20/20: Shame of a Nation: The Story of Genocide by Neglect (1990)

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In this 20/20 Report from 1990, Tom Jarriel leads a team to investigate what has never before been seen and can only be described as genocide by neglect following the 1989 Romanian Revolution.

The Revolution brought down the Ceausescu regime but, after 25 years of totalitarian rule, the policies and mindset that prevailed under the regime continue.  In more than 50 state run asylums in remote parts of the country, 8,000 children (closer to 40,000 children by Western sources) are existing or dying under conditions that resemble extermination camps.

Ion Berindel served as consultant and translator for the team, and captured the brutality inside these asylums on a home video camera. At age three, these children are sorted as "productive" or "deficient and unsalvageable." The productive children are sent to state run orphanages.  They are at least clothed and fed. The majority of the remaining children have easily treatable medical conditions but are terrorized and beaten, caged like animals, and ultimately left in death rooms. Government authorities are numb to these realities, "there is nothing we can do," and blame "the system."

Tonight, "20/20" begins with a dilemma. A story that's so shocking that we know those of you at home are going to be disturbed by what you see, but a story that's so important that we just couldn't look the other way.

Earlier this year, we've reported on the plight of orphaned children in Romania, which caused 25,000 of you to write to us. Now, a new discovery.

Thousands of Romanian children, many near death, others naked and starving, are being held in hidden asylums that resemble Nazi concentration camps.

Most of what we will show you has never been seen before on American television.

This crisis is unfolding as we speak, but public exposure can force change.

Just last weekend, 71 world leaders met at the United Nations to commit their countries to the long-term goal of improving the quality of life for children, but the situation in Romania demands immediate action.

Tom Jarriel journeyed to Romania where people, and particularly children, are still suffering from the totalitarian policies of the Ceausescu regime.

Here now, in a two-part investigation, is what Tom found.

[singing in Romanian]

In more than 50 institutions hidden in remote areas of Romania, innocent children are locked away like condemned prisoners.

These are not the orphanages seen before on American television. These are state-run asylums shrouded in secrecy.

This is where children with physical or mental defects are banished by a government which has branded them worthless.

Conditions are so shameful, the gates are padlocked.

Outsiders rarely get in.

This is why.

[children speaking Romanian]

Your immediate feeling about this is this is an extermination camp.

This is a place that's designed to get rid of these children, and it's being done in the most inhumane and undignified way possible.

Children here are filthy and unattended.

They lie in their own waste, covered with flies, crippled by years of disease and confinement.

They cower beneath cribs like cornered animals.

The eventual toll of living in such unsanitary conditions is obvious.

In every institution we've visited, we found critically-ill children, some with perhaps only weeks left to live.

And the attitude of the authorities – it's the system.

There's nothing we can do about it.

The Romanian government admits more than 8,000 children live in these state-run asylums, but Western sources say the figure is closer to 40,000.

Among them, hundreds of perfectly-normal children, swept up by this heartless bureaucracy.

This is the only life most will ever know.

There is no way out.

It's a system not unlike Hitler's Auschwitz – a form of state-imposed genocide by neglect.

At age three, the children in Romania's orphanages are sorted into two categories.

The productive ones, healthy and normal, are sent to be educated in state-run orphanages.

[all singing in Romanian]

The orphanages are far from perfect, but the children here are fed and clothed.

The government is now raising 65,000 orphans as wards of the state.

These are the lucky ones.

The rest are rejected and sent to medieval institutions like this one, warehouses for what's called the deficient and unsalvageable.

[whimpering]

The nurse says both these children are going to die.

These children are certainly doomed in terms of this kind of care.

Pediatrician Barbara Bascom was so overwhelmed by the misery she found here, she sold her home in Maryland and is devoting the next three years to what she calls a man-made disaster.

These children are dying every day, and it is a disaster, and the magnitude of this kind of a disaster – we haven't seen during our lifetime.

[crowd singing indistinctly]

Lord, please, free Romania!

[crowd cheers]

Another American, Ion Berindei, has set aside his career as a Boston architect, passionate in his zeal to help the country he escaped 20 years ago for freedom.

After last December's revolution, Ion returned to Romania obsessed with saving the children his homeland has written off as hopeless.

[speaking Romanian]

She doesn't know why she's here.

She says that her mother left, and maybe she will come back, but she doesn't know.

In a quest for outside help, Ion used a home video camera to document the conditions he found inside the institutions.

At one facility, he witnessed a brutal show of inhumanity at bath time.

[woman shouting in Romanian]

What was it like that day for the children?

It was horrifying for them because they were actually being beaten into coming into these rooms.

[cries]

The children were shrieking.

They were, in fact, being herded into the bathroom.

The abuses captured by the lens of a home video camera seem to confirm the eyewitness reports we were hearing from international relief workers.

"20/20" set out to investigate.

We traveled to Romania, crisscrossing the country, covering more than 1,500 miles in six days to find out how many children are trapped in this nightmare.

Ion agreed to act as a translator and consultant for "20/20."

Our first priority was Tuicani Moreni, the facility where Ion had seen the children terrorized by a nurse.

We landed in an open field and headed for the institution with donated relief supplies.

[child groans]

It had been two months since Ion had been here.

It was quickly apparent not much had changed.

We can still see stationary water – the same black water that I saw two months ago.

They may not even have changed it since then.

They're all washed in the same tub of water?

They were all washed in the same tub of water, and they were being pushed by two and three into this black-looking water, after which, they were coming out as dirty as they came in.

The new director here was alerted of our arrival.

Does he see anything wrong with, and is the practice continuing of taking youngsters into the shower area and putting them into a cold bath as if they're being herded like animals?

[speaking Romanian]

He says in medical pathologies, a well-known fact that people working in places like this, they become like animals themselves.

The director promised that the woman who had struck the children would be fired, and explained there was simply no clean water available for bathing the children.

But just a few yards away, an open water faucet ran constantly, flooding the ground.

The director of this institution resigned the day after we left.

We pressed on 400 miles north, where conditions were said to be even worse.

Destination – Siret, an old monastery which houses 520 children. We entered the dungeon-like building. Even on sunny days, these youngsters are kept inside.

[moans]

At first glance, this place looked much like the overcrowded orphanages we had seen back in Bucharest, but as we went from room to room, down dark, dilapidated hallways, it became clear this place was different.

[screams]

We found children terrified of strangers.

[woman shouting in Romanian]

In some cribs, dazed toddlers were restrained in straitjacket fashion. In the next room, a little boy was doubled over, oblivious to his surroundings.

[children chattering]

Dr. Barbara Bascom traveled with us.

They certainly seem hungry for attention, don't they?

Yes, they do.

As a pediatrician, she could determine what problems had caused these children to be sent here. It was clear many had severe physical disabilities or were neurologically impaired.

But Dr. Bascom also discovered a remarkable number of children with minor problems – crossed eyes or "Dumbo" ears, conditions routinely treated elsewhere. And in every room, there were children who appeared normal.

I have no idea why these children are here.

These children, like thousands of others, have been misdiagnosed by this haphazard system. Others are abandoned Gypsy children.

I think 80% to 90% of the children that I have seen in institutions were normal or had normal potential at the time of birth.

[children laughing]

They came as normal children, and as a result of staying in this institution, they are no longer normal. They are now indistinguishable from the rest of children with severe neurological problems.

Looks like we're going to the basement, huh?

[man speaking Romanian]

The basement?

The most hopeless cases, we discovered, are sent for their final weeks to the basement – an anonymous death row. The children in this room are virtually ignored by a staff which has little medical training. When we asked what was wrong with this little boy, the aide simply shrugged.

This child's leg is now crooked – the result of a fracture that was never set.

Dying children, each case more senseless than the last.

This one especially seems to disturb you.

I think this is an outrage. This child has been deemed unsalvageable because of anemia.

Isn't anemia something that can be fairly easily and successfully treated?

Of course. Most forms of anemia are simple and very easy to completely reverse with proper treatment.

Dr. Bascom was astonished at the lack of basic resources available in Romania.

They don't have the hospitals, the labs, the X-ray machines, or any of the support services that are needed to make a diagnosis. You can't treat children without a diagnosis.

[crying]

The only escape for this child now is death. They're buried here in anonymous graves in a field segregated from the main cemetery.

This is the state's final solution. In one institution, 40% of the children died last year of infectious diseases and neglect. Remarkably, there's been no public outcry to pressure the new government to deal with this crisis.

[speaking Romanian]

These children are like prisoners of war – forgotten now that the war is over.

Dan Cristescu is inspector general of special education in Romania.

Unfortunately, the general public's attitude towards handicapped persons still hasn't changed very much.

As we traveled on, we discovered firsthand how public indifference impacts on these children. Day three, we arrived at Ghimes, a farming town tucked away deep in a scenic valley. It's a typical Romanian community where families are raising healthy, normal children. Every day on the main road, they pass by the yellow stone house with its padlocked front gate, but no one ever goes inside or asks if they can help.

Such isolation is devastating to the children living inside these state-run asylums.

He uses his peripheral vision, I think, a little bit.

Dr. Bascom found a child going blind from easily correctible cataracts, but no one had bothered to remove them.

What's your name?

[speaking in Romanian]

[speaking Romanian]

Another child had been labeled retarded because of a mild speech impediment, but Ion discovered he's bilingual.

He says he wants to go to school. There are no teachers here.

Within minutes, Ion discovered a room full of relief supplies – toys and clothing locked away unused in a storage room. No one had bothered to give them to the children. The staff is defensive when questioned about such inattention.

We saw a child with cataracts. Why hasn't that child had simple surgery to keep it from going blind?

He came like this to us, and he just wasn't sent anywhere.

[speaking Romanian]

He was born like this.

As for the toys, the nurse told us they were not distributed because the children would only destroy them.

We saw a child in the other room with Down syndrome. Normally, they're very friendly and outgoing, but this child was frightened and shied away from us.

[screams]

He had a bruise over his eye. Is that child being abused here?

No, they're afraid of foreigners, of strangers.

Perhaps, but this is how the child reacted when we asked his nurse to approach him.

[screaming]

I think when you come to this country and you see these children, it changes you forever, but it also fills you with a determination to try to return with the kind of assistance that will prevent that from happening from other children who are destined for exactly the same kind of unit in an institution for the unsalvageable.

At an orphanage in the city of Braila, a little girl was heading for just such a fate when she was spotted by Sonya Paterson.

The first thing that caught my attention was her nose.

[chuckles]

That was it 'cause she has the same nose as me. And the orphanage director said to me, "Oh, forget that little girl." Then she told me that Carmen was a child who they were going to send to a handicapped institution, where they send the children who are the most severely handicapped.

"The little girl was retarded," the director said. "She didn't speak or respond to anyone." But Sonya and her husband decided they were willing to adopt a special needs child.

While Sonya waited in Bucharest for the adoption to be finalized, she realized her new daughter was not brain-damaged. She was a product of years of institutional neglect.

They don't know how to diagnose developmental problems, and they don't know how to treat developmentally disabled children. She's very precise with her fingers.

Dr. Bascom agreed to administer a developmental test to Carmen. She checked motor skills and learning potential.

Good girl. Okay, let's give the baby some food. Can you feed the baby?

She tested her ability to imitate and solve problems. There was no question. The little girl had been misdiagnosed.

Toy.

Toy.

Yeah, good.

They're babies. Spoon a baby.

Baby.

Bravo.

I think of Carmen as being a cat with nine lives.

[laughs]

She's changed 100% just in one week that I've had her. Boop, boop – bravo.

I think that when she gets older and I tell her that the orphanage director considered her to be irrecuperable, I just hope that she's really happy that we took her away.

Kiss me.

[laughs]

Boop-boop.

Well, that's a happy ending, but in part two of his report, Tom Jarriel entered an institution that shocked even veteran observers. Romanian authorities were clearly embarrassed.

We continue now with our report, "The Shame of a Nation," Tom Jarriel's investigation of a really horrible tragedy befalling children in Romania. And, again, this is not an update of previous stories about orphaned and AIDS babies in Romania.

No, these are new revelations of children labeled as handicapped or just undesirable who are dumped in concentration-type asylums all across Romania. Tom Jarriel is opening the doors and our eyes to these conditions.

Now, just to get our bearings, Tom's travels in Romania began in the capital, Bucharest. He then flew to Romania's northern border and then back to points east and west – a total of more than 1,500 miles.

[people chattering Romanian]

The last leg of our six-day journey was a gamble. Security at the next institution was said to be so tight that no one had been inside.

Go across mountains – we're going to Transylvania, gonna fly here. It's right on the Russian border.

Right – what have you heard about this place?

It's a devil place.

The institution at Sighetu Marmatiei was off the main road, behind a barbed wire fence, secured with a locked gate, and watched by a guard. Ion tricked the guard into unlocking the gate, and we all stormed in unannounced.

[children chattering]

Even after all we had seen, we were unprepared for what we found in an upstairs room.

Here young girls, their heads shaven, were kept in a giant cage like animals, wild-eyed, screaming, half-naked, splashing in urine and excrement on the filthy floor.

As the staff tried to quickly put clothing on them, we were ordered out.

Why you putting us out?

[speaking Romanian]

Why?

[speaking Romanian]

Downstairs, we confronted the director in his office.

[speaking Romanian]

He's saying, "no cameras." He would rather not get the help than get the political exposure.

The bad publicity is because of the conditions.

Why are hundreds of children naked, living in filthy conditions? They are living in conditions that they'll die unless you change it.

As we persisted, Barbara made a discovery. Right in the corner of the director's office, she found powerful tranquilizers.

You use tranquilizers with the children? Obviously, you did.

Da, da, yes, yes.

Uh-huh, yes.

And that's routine? To keep them quiet? To keep them under control?

[speaking Romanian]

Da, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Yes.

They say they use 'em as part of their routine treatment.

Routine treatment of what? This is appropriate for...

So you wouldn't normally prescribe these?

This is appropriate for adult psychiatric patients who are agitated and are uncontrollable physically. This is totally inappropriate medication for children. This is chemical restraints. It's as much as putting a rope on a child and tying him into a crib.

It didn't take long before Barbara found children sedated and bound just upstairs.

[child crying]

Is this proper treatment in this day and time for this child?

Absolutely not. He'll simply give up.

He'll be lost.

That's right. Physically, he could live a long time, but, psychologically, this child will be completely lost.

Despite Dr. Bascom's protests, the staff re-tied this little boy as soon as we left the room.

[crying]

Across the hall, a death wail alerted us to a four-year-old child clinging to life. This pathetic little boy is named Ferrante. He's not dying of an incurable illness like AIDS.

This child has cerebral palsy, but this is not what's killing this child. This child is dying of malnutrition.

This is an image from death camps.

This is an image from Ethiopia starvation.

But those children – there was always a mother. These children are dying deaths without any comfort, without anyone even holding their little hands.

Doctor, this child appears to be dying of starvation, and he has severe infection. Why isn't he in a hospital?

[speaking Romanian]

He says, "Because these are nobody's children, no one wants to take them into the hospital."

As if to compound this tragedy, the pediatric hospital which refused to admit this child is located less than 100 feet away.

12:00 noon, we were allowed back inside the cage at the institution. It was mealtime.

The food budget here is set by the government – 38¢ per day per child. We watched as a watery soup of broth and bread heels was shoveled into hungry mouths.

Many of the children had never been taught to feed themselves. While the staff hurriedly fed half the children, just a few feet away, others were put on plastic potties in a bizarre daily routine that combines toilet time with mealtime.

[nurses chattering Romanian]

For Ion, it was the breaking point.

[sighs]

These are human beings, for Christ's sake. These are human beings.

You're a Romanian. To see this in your home country, is that especially painful?

This would move me anywhere, Tom. Anywhere in the world, this is not acceptable. But it's happening here in Romania today.

How can an institution and a society come so low, that they forget basic respect of human life?

And I know we can make a change. I know we can improve the situation for these children.

Nine months after the revolution, the callous disregard for human life in this insane system seems unchanged.

The Ministry of Labor ran these institutions during Ceausescu regime. We asked the newly-appointed minister why these death camps still operate.

It's difficult to say that this type of situation can totally change overnight, but I think in the last months...

Have been many improvements in the conditions of life of these children.

Let me show you something. It may shock you.

These are some conditions we found in institutions just in the past few days. This child is literally starving to death.

I mean, at every institution we went to, they had a small death row of children waiting to die.

Yes.

We can't talk in the past. The children are still in these institutions. Is anything being done about this?

This point, I think, is to be very clear. Nobody in Romania wants these things to happen again. We need doctors. We need psychologists. We need sociologists. But our problem is that we have to train these people, and this will be the turning point.

But post-revolution Romania is overwhelmed by the aftermath of 25 years of totalitarian rule. A solution to this problem is years away. Until then, the children who live in these godforsaken places must depend on the help of outsiders.

Ion Berindei has now inspected 26 of the institutions for the unsalvageable to determine where the need is most urgent.

This help can be very useful for this effort.

Back in Boston, he has set up the Free Romania Foundation to put together a team of U.S. doctors, therapists, and teachers to return with him to Romania.

This system is here to stay unless there's intervention.

Dr. Bascom is working full-time with the World Vision organization fighting an uphill battle to convince Romanian doctors that some of these children could be saved with simple surgery or physical therapy.

Oh, here you are. Here you are.

For now, Barbara is forced to rescue these kids one child at a time. She's currently hiding a little boy with clubbed feet away from authorities while she searches for an adoptive home.

I was greeted with disbelief that there would be homes that would welcome a child with a handicap.

This child has won a special place in her heart. 25 years ago, Barbara adopted a son in the United States born with the identical condition. If this child has to leave this orphanage, he will go to an orphanage for the handicapped or for the non-recoverable.

So the non-recoverable policy still continues? It still is perpetuated even today?

That's the system's policy. If, in five years, the system is completely corrected, it will be too late for this child. He would be permanently disabled. He must have this corrected very soon.

As time runs out for 4-year-old Vasily, Barbara has intensified her efforts to find parents for this little boy.

[singing]

Olé, olé, olé, olé

But for now, most of these children are destined to remain exactly where they are, and they seem resigned to that fact.

[singing]

Olé, olé, olé, olé

♪ Ceausescu... ♪

This little girl is blind and has been institutionalized most of her life. When we last saw her, she was singing the Romanian anthem of liberation.

It goes, "Olé, olé, Ceausescu is no more," but she had changed the words. "Olé, olé, Ceausescu is with us still."

[singing]

Olé, olé, olé, olé

Ceausescu...

Tom, we've had many different features on this program that have moved us, but I'm sure the audience feels just as disturbed as we are. What can people who are watching do?

Barbara, medical technology and doctors, of course, are badly needed, but for the average viewer, probably donations to some of the many reputable, well-organized, and highly motivated international relief agencies working in Romania on this problem would be a good start.

It's moving and infuriating, but I can't accept the idea that the Romanian people are themselves either cruel or thoughtless.

It truly must be the brutalization of being under the regime of a dictator who was at least as bad as Stalin was in Russia.

Hugh, I think that mindset of 25 years is still continuing, which is why the people of Romania don't see this as a problem. It's been a way of life.

Also, Barbara, you were concerned about adoption.

Adopting – I know we're going to hear from a lot of people who wanna adopt these children.

Yes, and certainly, these are adoptable children. That may not be the overall answer to this, but they're adoptable, and that would help the ones that could be taken out.

There's an awful lot of red tape as we know from viewers who've written to us.

Yes, and for those viewers who have written, we do have a fact sheet in the mail from our earlier reports.

Tom, we thank you for bringing this to our attention and hope we bring it to the world's attention.

Thank you, Tom.