Memories of 'horrific' orphanages haunt crusader for Romanian children's rights


CHESTER -- Two years after her nightmarish visit to a Romanian orphanage, Patricia Bourbon continues to crusade for that country's neglected children, all the while waiting for her chance to return to bring back a little boy who won her heart.

"The three weeks I spent living and working in the orphanages was the longest span of time in my memory," she wrote in a letter asking Congress to deny Romania most-favored-nation trade status until the country's shows improvement in human rights. "I will never be the same after witnessing the disgraceful treatment accorded helpless, defenseless children as young as three years of age."

Ms. Bourbon, 28, visited Romania in spring of 1991, a year and a half after the fall of communism and the public executions of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.

Triple-digit inflation, hunger and despair were rampant but nowhere more evident than in Romania's orphanages, where an estimated 130,000 unwanted children lived in squalor. Years earlier, Mr. Ceausescu had decreed that each Romanian woman, married or not, would face heavy fines if she failed to produce five children to build a strong population and army.

Ms. Bourbon arrived as part of an Irish relief organization's effort to help the children at an orphanage in Bacau, where 95 children ranging from infants to teen-agers lived in dirty quarters, often shackled to their beds, with little to eat or drink.

April 8, 1991: "Our first night here in the orphanage was horrific. There were three 'caretakers' for 95 children. By the time we got here, all of the kids were in bed, but not necessarily asleep. The women went in at short intervals to each bedroom and either battered the children or pulled their covers off to scream at them -- always turning on the bright lights. A slap on the bottom wouldn't have been so bad, but they were all carrying sticks, or belts, some had straight pins. That very first night I noticed that a child near the door had an open, fresh wound on his head. When I asked, How? Why?, I got a shrug. Then one of the women made the motion that he'd fallen down. . . ."

April 11, 1991: "I have fallen in love with a few children, but my favorite is an independent little guy called Patrika. He's a robust little 3-year-old and has me completely wrapped around his little finger. . . . When I get to know the director more, I'm going to broach the subject of Patrika, and find out if his papers are in order, if he's in full custody of the orphanage, and if she'll help me take him. Chances are slim, most cases take a year, if they even go through, but I'll try. . . ."

In 1990 and 1991, 7,500 children were adopted from Romania by families around the world, according to the Adoptive Parents of Romanian Children and the Romanian Children's Connection, two groups crusading for the children's rights.

Last year, however, only 210 children were allowed out of the country, 70 going to the United States.

"They have figured out who is most likely to adopt and excluded them," Ms. Bourbon said.

For more information on the Romanian relief effort, call Patricia Bourbon at (410) 643-5170.

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