MDRI Executive Director Eric Rosenthal said the conditions in which the children were living in the psychiatric facilities in Romania were the worst he's seen anywhere in the world. And he says the treatment of the children witnessed by MDRI members constituted a violation of international human rights law.
MDRI Associate Director Laurie Ahern was one of those who visited the Romanian facilities. "The most prominent one, probably the most obviously horrific conditions, that was June '05 in [the southeast town of] Braila, where we found children in just horrendous conditions, and some near death," she said.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service, Ahern said MDRI worked with the UN children's agency, UNICEF, to get these children transferred to other facilities. "These children were starving to death when we found them," she said. "They are better in the sense that these children are now being fed, and they're gaining weight."
But she added that "what isn't better, at least when we spoke to the staff at the new institutions that they were at, is that these children will most likely be kept in institutions. There is a belief there that because a child has a disability, it seems that they can't live in a maternal or foster-care program, and it seems like these children will be kept in institutions. At least that's what we're told."
Ahern said all of the children she saw were capable of living in the community, going to schools, staying with their families, or being adopted.
At one psychiatric facility in Timisoara, she said, 65 babies and infants were being looked after by only three staff members. "All they can do is feed them and change their diapers," Ahern continued. "That's the only thing they can do. So there were 65 babies, and there was this eerie silence. There was no noise. There was no crying. There were no babies cooing.
"And you could see as you looked at the babies -- from the younger ones up to the older ones -- by the time we went into the room with the 2-year-olds, who had been laying in cribs for two years, without anyone touching them or picking them up, other than to put a bottle in their mouth and change a diaper, these children were rocking back and forth, they were banging their heads, they were chewing their fingers," she said. "And this is a sign of neglect."
Ahern said such conditions breed further emotional and physical disabilities.
Bringing In Brussels
MDRI is urging the European Union to take action. The bloc is expected to announce soon whether Romania has completed necessary reforms, including on human rights, to qualify for membership next year.
After intense international criticism, Romania began a sweeping overhaul of its orphanage system in the 1990s, reforms that have won praise from the EU. But MDRI says disabled children are left out of the new system.
Romanian health officials acknowledge problems, but deny widespread neglect. "In Romania, we have 502 institutions for children. Out of these, as I said, only 23 house more than 150 children," said Bogdan Panait, a junior minister and president of the National Agency for Child Protection in Romania.
"Around 300 are small 'family-type' institutions," he added. "Conditions in all the [Romanian] institutions are very good. Many of them, the vast majority of them, respect European standards."
Panait said Romania has made "major progress" concerning children's rights. He told AP that some of the most serious shortcomings should be resolved by the end of the year.
In a statement, the government of Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu has promised to investigate the MDRI report.
(RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service contributed to this report.)