Back in 1995 there were significant numbers of children living on the streets of Romania. Many lived underground in the sewers eking out warmth from the hot water pipes that ran under the city. Others congregated in large groups on the roof of Bucharest's main railway station. Very little was done at the time by the state to support these vulnerable children. Some people ‘joked that the street dogs were treated better and that you were more likely to see an ambulance coming to remove a frozen child's body from the street than to see them being helped while they were alive.
It was into this context that Suzie, our teenage founder, decided that she must do something. Given the scale of the problem and that existing charities concentrated resources on so few of the children needing help, she concluded that she should partner with a new start-up that could reach a new group of children and a new set of supporters.
The team of the new start-up would go to the railway station and start to engage with the kids. They would offer them a place to wash, give them clean clothes and offer to help them get enrolled in school. From there they started to provide somewhere for street boys to live. Initially this looked like 6 boys literally helped off the street living in a 10th floor apartment with no lift and to which the city’s water pressure regularly didn't reach!
As this stay in Romania drew to a close, Suzie gave them the £400 she'd saved while working as a care assistant in the UK- this was to last them 5 months. Leaving the boys in the care of the Romanian partner, she headed home to the UK to start medical school and to set up this charity to raise funds to continue and expand the work in Romania
Please tell us about the work you've been doing in Romania.
I visited Suceava in North East Romania with a UK charity in 1994, when I was 17. It was a volunteering visit where we did some work on a new building, sanding and painting windows and doors. We also visited an orphanage and played with the children. However, the thing that struck me most was seeing children as young as 9 or 10 sleeping rough in the station in Bucharest as we travelled through. I remember thinking this was not okay, in a European capital only 3 hours’ flight from London, and decided to come back for a gap year before medical school to see what I could do to help. I worked for 5 months in UK care homes to raise money for my time in Romania.
During my 9 months in Romania in 1995 to 1996 I volunteered at a home for street children and then helped set up a new organisation, Romania International Children’s Foundation (RICF), that would take in more children from the streets, provide them with shelter, food and clothing, and get them integrated into the education system. The children we took in had experienced so many traumas that we wanted to make sure they had a chance to just enjoy being kids. We arranged trips to the seaside, games in the park, and visits to museums and other cultural sites. Over time we grew into an organisation that provided care for 24 boys in three groups of eight, with shared facilities for dining, cooking and laundry. Very early on, we recognised that even though being in a group home was far better than being on the streets or in a large institution, children belong in loving families, ideally with a relative if there is someone suitable, or with a foster carer.
Over the last 25 years, the journey has been one of adapting to the progress made by the Romanian state. We have looked to use our limited resources to add value to what they are able to offer and pioneer new approaches that give the best possible outcomes for vulnerable children.
What kind of work is RICF involved with in Romania now?
RICF supports three main projects in Romania, through a close partnership with the Romanian registered foundation Fundaia Internationala pentru Copii, Romania (FICR). These are
‘I want a mum too’( Vreau śi eu mamā) - Abandonment Prevention
We strongly believe that poverty should not be allowed to separate loving families. By intervening before a child is separated from their family, the potential for a whole childhood in the care system can be avoided, and generational cycles of abandonment can be broken. To this end FICR has been working with mothers at high risk of abandoning their babies.
Ceausescu’s brutal pro-natal policies left a legacy of high rates of newborns being abandoned at birth, with mothers sometimes providing false names and leaving their baby in the maternity hospital. Research carried out by FICR in 2009 indicated that 1.8% of newborns were being abandoned in one particular maternity hospital in the sector of Bucharest where FICR is based. Later that year FICR launched a pilot to work with mothers identified as being at high risk of abandoning their newborn. The project has been running ever since, and receives referrals from child protection authorities and hospitals across Bucharest as well as word of mouth often from current participants to others in need.
‘I want a mum too’ provides mentoring, training, advocacy and peer support alongside some initial financial help which, for many, is what makes keeping their baby even possible. “This financial element tapers down to zero over the course 12 months. This avoids creating long-term financial dependency, and allows us to impact many more families. In exceptional circumstances, particularly with hardship caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, financial support has been extended according to need.
It is a real privilege to see how the mums grow in self-esteem and confidence through this project; how the bond with their baby grows strong and how their parenting skills blossom.
Current funding levels allow FICR to enrol 13 mums and babies in this project at any one time. The training provided in the group sessions equip mothers with skills in newborn care, parenting and budgeting. The team ensure that each family receives all the state benefits that they are eligible for, including applying retrospectively where possible, as well as signposting to other specialist services where needed, such as psychological therapies and refuges for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. Simona, the project facilitator, offers advice and support tailored to each individual situation, and supports mums in finding safe and regular employment.
There is also an active WhatsApp support community for current and past participants. It is great to hear that friendships have formed between various mums in the group, and they arrange to meet up together. These informal support networks can last well after mothers have 'graduated’ from the project.
‘A Family for me’ (‘O familie pentru mine’) - Enhancing Foster Care
Where a child is not able to be with their own family, then a substitute family is far better than institutional care. As the Romanian state has grown its foster care provision over the last 25 years, FICR's focus has shifted to providing additional training and support for government employed foster carers in order to enhance foster care outcomes. FICR aims to equip foster carers to nurture and protect young people in their care, building hope, self-esteem and the ability to set boundaries and make positive choices, in preparation for independent living.
FICR facilitates monthly peer support groups that provide opportunities for foster carers to receive training, share stories about what is and is not working for the children in their care, and to offer each other support and encouragement. There is also regular contact through the month.
FICR currently has nine girls aged between 12 and 19 years and five boys aged between 13 and 19 years, and their 11 foster carers, enrolled in this project.
‘Independent living’ (Viat a independentta™)Equipping for Independence
The transition from childhood to living as an independent adult is challenging and all the more so for children who have been orphaned or abandoned, or who have spent significant periods in the care system. This primarily targets the young people already linked to one of our other projects. As they enter their teenage years, FICR offers individually tailored packages of support to prepare them for independent living. FICR offers mentoring, financial and educational support, with regular contact with our social worker and / or psychologist. The young people learn to manage their own budgets, receive help with applying for educational courses and apprenticeships, and are invited to participate in peer support meetings as appropriate to their needs.
What kinds of challenges have you faced working in Romania?
The initial language barrier was an obvious challenge, but Romanian is a beautiful language. I remember working through “Teach yourself Romanian’ chapter by chapter, doing the exercises in a notebook, whilst staying with a Romanian lady who did not speak any English!
The system is different from in the UK. A foster carer in Romanian is considered a full-time employee and is known as a ‘professional maternal assistant’. The starting salary matches the Romanian minimum wage, with small supplements for caring for more than one child, and for caring for children with significant disabilities or other more stressful circumstances. It is very challenging for foster carers to live on this income with the rapidly escalating cost of living. As being a professional maternal assistant is considered full time employment, this also limits any other opportunity for earning.
Also, the bureaucratic system in Romania can be very complicated and the FICR team has had to navigate challenging scenarios. In our ‘I want a mum too’ project, the team need to ensure that both mother and child are legally recognised, because otherwise they will not be entitled to receive normal childcare allowances and child benefit. This has been particularly difficult in situations where the mother does not have a birth certificate because her own birth was never officially registered, which becomes a block to registering the birth of her child.
How has RICF responded to the Ukrainian refugee crisis?
We have been shocked and distressed by events unfolding in Ukraine, and are delighted that FICR has been able to open its HQ space in Bucharest to welcome Ukrainian refugees. FICR's simple three-room apartment in Bucharest has so far provided sanctuary for four different families fleeing the war, for as long as they needed it before moving on to a more definitive temporary home. The team consolidated into the smallest room for one to one meetings with project beneficiaries, making the larger office space and meeting room available to accommodate refugees.
We are grateful to donors who have made it possible for FICR to convert our office space and to buy essentials like bedding, curtains, cooking utensils, hygiene products, food, medicines etc. It has been a huge team effort, with local volunteers also providing meals, supplies and transport for refugees.
‘The first group to be welcomed by FICR in March 2022 was made up of 2 mums travelling together with their 3 children before they moved on to another European destination. Next, the team hosted a young woman with her grandmother, and mediated on their behalf to help them obtain visas for their onward destination. FICR's most recent refugees were a family of four awaiting paperwork to travel to the UK to stay with the mum's sister. FICR were able to help meet their needs for a couple of months, providing food, medication and a warm safe place to stay.
In each case the team has responded with compassion and warmth, and have gone the extra mile to help people sort administrative tasks and meet the various needs that have arisen. We wish all of these refugee families the very best,
What do you hope to achieve through your involvement in Romania?
RICF's goal is to reduce child abandonment and to offer abandoned or orphaned Romanian children the chance to live in a loving family. Over the last 25 years, we have worked in close collaboration with FICR. We set our core values early in our journey, and these have helped us keep
We hope that through the ‘A family for me’ project we will help equip, support and train foster carers so they can offer the best possible environment for the children placed with them, and minimise the risk of placement breakdown.
We hope that through the ‘I want a mum too’ project, fewer children will be abandoned, as the support we offer to vulnerable mums will allow them to keep their child, bond with them, and learn to provide and care for them. We also hope that the mums will build supportive friendships that will last well beyond their involvement in the project.
We hope that through our ‘Independent Living project young people approaching the end of their time in foster care will be prepared in good time for the transition into independent life, and will be supported as they start out in further education or employment.
We would love to increase our impact by growing each of these projects. As a small charity, we are very adaptable and have always looked to add value with the limited resources that we have. Currently 85% of our income comes from individual donors, with the most common gift being £10 per month. With new donors and other sources of support we could increase the numbers of project participants and therefore our impact.
How can people support you?
The top three ways that people can support us are to donate (even just £5 a month), subscribe to our newsletters, and volunteer.
For more details please see wwiw.ricf.net/Getlnvolved
We welcome one off and regular donations towards our work, and volunteers with suitable experience and skills to help with training and equipping our team. People can also support us as they shop, using easy fund raising or Amazon Smile. As a small organisation, we make sure we get value out of all of our resources, however small. Every penny received from our donors goes to fund our projects in Romania. All UK costs are covered by the charity's trustees.
‘We are always open to hearing people's creative ideas about how they can support us. We recently had a donation of Avios that we've managed to turn into the beginnings of a toy library for the participants in our I want a mum too’ project.
However you can support RICE we would be delighted to hear from you at [email protected]