BUZAU, Romania — In December 1989, the collapse of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime revealed the plight of thousands of malnourished orphans locked away in filthy, unheated institutions.
Twenty years on, Romania is striving to give a chance to its unwanted children.
"There have been some pretty dramatic changes. Back in 1989 conditions were very bad, children were suffering, the staff were not trained for child care," Unicef representative in Romania Edmond McLoughney told AFP.
"Everything is not perfect, but most children are now in family-type care, which makes a huge difference, it's an incredibly more human situation, they have more individual attention from care givers," he added.
Driven by the will to make Romania a powerful industrial nation, Ceausescu had banned in 1966 abortion for women under 45 with fewer than four children.
The result was that women ended up with more children than they could feed and often had no choice but to abandon them.
In dramatic cases, they resorted to highly-dangerous illegal abortions, which could lead to both the mother and the abortionist's imprisonment if discovered by the dreaded communist secret police.
It is believed up to 200,000 children were living in state institutions in 1989.
Today, around 70,000 children are in care, with poverty still the main reason.
But 45,000 of them are in family-type care, half placed with extended family and half with foster families. Just 19,000 still live in public institutions and their number is decreasing.
The 1989 images of shaven-headed children bathing in their own urine and rocking back and forth for hours on end did more than shock public opinion around the world -- they drew in an flood of aid from non governmental organisations.
Set up in the 1990s, the French NGO Solidarite enfants roumains abandonnes (SERA or Solidarity for abandoned Romanian children) has so far helped close several of the most infamous orphanages, building new, smaller centres instead.
In Targu-Jiu, 300 kilometres (185 miles) west of Bucharest, about 50 disabled children are living in a home built in 2003 by SERA, where they receive treatment from several psychologists and physical therapists.
Iulia, a smiling 11-year-old brown-eyed girl is their "mascot". Considered "severely handicapped" by the staff of the orphanage where her mother had abandoned her immediately after her birth, "she could not walk or speak at the age of three," the centre's director Dumitru Aribasoiu said.
But when that institution was closed down and the children moved to Targu-Jiu, Iulia started getting the attention and care she needed.
She is now going to school and apart from a slight physical disability and some difficulties in pronouncing such words as "mathematics" she hardly fits in at the Targu-Jiu centre.
"We have big hopes her grandmother will take her home one day," Aribasoiu said.
"Under communism, only the genetically fit would survive. Today we are trying to provide to every child's specific needs in order to give them all equal chances," said Claudia Rosioru, the head of the child protection department of Buzau, 100 kilometres northeast of Bucharest.
Reforms which began in the mid-1990s have meant more than just improving living conditions.
"We have started calling children by their first name," she said.
Moreover, under a law passed in 2002, children under the age of two can no longer be placed in orphanages, unless suffering from disabilities requiring constant medical assistance.
Instead, they must be reunited with biological relatives or placed in foster care.
When it comes to teenagers, the aim is to get them ready for real life.
In Buzau, 69 abandoned youths aged 14 to 21 are living in apartments rented by the child protection department and learning how to fend for themselves.
Florentina, 18, who shares one such apartment with six other teenagers all of whom go to the local high school, says she has everything she needs, "except my parents."
"Back in the 1990s I was shocked by the rejection from the neighbours, the teachers and some parents," said Elena Dragomir, a teacher who is looking after these youths.
"But today people understand that if we cannot give them back their parents, at least we can offer them affection and confidence."
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