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Romania Improving Care of Orphaned Children, says UNICEF - 2003-01-21

Romania was once notorious for the way it treated its orphaned children. But the U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF says the Romanian government is taking steps to change that by reforming its laws to protect children's rights.

UNICEF officials acknowledge that life is still very hard for many children in Romania. They say thousands of abandoned children live in poor conditions. But the officials also say progress is being made.

They note that in the past two years, at least 60 large institutions that once housed orphaned or abandoned children have been closed. It is these institutions, whose residents were forced to live under appalling conditions, that are to blame for Romania's international reputation for mistreating children.

Because of a lack of available space elsewhere, some children are still being housed in such institutions, says Smaranda Popa, a UNICEF Child Protection Officer in Romania.

According to Ms. Popa, UNICEF has been urging the government to establish alternative programs that would permit orphaned or abandoned children to be placed with foster families or in small centers that have a family-like environment.

"This was a main principle of the policy in child welfare launched in '97," she said. "To translate it into action means to de-institutionalize, to stop the entrance in large residential institutions and to support families in order to make them able to take care of their children."

Ms. Popa notes that about 33 percent of Romanian families live below the poverty line. In some cases, she says poor families who are unable to support their children, put one or more of them into institutions.

She says the government is trying to stop this practice and has begun a reform program to help families care for their children. It also has created a network of full-time foster care workers to care for neglected children.