12 June 2019

“Who could think orphanages can ever be closed?” 25 years on, how our work became a social justice movement for children

Since Hope and Homes for Children began in 1994, your support has helped us to transform the world for children. Here, Ștefan Dărăbuș, Hope and Homes for Children’s Regional Operations Director for Central and Southern Europe and one of the architects of our work from the  beginning, reflects on the impact that we have made together and why the ongoing commitment of each of us remains vital as we continue to strive for a world without orphanages.

The institution for babies in the town of Cavnic, Romania, which represents the first ever orphanage closure for Hope and Homes for Children, in March 1999.

It was a grey, cold morning, on the train station in Baia Mare, Romania. Mark and Caroline Cook arrived and we drove to a small town in the mountains, called Cavnic. We visited a baby orphanage on the third floor of a hospital. Bleak rooms, cots next to each other, without bars. The babies, 96 of them, crammed in a few rooms; unbreathable air. Pestilential stench, deadly silence and moving baby hands. A silent movie, based on a Charles Dickens novel. One of these babies was Bobby. His big, blue eyes, tearless, but shouting out despair, stuck with me for a long, long time.

We got out. Too shocked to talk. Caroline’s eyes, blinking again and again, hands shaking. Mark’s chin, trembling. His look, full of anger. We needed air, to breathe in. We looked around, at the mountains, then our eyes clung on the metal, rusty bars of the balcony at the third floor of the hospital, where the baby orphanage was. None of them in fresh air. None out, in the grass. Hidden away, behind crumbling walls, as if they did not exist. It was a place without love. Like any other orphanage, hell on earth. We thought—this has to stop. Bobby needed to feel loved. So, we started there. People took us for lunatics. They thought “who could think orphanages can ever be closed? Too many children, too heavy a system.” They were right—there were a lot of children. In Romania alone, there were more than 100,000 children confined to the system. But we knew one thing: talking to children in institutions, asking them what they wanted most, their answers were always the same: “Please, please find me a family.”

In the next few years, our dream to see the closure of every last orphanage in Romania will come true

Ours is a story of children, rebirth and learning: 25 years ago, in 1994, Mark and Caroline started Hope and Homes for Children, moved by the plight of orphans surviving in the rubble of the Bjelave Orphanage, in Sarajevo. They promised those children to rebuild their bombed orphanage. They delivered that promise. Soon after, they realised it was something else the children needed: families. So, we started closing orphanages, and the first to close was the one in Cavnic. Every single one of those 96 babies, we placed in families, in foster care, or in family-type homes, established so that small groups of children with complex needs could be cared for and cherished as individuals. Their lives changed forever. Bobby was placed into a family-type home. And Caroline said: “We can do this. We really can. No child should ever live like this and go through this misery and pain.” And from then on that idea, of closing every last orphanage in Romania, became known as “Caroline’s Dream”.

It was 1999. Some 700 orphanages in Romania alone, with 100,000 children confined inside them. Now, fast forward 20 years later; 2019. Some 150 orphanages still out there, with 6,500 children left in them. In the next few years, Caroline’s dream to see the closure of every last orphanage in Romania will come true.

In 2000, we had our first conference, sharing our stories with our supporters. Our supporters gave us the motivation and the push we needed to be sure we were doing the right thing, by pressing and fighting against all odds. It was by talking to our supporters that we evolved once again, including children with disabilities into our work. They needed family life as well, arguably even more than anyone else. By 2007, we had expert local teams working directly in ten countries, in Africa  and eastern Europe.

Our model of action spread fast: our work in more than 11 countries

In 2012, Rwanda became the first country in Africa to commit to closing its orphanages. The unthinkable was happening. In Ukraine, our model of action spread fast. We redefined our vision, as “a world in which children no longer suffer institutional care.” We reshaped our mission, as we realised we could never meet the scale of the challenge alone and needed to build a global movement for reform, becoming “the catalyst for the global elimination of institutional care for children.” By now, Bobby was in foster care, and had turned into this joyful teenager, smiling and happy, every time I met him. He was telling me jokes and greatly enjoyed making me laugh.

In 2014, Romania recognised its child institutions must be dismantled with children only placed in family-like services. Moldova kicked off the reform of its own system and closure plans were made for children’s institutions. Our work has grown and become a social justice movement for children. This is now a cause everyone can understand and relate to. Our donors, our supporters, you, know very well what I mean by this: without affection, attachment and love there is but suffering and survival. Without a sense of belonging, our lives are filled with anxiety, depression and uselessness. For the children we are here to serve, this is exponentially more distressing and painful. It is you, our supporters, who have helped us take action. We have made history together.

Today, we work directly in 11 countries to close institutions and put children into families. In a further 24 countries we are helping to shape legislation and turn around policies, so that the most vulnerable children can enjoy the love of a family. Now, in 2019, the Bjelave Orphanage in Sarajevo, where it all began, is finally to be closed. Over the next ten years, we still need you on our side, to make the rest of the world realise what we know—that orphanages are an unacceptable way of looking after children.

Together we are making orphanages a thing of the past

Twenty-five years after we started, we have reached a significant moment in history as we approach a tipping point in the public perception of orphanages. At this moment, we need you more than ever. Despite the hundreds of children I have personally met through my work I still can only imagine the hell of growing up without parents, without love—only those children know their true pain. But together we are making this pain a thing of the past. Today, Bobby is a happy 21 year-old adult. He spent the rest of his childhood in the foster family, and now has a job. He still smiles when we meet. He loves this girl he wants to marry, but says they want to wait a bit longer, until they have a place of their own.

Just imagine Bobby’s life, without you. Can you? You can, but I am sure you don’t want to.

Ștefan Dărăbuș, Hope and Homes for Children’s Regional Director for Central and Southern Europe, was made an Honorary Citizen of Bistrita-Nasaud County for his “outstanding contributions to the development of child protection services.”

What can I do to help? Join a global movement

It is the State that is ultimately responsible for children’s rights. However, private and institutional donors have a key role to play by reallocating development assistance to support the transition from institutional to family-based care. You can fundraise for Hope and Homes for Children or explore our donation options to help us make sure no child is left behind. Join a global movement working to see the elimination of orphanages in our lifetime.