On a recent visit to Romania I had the privilege of meeting Simona, an incredibly inspiring woman with a 25-year career in social work who is now the Head of Case Management at the child protection department in Iași County (pronounced ‘Yash’ County). Here, Simona supervises a team of social workers or ‘case managers’ who support children living with relatives or foster families.
Radu, our Social Work Manager in Romania has been collaborating with Simona for over eight years, and they recently worked together to reunite the Vancea* family, whose story is the focus of our Winter Crisis Appeal. After the children’s mother died suddenly, seven-year-old Nelu and his four elder siblings were taken to an orphanage where they lived for two years, cut off from their family, until Radu and Simona supported the children’s uncle to prepare the house for the children and win his legal battle to bring them home.
“I first met Simona in 2014,” Radu explained to me. “When Hope and Homes for Children started working in Iași County. We want to close all the institutions in the county, and to do that we need to find family-based care for all the children living there. Simona was – and still is – one of the key people in the Iași child protection directorate with whom we work to find safe, loving families for each of these children. Simona, together with her team, contributes significantly to the process of closing institutions in Iași County. She’s a specialist with a lot of experience and has a strategic vision for the deinstitutionalisation process.”
Here, in this interview, Simona gives an insight into her 25-year career as a social worker in Romania, and how her involvement with Hope and Homes for Children brought a fresh perspective, a new approach, and smiles to children’s faces.
“Hope and Homes for Children brought change and a new perspective – trust, devotion and above all, that quality that all social workers should have but that cannot be learned in school – humanity.”
A new partnership, a new perspective
Natalia: How long have you been a social worker?
Simona: I’ve been a social worker in Romania for 25 years. I cannot tell you the number of children whose lives I’ve been involved in, but I have done it every time with passion and put the children’s interests above all else. Obviously being a parent gives me a different perspective on the profession of being a social worker. Every time, I tried to focus all my efforts on the outcome that I would want someone to do for my child if he were in a similar situation. But when I met Radu from Hope and Homes for Children, he brought change and a new perspective.
How did you come to know Hope and Homes for Children?
I came to know Hope and Homes for Children Romania through the partnership they initiated with the General Directorate of Social Assistance and Child Protection. The Directorate needed to designate a liaison person to coordinate and support Hope and Homes for Children’s interventions in Iași County, and they chose me.
Up until then, my experience as a social worker had meant working in the field of adoption and family-type protection of children. But through the partnership with Hope and Homes for Children, I personally reached the point where I understood that the best thing you can do for a child is to help them stay with their own parents, and not in a substitute family.
For me, personally and professionally, Hope and Homes for Children Romania meant a new perspective, it meant hope, opportunity and an example worth following.
Poverty is not a reason for family separation
What impact has Hope and Homes for Children made in Iași County?
Poverty should not be a reason for any child to be abandoned, nor should it be a reason why a child is separated from their family. But unfortunately, over time, many children have been separated from their families merely due to poor living conditions and lacking basic items. Just as Nelu and the rest of the Vancea* siblings were. And at the same time, many children living in institutions weren’t given the chance to return to their families purely because their families didn’t have basic items.
But Hope and Homes for Children, through their involvement at Iași county level at least, has made the difference between children growing up in institutions, and growing up in a family. For every child we’ve fought for, they’ve provided both material and emotional support – understanding and covering the costs of all the needs I’ve identified, so that those children can grow up with their parents.
Because the most important thing for every child is to grow up with their parents. As parents provide the foundation and consistency that brings them safety, balance and belonging.
Light at the end of the tunnel
How did you and Radu work together to support the Vancea siblings?
With the story of the Vancea family – Nelu and his siblings – I felt the light at the end of the tunnel. The solution was to return them to their grandmother’s and uncle’s family. I discussed it with Radu and together we developed a plan to return the children to their family. The purpose of our joint plan was to reunite the children with their family.
Radu appeared in my professional and personal life and without saying too many words, he brought change and a new perspective – trust, devotion and above all, that quality that all social workers should have and that cannot be learned in school – humanity.
What I saw in Radu, I found in our other partners and collaborators at Hope and Homes for Children Romania too. I had this feeling that every time we met people I didn’t know, there was a reunion.
If Hope and Homes for Children Romania had not been involved in the project of closing the institutions in Iași County, the Vancea siblings would still be in an institution.
Hope and Homes for Children Romania was that missing piece of the puzzle that meant support, resources, hope – all together meaning the return of the Vancea siblings to their uncle and grandmother.
How did you feel about helping reunite the family?
I feel a joy and satisfaction that maybe few professions have – the smile of the children, their grandmother and uncle and their family. Even if no one will ever replace their mother and father – I believe their wider family manages to provide them with security, with affection, and with a future that will enable them to achieve their full potential.
The future of childcare reform
What is your hope for the future of child care reform in Romania?
Reform in the child protection system as I see it, and how I imagine it at grassroots level, would mean identifying resources and mechanisms so that the state and NGOs intervene by supporting parents to raise their children – teaching them, educating them, and helping them. This means financing the mechanisms of prevention in child protection. Another step I consider very important is continuing to close down institutions. This requires identifying families who can meet the needs of children in institutions and who can temporarily protect them, and paying great attention to young care-leavers who still need our support.
The greatest achievement of my career
Can you describe how your work has shifted toward closing institutions?
Previously, the nature of my work did not give me the opportunity to interact very much with institutions or placement centres. I was focused on child protection for children in family care and foster care. But with the arrival of Hope and Homes for Children Romania, and once they had established their partnership with the Directorate, this completely changed.
We began to interact incredibly closely with the institutions and the children living there. I had the chance – and the challenge – to work on the closure projects for these institutions. And through this experience, I had the opportunity to realise that nothing is impossible, that in institutions where there were children with disabilities who we never thought we’d find families for, all these things were in fact possible.
Through this experience, I had the opportunity to realise that nothing is impossible.
The feeling of these things being impossible came not from a lack of care or involvement, but because of the lack of resources to create that family environment that any child, and in particular, children with disabilities, needs. And Hope and Homes for Children brought that “something” which was missing, giving us the opportunity to think of a plan that we might never have come up with if it wasn’t for the resources, involvement and intervention that they brought to our county.
And so, after more than 20 years in my profession, I felt the greatest professional achievement of my career when we successfully closed the institution in Târgu Frumos. And I also feel a huge sense of satisfaction as we continue to work together on closing Ioan Holban institution.
This winter there are many more families like Nelu’s who urgently need support to stay together. If you haven’t already, please do give to our Winter Crisis Appeal.
*names changed to protection identity