WASHINGTON -- One year after the scandal first came to the world's attention, daily life has improved for the hundreds of thousands of Romania's orphans placed in that nation's state-run institutions.
But much more needs to be done, according to Drs. Barbara and John Bascom, the Baltimore couple who have been working with the abandoned children and the troubled institutions for the past several months.
"There is now food, there is now clothing, there are now toys," said Barbara Bascom, clinical director and manager of Romanian Orphans Social and Educational Services, at a news conference here today. "There is lighting and there is heating."
It was the lack of proper heat and light -- or in some cases any at all -- and the dearth of human attention that were the most cruel and caused the most damage, said Bascom, who in early visits to the orphanages found silent rooms of children unable to walk or talk and living in their own waste.
"This was a man-made disaster that took years to create," she said. Her work in the troubled nation made headlines last year when the tragedy of the Romanian orphans was first revealed.
Home to more than 140,000 abandoned children, the orphanages were the result of the decree by former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu that the nation's population increase 30 million by the year 2000. To achieve this goal, contraceptives and most abortions were outlawed, and taxes were levied against childless families.
All women were required to undergo examinations every three months to prevent illicit termination of pregnancies, and miscarriages were subject to investigation. Many families were forced to place their children in the government-run orphanages, where thousands of children survived in "unspeakable" conditions, according to the Bascoms.
Now living in Eastern Europe to work with the ROSES project, which is sponsored by the California-based World Vision international relief organization, Barbara and James Bascom are both physicians who have long been involved in such work.
While his wife, a member of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians, is working more closely with the effort in the orphanages, James Bascom is working with Romanian medical professionals to help rebuild their health-care system, which was dismantled under the Ceausescu regime and where the AIDS epidemic spread easily through transfusions and re-used needles.
At the news conference held to report on the progress of the ROSES project, the Bascoms said the main problems with these institutions have been solved.
"These changes are very encouraging," said Barbara Bascom, who was a child-development specialist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before the move to Eastern Europe. "But we have a long way to go. It will take many years of intensive specialized care to help these children overcome developmental delays caused by years of being institutionalized."
Barbara Bascom spoke of young Anna Maria, who would not walk, talk or interact with others, although she was more than 3 years old. The little girl did, however, exhibit what Bascom calls the "orphan salute": When approached by another person, she would lift her arms in front of her face defensively.
After intensive work and therapy, Anna Maria no longer sits alone a corner banging her head against the wall, she no longer screams if anyone attempts to pick her up. She has learned to walk, to run and to play with others -- but there is much more work to be done for her and for the other children.
"She still breaks into rage attacks. She doesn't understand why she is angry, but it has to come out," said Barbara Bascom. "She needs intensive, consistent therapy for three years or she will regress and she will not be reachable again."
The ROSES project, in which teams of local and foreign health professionals work together to provide services and training, has now branched out to six locations around Romania.