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See Inside Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 4

Tragedy Leads to Study of Severe Child Neglect

The plight of orphaned Romanian children reveals the psychic and physical scars from first years spent without a loving, responsive caregiver

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In a misguided effort to enhance economic productivity, Nicolae Ceausescu decreed in 1966 that Romania would develop its “human capital” via a government-enforced mandate to increase the country's population. Ceauşescu, Romania's leader from 1965 to 1989, banned contraception and abortions and imposed a “celibacy tax” on families that had fewer than five children. State doctors—the menstrual police—conducted gynecologic examinations in the workplace of women of childbearing age to see whether they were producing sufficient offspring. The birth rate initially skyrocketed. Yet because families were too poor to keep their children, they abandoned many of them to large state-run institutions. By 1989 this social experiment led to more than 170,000 children living in these facilities.

The Romanian revolution of 1989 deposed Ceaus escu, and over the next 10 years his successors made a series of halting attempts to undo the damage. The “orphan problem” Ceaus escu left behind was enormous and did not disappear for many years. The country remained impoverished, and the rate of child abandonment did not change appreciably at least through 2005. A decade after Ceaus escu had been removed from power, some government officials could still be heard saying that the state did a better job than families in bringing up abandoned children and that those confined in institutions were, by definition, “defective”—a view grounded in the Soviet-inspired system of educating the disabled, dubbed “defectology.”

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