Child Protection System – Part I: Overview and Evolution

The child protection system is one of the topics on which I have focused my attention throughout my term as a member of Parliament. I have promised that during the whole time I will be a parliamentarian, I will do things that will bring about good changes in the lives of as many people living in Romania. I wish all Romanians could live with dignity and that their rights were respected. The protection system of the children is still one of the pivotal points when it comes to the provision of social services and this can only be improved through inter-institutional collaboration, dialogue and the continuous desire for evolution and improvement. In recent years, important steps have been taken to reform this system, but it still will not be fully effective until the children within the system are all prepared for the independent adult life, capable of coping with daily life, but also with unforeseen situations.

Romania has decided on closing all residential centers, so that the children in the protection system have the chance to grow and develop in family-like environments. Some of the large, old-style residential centers have already been closed, some are about to enter that process, as I wrote here.

But prior to making any plan or strategy, a clear overview is needed, as we need to analyze many more aspects regarding child care in the protection system. Accredited bodies provide statistical data at the macro level, but this data alone is not sufficient in order to fully understand the complexity of the process we need to go through in order to develop a high-performance assistance system. Children in the protection system need more than just the basic material aspects required for survival, they need to grow up in the appropriate environment for emotional development, for overcoming the traumas they have gone through and then for recovering, as well as for the needed support in everything that a good start in life entails.

In order to obtain this data, we filed requests to all 47 General Directorates of Social Assistance and Child Protection (DGASPC) in the country, asking for a series of complex information on several aspects, including the profile of children receiving protection, the causes of their entry into the system, the causes of leaving the system, the protective measures they benefit from, their medical situation – how many children are under treatment and for what conditions, the situation of adoptions or the situation of the employees of each DGASPC, for the last 10 years.

So far, Romania does not have an automatic database or any other national system of children’s records in order for all the DGASPCs to be able to centralize and exchange data in a transparent and efficient way. In order to provide the requested data, DGASPC employees were required to use the physical archive and often to check each case separately, which is why the response time was quite long, and many of the data we received was incomplete.

Number of children in the system, negative trend in the past 10 years

From the data reported by the representatives of the 47 DGASPCs, it appears that the number of children registered in the protection system is decreasing, with fewer and fewer children from year to year. Although at first glance it seems that the number of children in the state’s care has decreased, a comparison between the number of children under 14 years of age in the protection system and the total number of the population under the age of 14 in Romania, for the period 2014-2017 , shows that the proportions are constant, the decrease being quite small – about 3,000 fewer children in 2016 compared to 2015.

The same data also shows that the number of children declared eligible for adoption during the mentioned period has considerably decreased during the last six years. This can be explained by the complexity of the process of declaring the children up for adoption, a process that could be changed according to a bill currently under debate in the Chamber of Deputies.

The declaration of a child being adoptable goes hand in hand with the adoption process. Thus, the sooner they are declared up for adoption, the sooner the children are likely to be adopted and raised in a family. In theory, the adoption process takes approximately 2 years and 9 months, during which time the biological parents of the child as well as the extended family are advised regarding the reintegration of the child into the family. If reintegration is not possible, the process of declaring the child eligible for adoption begins. After the child is declared adoptable, the adoption process itself, which involves meetings with potential adopters, can be started. In practice, a study conducted by UNICEF, World Bank and the Government of Romania (2016) shows that these children spend an average of 7 and a half years in the system. The time spent in the system, especially in residential centers, represents a slowing down of the cognitive, emotional and even physical development of the children, because in this environment they cannot benefit from the affection they would have in the family environment.

Dynamics of children entering and leaving the system

Following the filed request, the data confirmed the downward trend in the number of children in state care. According to the chart below, the number of children leaving the system, although decreasing in recent years, is higher than the number of those under the protection of the state. The smaller number of children entering the system can be justified by decreasing the number of children in the population, the actual number being smaller, but the percentage being constant. Another cause of the reduced number of entrances to the system can be constituted by the improvement of the system of prevention of the separation of the child from family, service that is also within the attributions of the social assistance institutions. Maintaining these trends, together with significant changes at the legislative level, are the premises of a steady decrease in the number of children in the state’s care, especially in residential centers.

On the other hand, the causes of the entry and exit of children from the system are worth analyzing to see what is, in fact, the level reached by the Romanian society, as a whole. Also, analysis is essential in order to be able to create strategies and plans that change the perception of what steps need to be taken so that the children in the protection system not only have a decent experience during their time in the system, but also to develop the same independent living skills they would have if they were growing up in a family environment.

As it can be seen in the following chart, the main causes of entry into the system are: the death of biological parents or the loss of parental rights of both biological parents, cases of abuse or neglect, children who have committed criminal acts, children who cannot be left in the care of the parents for reasons not attributable to the parents, children who have been left in the sanitary units or children whose parents are missing or are unknown. As the data interpreted in the graph below show, the number of cases for each situation remained relatively constant over the 10 years analyzed, the most common cause being abuse or neglect. Other common causes are those of children who cannot be left in the care of parents for reasons not attributable to them and children who have been abandoned or found in health facilities. In the category “other causes”, situations such as children with behavioral disorders, cases of minor mothers, children with disabilities or parents with disabilities, as well as poverty were mentioned.

With regard to the exit of children from the protection system, the ideal situation is for every child to leave the system and grow up in a family. But the reality is much tougher than that. From the data obtained from the Directorates of Social Assistance and Child Protection, it turns out that, on average, 73 children in the protection system have died every year. Other categories of beneficiaries of the protection system leave the system without really having the experience of living and growing up in a family. It’s the case of those who are 18 and over 18 years old, who finish their studies or no longer going to school – about 3,000 every year. They often leave the system with significant gaps in their independent living skills, which may prevent them from properly adapting to and integrating in society, in the world outside the centers where they grew up.

On the other hand, there are cases in which children are reintegrated or adopted into a family, which represents a significant improvement in their life, especially from an emotional point of view.

Other causes for children leaving the protection system include disappearing cases, marriages, establishing a guardianship over the child, incarceration or request to leave the system. The reasons why children leave the system are a very important indicator in terms of the directions of action that need to be taken. A greater number of children leaving the system as a result of adoption or reintegration into the family represents a remarkable achievement of the state authorities. Closing large residential centers can be a success, as well, as long as it comes together with providing family-type services to all children in the state’s care, regardless of age or other aspects related to the child’s profile.

All this data is worth analyzing individually and in depth to be able to fully understand not only how the system works, but also the point at which we are now and what would be the next series of actions to be taken to improve the current state as much as possible. In the next period I will publish the analysis of all the data we have centralized, at a national level, regarding: adoptability, hard to adopt children, children with disabilities, etc.

I will continue to watch what will happen in this area, as I will continue to accept any collaboration with individuals, institutions, organizations or companies who really want to take steps to improve the lives of children in the Romanian protection system. I strongly believe that the security, protection and assurance of at least a minimum level of human dignity does not depend on the political color or the sector in which we operate. We cannot have a normal country, a happy country or a country that truly belongs to all Romanians, if we close our eyes and do nothing NOW for the children of Romania. For all children of Romania. In the last three years we have made great efforts to get politicians to sit down and talk at the same table to find real solutions. The change will not come from division, but from collaboration.

If you want to share any proposal for action for this field or for other areas for which I am fighting in the Romanian Parliament, I invite you to write to me at contact@oanabizgan.com.