Tonight's ABC "20/20" report on Romania's abandoned children is powerful and disturbing, and it is sure to send distraught viewers rushing for their checkbooks or even their passports in hope of rescuing the thousands of children who are prisoners of Romania's hellish state orphanage system.
Certainly, ABC correspondent Tom Jarriel looks increasingly desperate as he and a team of cameramen, guides and an American pediatrician take a grim walk through the state-run Homes for the Deficient and Unsalvageable. Foreign relief workers accurately describe these "homes" as death camps. At one point in their six-day tour, Jarriel's guide, a Romanian exile living in Boston, crumples in tears.
The camera, however, is unflinching. It shows naked, underfed children sitting ankle deep in their own urine; scabrous children herded like pigs to "bathe" in filthy troughs of black water; infants starving to death because of treatable conditions such as cerebral palsy and even anemia.
The scandal of these orphanages, where by some estimates as many 40,000 children live, came to light earlier this year, but the "20/20" program, at 10 p.m. on Channel 7, drives home the point that little has changed for these children nine months after the toppling of executed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Jarriel and producer Janice Tomlin break new ground, forcing their way into seldom-visited basement wards where sick children and infants are stored in near darkness until they die.
While many children in the homes show signs of neurological or mental disorders, the report finds numerous wrenching examples of children who appear to have no medical disorders at all. One bright-eyed girl misdiagnosed as mentally defective blossoms into a cheerful, bright and affectionate little girl within one week after being adopted by an American couple.
The people who run these institutions have little to say in defense of themselves. In two of the state homes Jarriel visited on his six-day tour, the poorly educated and almost certainly corrupt directors have hoarded donated stores of clothing and medicine instead of distributing them to the children.
"People working in places like these become like animals themselves," is one official's mumbling attempt to explain himself.
There are two bright spots in this report and they are Jarriel's traveling companions, American pediatrician Barbara Bascom and Romanian exile Ion Berendei, part of the stubborn crew of international relief workers in Romania. Bascom has sold her house in Baltimore to spend three years helping children in Romania. Berendei, an architect who recently returned to Romania after 20 years, has set up a Boston-based Free Romania Foundation to send doctors and teachers there.
But overall, as Jarriel makes clear, the prognosis for the children is bleak. Senior government officials in Bucharest still do not appear to regard the children's plight as an urgent priority.
ABC says a recent companion report on adopting Romanian children generated more viewer response than any "20/20" segment. Given the level of public concern this show is sure to generate, perhaps the report's only shortcoming is that it doesn't explain to its American audience how futile it is for an individual to try to mail packages of food, clothing or medical supplies directly to orphanages and hospitals in Romania.
The hard facts of the post-Ceausescu era are that much of the money and medical supplies donated by individuals and even governments to these Romanian institutions has been stolen or misused. International relief agencies have a better track record, but even they struggle to control who gets the aid and how.
Concerned Romanians in and outside the country say the best hope at gaining the attention and cooperation of Romania's new government may be to insist that U.S. economic and humanitarian aid to Romania be conditioned on speedy dismantling of this abysmal system.