Eyes Wide Shut
Irina has swept back auburn hair and a shy, childlike voice. Irina is smart, beautiful, and happy.
When we meet at an Autumn-themed celebration, she feverishly touches the food laid out on the wooden tables. She smiles. Her fingers swipe across the pumpkin pies, hover over the zacuscă jars, and caress the freshly-baked bread. Then her hand becomes a vessel, as she cups the pears in an osier basket.
When her hand ballet ends, Irina sits on a chair and listens to songs intoned by the other children. She sees everything.
Irina*, a student at the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Bucharest, is one of the girls who recounted, in ample detail, the abuse and neglect of the 42 kids housed in the boarding house have to endure.
Kids who get hunger pangs after dinner
Problems started in 2014 when the boarding home - operating under the General Directorate for Social Assistance and Child Protection (DGASPC) in Bucharest's Second District - was moved away from the school proper to make room for a ward for children with special needs.
The boarding home used to be on Traian Street, 100 meters from the School for the Blind, on 33 Austrului Street. The kids only had to cross the street to get to school. They had memorized the short, safe path between the two.
Before the move, teachers were frequently volunteering to help the students who did not leave for home on weekends. Also, the room and board on offer was in far better condition than their current space.
Now, the boarding house is located on 53 Viitorului Street, approximately 2 km away from the school. The 42 kids have a significantly harder time to get to school, even if they are transported by a school bus.
For breakfast, Irina tells me she has eaten a piece of bread with jam and two bread sticks. This happens despite the fact a student is allotted a relatively sufficient 17 lei for daily meals. Still, Irina says, the same terrible food is served almost every day.
For lunch, they will eat vegetable soup and mashed potatoes. No meat, only mashed potatoes.
Dinner is served at 6 o’clock. Irina tells me a lot of kids end up crying of hunger before they go to bed. Dinner is early, frugal, and sometimes absolutely disgusting.
Some receive care packages from home, some don’t get to eat anything else until morning. They are not allowed to leave the boarding house grounds until then. For any additional basic needs or food, the staff there would have to go out on their behalf.
Sadly, only one member of staff does this for them. Irina calls her "the night lady".
"She actually goes out and buys what we need from the store. But she only goes if we ask her before her shift."
"So, if you need something at 9PM," I ask her, "if you wanted something to eat or drink, no one goes out, not even if you give them your own money?”
Irina doesn't complain about any of this, she doesn't raise her voice. She seems resigned when it comes to simple meals, caretakers or the communal bathrooms, the latter making her blush.
Yes, you read it correctly. It's not only starvation that haunts these children already tested by fate. Like the characters in Saramago's Blindness, they are humiliated, pure and simple, despite having the same right to dignity and self-respect.
"We have communal bathrooms, for both girls and boys. Doors don't shut, so we go two by two, one to bathe, the other to hold the door closed."
And yet, Irina’s voice goes up an octave when it comes to her colleagues.
- The boy who went on a field-trip after he’d vomited all night, and DGASPC District 2 employees didn't say a word. He ended up in pre-coma at the hospital;
- Brothers who weren't allowed to leave their respective rooms and see each other, not even on the hallway;
- Another boy who’s been complaining that he can't find some of his clothes and thinks they might have been stolen;
- …Or the one who wasn't allowed to leave the boarding house not even to take part, alongside his teacher, in a contest where he had reached the final stage.
At the end of the week, children are basically prisoners of the boarding home. Only parents are allowed to take them out.
Why are the rules so strict?
No one knows, especially since they are not orphans, not simply left in the state's care, but actually have living, breathing, loving parents, but they don't live in Bucharest.
"When was the last time someone took you out, during weekends?" I ask Irina.
The very first second, she doesn't understand the question. "Who's going to take us out? Ah, the teachers. Two years ago, someone took us for a walk in the park."
"My boy can't eat there"
Laura Chiscop is the mother of one of the students at the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and is the president of the Parents' Association.
Contacted by PressOne, she told us that she is aware of the situation at the boarding home on Viitorului Street. Chiscop says she is about to send a new memo to the Directorate for Child's Protection in the Second District, hoping that will remedy the situation.
The first memo, signed by many of the parents, was sent in the Spring of 2015. They thought the problems would be taken care of, however the positive outcomes from the letter lasted for only a couple of weeks until they (the parents) had calmed down. About a month later the kids started recounting all sorts of stories.
"I know the food is horrible, that meals are served very early, and that they don't receive anything else until morning. Also, they are not allowed to leave their rooms and talk to each other, and that the bathrooms are unisex - it's complicated to go to the toilet or the showers. My boy isn't hosted by the boarding home, but he eats there. It's not even right to say that he ‘eats’, most times he eats whatever we send him from home. He's 9 years old, not picky at all, but he simply can't eat there", recounts Laura Chiscop.
We contacted the school’s director, Cosmina Cazan. She told us that the boarding house on Viitorului Street hosts children from Dolj, Olt, Argeș and Vâlcea Counties. She acknowledges the regular requests made by the students and their parents.
The problem, she says, is that while the School is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, the boarding house is under DGASPC District 2.
"Of the seven schools for the visually impaired that exist in Romania, we are the only one that has a boarding home somewhere else, physically, but also under different institution. We're talking about people who can't see, so the situation is complicated! Children are brought to and from school by bus, we can't really help them with anything other than some food to last until morning. At lunch, when they eat here, we don't know where or under what conditions the food is cooked, but if something happens, God forbid, we are the ones getting the fine. It's an oversight in the law, but I can't comment further, because I don't want to be accused of trying to subvert the boarding house under my control.", said Cosmina Cazan.
Sources among the teaching staff from the school recounted for PressOne that teachers and parents would rather not make 'too much noise', because the Directorate that manages the boarding house is under the local administration of Bucharest's Second District.
According to those same sources, there were instances when some children were sent home from school with different shoes. That's the level of attention that DGASPC employees bestow on children with sight impairment.
But there is a silver lining to this case. Neculai Onțanu, Mayor of District 2, allocated funds for the modernization of the Special School on Austrului Street. Also, under no legal obligation, Onțanu approved financial help for the children belonging to local administrations who previously had no funds to help them.
"You see, it's complicated. That's why we are fearful, not to do more harm than good," says a teacher.
When it comes to the institutional relationship between the District City Hall, run by Onțanu, and the Directorate for Child Protection from the same Second District, things get messy.
Minister Costea says she'll get involved
The head of the General Directorate for Social Assistance and Child Protection (DGASPC) in District 2 is Isabela Hurjui.
We tried calling her, as well as reaching her office, especially because the day we went to visit the boarding school the doors were padlocked and not a soul stirred inside.
Hurjui didn't call us back and refused to receive us in her office for a discussion. She wrote us a text message where she said we should go through the Press Office of the District City Hall. Just like Ion Iliescu once said, we could go there and tell them who we were and what we wanted.
As such, we went up the ladder. More exactly, we contacted the new Minister of Labor, Family and Social Services, university professor Claudia Costea (Moarcăș).
We got in touch with her Friday, November 20th, at an event that was perfect for our case: celebrating 25 years since Romania ratified the UN Convention of the rights of the child.
We went over our findings regarding the living conditions in the Boarding House on Viitorului Street.
Although she’s only taken over the Ministry, Claudia Costea said that, at the end of the month, she would meet with representatives from the ‘National Authority for Handicapped Persons’ to explain this "very abnormal" situation.
Also, Claudia Costea (photo) promised she will meet with representatives from the County Directorates for Child Protection, and for District 2 in particular, she will tell the administration what we’ve told her. She said despite the fact the year is ending, she wants more inspections at those directorates.
The Minister concludes the easiest solution is still with the District City Hall. "This Directorate is under the Second District City Hall. They have to make the decisions! The lady there answers to them."
Legally, the Minister is correct. But a short review of the institutional relationship between District 2 City Hall and this Directorate, as it has been shown in the press, sheds light on a few curious moments.
For instance in 2010, Isabela Hurjui, DGASPC’s District 2 Director, was the vice-president of the UNPR, a political party in which mayor Neculai Onțanu is also a member. Later, after a press scandal, her name was distanced from Gabriel Oprea's political organization.
In 2012, Hurjui signed a very positive article in regards to Mayor Onțanu, on the occasion of a "new and modern center" for social services.
"The multifunctional center was erected as a direct result of a memo written to Neculai Onțanu by hundreds of seniors who live in the Creangă neighborhood", wrote (or perhaps, only signed) Isabela Hurjui.
In 2013, her name showed up again linked to the 4-year-old boy who died after being mauled by stray dogs. At the time, Onțanu released a press statement saying the chief of DGASPC District 2 had been reprimanded and that her resignation had been requested.
What happened later is unclear as to what exactly the reprimand meant; it's clear, however, that Hurjui remained in her post.
Her name also came up in a piece produced by Antena 3 television, during the "În Premieră" show. The program showed abuses that had been reported at a social center for children with special needs.
Hurjui wasn't even sacked after this incident, although reporters used a hidden camera to film employees of the center packing up the food meant for the kids they were supposed to help and taking it home.
* Irina's real name has been protected, at her request, and therefore is not a reflection of her true identity.