequences for the quality of assistance they provide.

“In terms of [child care] legislation, we are up to European standards, but the number of staff we have does not allow for proper implementation of the laws,” said Gheorghe Durna, head of social care and child protection in Brasov. “We can only be custodians of the children.

“Everyone perceives social services as a parasite, as those who eat up the money, but the framework is not in place for us to consistently cooperate with NGOs, the church, and citizens to relieve some pressure from the national budget,” Durna said.

According to Tudorica, using maternal assistants is cheaper than housing children in family-type units where 10 or 12 children live together, so the authorities prefer to send both infants and older children to foster care although the system was devised for infants. “Maternal assistants simply sustain the majority of care expenses from their own salaries, while in centers these have to be paid for from the budget,” Tudorica explained.

Claudia Ciobanu is a reporter for Inter Press Service. Photo of Romanian children in a care home: