To reach Sperieteni, a village some 50 kilometers from Bucharest, leave the highway and drive half an hour along a dusty, unpaved road. Despite its remoteness, the village is infamous in Dambovita County.
"If you're looking for a place where only children and old people live, you have to go to Sperieteni," says a woman in a village on the main road.
Indeed, the children here - as in many other settlements in the county - grow up virtually alone, many waiting for their house-cleaning mothers to call from Italy or Spain on Christmas, hoping to see them for perhaps two weeks during the summer holiday. Some wait to finish carpentry or another trade school, then join their fathers on construction sites across Europe. Others end up in foster homes or even orphanages, though they have parents. And on occasion, a 10-year-old drops out of school, runs away from home, or even hangs himself in the closet with father's tie.
The Romanian government estimates that 40,000 children - though the actual figure may be much higher - have been left behind by migrants who go west in search of a job and money they cannot find at home. These are the children raised by mail, telephone, even webcams.
But the parents' financial calculations wreak long-term costs on their children: teachers describe assorted behavioral issues in the classroom, while of greater concern, hospitals in eastern Romania recently began reporting a rash of suicides and suicide attempts among troubled adolescents unable to cope with their feelings. While westward migration has been widespread over the past 17 years, government officials and activists say they were unaware of any such crisis until Romanian media first began highlighting the problem last year.
"We are devastated that 10- or 12-year-olds commit suicide because they cannot talk on the phone with their parents," says local UNICEF representative Pierre Poupard.
YOUNG AND OLDSome child protection activists blame parents for limited understanding of their children's emotional needs and the stigma attached to any form of psychological therapy as a sign the person is "crazy." And the problem of children left behind may soon grow - if, as some observers predict, Romania's accession to the European Union this past January encourages countless more Romanians to emigrate.
For a Frenchman like Poupard who came to Romania to monitor children's rights, the tens of thousands left in the care of relatives - and deprived of that special parental bond - is quite unique. "It's an alarming phenomenon," he says. "But we cannot judge anybody. We need to understand first. In Romanian society, there is the idea that a child's upbringing needs only material things: a roof, food, and going to school. But the parents have to understand that a child needs his or her mother."
In Sperieteni itself, the place hums on a springlike Saturday afternoon. The road is full of boys playing football and girls skipping rope. Old women sit on small chairs in front of their gates, sighing from time to time, keeping an eye on their grandchildren. They don't talk to strangers easily. The words come heavily.
"Eh, most of the young ones have left; more than half the village," whispers an old woman in her seventies, sitting alone under a blossoming cherry tree. "A few have taken the children with them. But the rest live with their grannies. It's so difficult to live here now. I am old and at my age, it's not easy to take care of the house and these girls."
Indeed, her daughter, Liliana, left her two daughters, 12 and 9, with her two years ago when she went to Spain to work as a housekeeper. "She had to," her mother laments, her voice rising as she paints a picture of parental sacrifice. "Her husband left her. We had no sign of him for years. She had nothing to do here, in this village. She had to go to get money and raise these girls properly."
Soon the old woman returns to her own troubles. The girls " are so difficult to raise," she says. "Liliana sends money every month, but it's still difficult. I am ill … I don't know what to do with them. I would give them to an orphanage, but they won't accept them."
A state institution would only accept the girls if they were orphans.
By now all the children in the neighborhood have surrounded the old woman. Her granddaughters have taken their place by her side. As their grandmother calmly admits to having considered giving them away, the girls look down.
"I miss Mom," says Nicoleta, the older sister. "Most of the children in my class are home alone - 15 out of 20. I hope my mom will come home to take us with her. I have seen her once this year on the webcam. It didn't work very well, but we saw each other. I want to go live with her. She promised to come home at Easter, because she couldn't be here on Christmas." She seems calm, perhaps trying not to cry in front of strangers. "I want to go and work there with Mom," she says. "But I have to wait and finish high school first."
IT ALL LOOKS GOOD ON PAPERSperieteni Mayor Marin Voinescu's papers document just 100 people who have left the village of some 2,000 for Spain. "I'm glad they left," Voinescu says. "They have spared me some money from the budget. They all relied on the social programs." Local women typically work as maids in Spain, the men on construction sites. However, the mayor asserts, "We don't have abandoned children here." With scientific precision, he states, "Out of 100 people who left, four have taken the children with them. We have three children at the orphanage in good conditions, and the rest are with their grandparents - who are young and healthy, physically and psychologically as well."
Voinescu notes that children whose parents work abroad are better dressed at school and often envied by their classmates. Anamaria Neagu, the village English teacher, agrees. Yet their classmates' envy only adds to the children's sorrow, Neagu says: "Most of the children at school have both of their parents away. Grandparents and aunts take care of them, but this is not enough for a child. The teenagers often have behavior problems - they are violent, they skip school."
She talked to some parents about their children's problems, but they weren't receptive.
"They don't seem to believe the kids are acting this way because they don't have the parents at home," she says. "They are not all very educated people. They worked all their lives. They grew up alone, too: ‘Remember when our parents used to work double shifts in the factories during Ceausescu's time, and we would play outside with the apartment key hanging around our necks? If we survived, why couldn't these kids face it?' That's what the parents say. Most of them chose to work abroad, to live in outskirts of Paris or Rome, to save money and support their children. And they expect the children to understand this."
GETTING RID OF THE JOBLESSSperieteni and Dambovita County are hardly unique.
In other parts of Romania, like the impoverished Moldavia region, Italy is more popular, especially for nurses and women who care for the elderly. Numbers are difficult to assess. According to an Open Society Foundation study, more than 2.5 million Romanians - one in nine - currently work abroad. Many took their children with them and moved away for good. But most only go for a couple of years and leave the children behind, believing they are safer at home, in school, in the care of relatives.
The national Authority for the Protection of Children's Rights estimates there are 13,000 families with either one or both parents away, leaving some 40,000 children in a relative's care. But Authority spokeswoman Cristina Niculescu asserts the numbers are far from the reality. The statistics, she says, rely on the good will of local officials to count these children. And many did not answer the government's demand to send accurate numbers.
On 26 April, the children's authority raised its estimate to 60,000 children whose parents currently work abroad.
Her boss at the Authority, Bogdan Panait, expresses his frustration.
"Most mayors believe … they are getting rid of the unemployed and won't have to spend the budget on stipends for the poor," Panait says. "
And there is the mentality that there is nothing wrong with the grandparents raising the children." But he says the generational gap should not be underestimated.
Observers suggest the government is at a loss over the situation. But Panait says the children's rights authority is trying to cope, issuing in June 2006 an order for child-protection agencies nationwide to count the children left alone and monitor them. Yet, there is no deadline and no sanction against agencies not doing their job properly.
The children who cannot be cared for by relatives should by law be placed in institutions or foster care. But, according to the Authority, only 600 children of 40,000 are now in this situation. These are the truly abandoned children. Their parents left for good, typically disappearing without a trace, so the state stepped in. The others are only to be monitored by the too few and poorly paid social assistants.
"Moreover, the government recently prepared a new draft law on preventing child neglect," Panait says. The bill would set up some 10 specialized offices and information centers to help the children whose parents left to work abroad. But it's a long way from becoming law.
Another tool to keep track of children left behind is the requirement that migrant workers who find a job through government agencies must give the name of the person caring for their children. Some 40 percent find a job through such agencies. The children of the rest, those who inform no official bodies they are leaving, are most in danger, Panait says. "We are trying to find a solution for the problem, but it is rather new to us," he says. "This phenomenon has been going on for years now. But we became aware of it just a few months ago."
THE SEARCH FOR ALTERNATIVESChild care professionals and the general public both became aware of the phenomenon early in 2006, when the media revealed several suicides among such children. One 11-year-old boy who had lived for two years with a foster family in a village in Iasi County was found hanging from a beam in the basement. It shocked the public. He was well taken care of, the media reported, but missed his mother. This March, a 16-year-old girl in Campulung Moldovenesc, in northern Romania, hanged herself in the bathroom, reportedly because she had low grades and didn't want to disappoint her father, who was working in Italy.
It took exposure of these deaths for child-protection workers to link migration with adolescent suicide. The problem appears to be larger than anybody thought. According to a study released by the Social Alternatives Foundation in Iasi, a quarter of the children left by parents skip classes or drop out of school. Moreover, some 30 percent of juvenile delinquents have parents working abroad.
Over the past year, the situation in eastern Romania has been even more dramatic. Dozens of villages are populated only by children and old people. In Iasi County, a local hospital has estimated that every four days, a schoolboy or girl tries to commit suicide. The psychologists at St. Mary Children's Hospital in Iasi have so far treated 89 children for life-threatening overdoses of pills. Many tell doctors they miss their absent mothers and fathers.
A hospital spokeswoman says the staff is struggling with the epidemic.
"We have the psychologists, and these children get therapy here, but it's not enough," Dr. Catalina Ionescu says. "They should be in therapy after they leave the hospital, too. And they can't, because they come from rural areas and most people [there] think that if you talk to a psychologist, you must be crazy."
Meanwhile, just a handful of nongovernmental organizations and concerned individuals search for a solution of their own. To date, the Social Alternatives Foundation is the only NGO to request UNICEF's help.
UNICEF's Poupard says he hasn't seen anything comparable among other emigrants: "I'm sure that if you ask a mother from any other European country, 'Do you want to leave for the United States, for Japan or China, and leave your child behind?' I'm sure she'll answer, ‘Are you crazy? I would never leave my child for all the gold in the world' ... People from North Africa migrate in great numbers to Western Europe. But the pattern is different. First the man goes, works for a couple of years and then he brings the family. But the mother always stays with the child." In Romania, though, women leave first, because it's easier for them to land a job as maids or caretakers of the elderly. Poupard insists that Romanians need to change their mentality. "A child needs the mother, needs love; it's only natural," he says. "Putting a child in an institution is not the answer. We need to assess the cause, understand, and then do something. Explain to parents what their kids need. Talk to the children. Contact the parents and tell them the kid is in trouble. There are ways."
Neagu, the English teacher in Sperieteni, says she would never leave her little boy, Mihaita. Her husband left for Spain in May 2006. Their 13-month-old, she says, has only seen his father once since, on the computer, and cries "Daddy, Daddy!" every time the phone rings. Yet Neagu says she knows dozens of children less fortunate than her child. At least Mihaita has her to hold him when he cries.
Meanwhile, she's saddened to see some schoolchildren around her falling apart.
"They have money," she says, "but what's the use without a parent's love?"