VIDELE, ROMANIA -- On the second floor of the state-run institution here, dazed toddlers lie or sit in iron cribs in closed, stuffy rooms. Their foreheads are speckled with flies and with scabs and bruises that come from banging their heads and mouths on crib rails. Some cry, but most are silent and appear bewildered behind their bars with the doomed air of laboratory animals.
Down the hall, other cribs hold smaller children, pale skeletons suffering from malnutrition and disease. Despite the heat of the day, several of the children are wrapped in dirty blankets. From one still bundle, only a bluish patch of scalp is visible. Asked if the child inside is alive, an orderly says, "Of course," and pulls back the cover. The tiny skeleton stirs, turns onto its side and groans.
This is one of Romania's homes for abandoned, malnourished and disabled children, one of the human warehouses filled by the policies of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. It is called the Home for the Deficient and Unsalvageable. Thousands of families, forced by the state to produce babies, deposited infants in institutions like this.
Six months after the revolution that toppled Ceausescu, little has changed in these homes, despite the intervention of international relief organizations. Conservative estimates of foreign relief officials suggest that 15,000 children -- and possibly as many as 30,000 -- are still living in conditions that one French doctor described as "something between Auschwitz and Kampuchea."
French, Dutch and Swiss medical organizations came across these homes in February while trying to trace Romania's infant AIDS epidemic. They were stunned.
"I had never seen anything like this -- not even in the poorest countries in the world," said Guilhem Delmas, director of a medical team from the French relief organization Doctors of the World stationed in Bucharest. "It was unbelievable to me that such conditions could exist in Europe at the end of the 20th century."
International relief organizations working to compile a complete list of the orphanages and homes estimate that there are 350 to 500 of them. Romanian government statistics indicate that 15,000 children are housed in orphanages alone.
Delmas said there could be as many as 40,000 children in such facilities, if homes for the mentally handicapped are included. In one home, 40 percent of the children died last year of infectious disease and neglect, Delmas said.
The children are the legacy of a 1965 Ceausescu decree that forbade birth control or abortion and closely monitored pregnant and fertile women to see that the law was obeyed. Some of the children were injured during botched abortions or deliveries in Romanian hospitals. Most arrived because their families, faced with shortages of food and heat, felt unable to provide for them.
"Children were abandoned because mothers were forced to have children," said Dr. Gheorghe Jipa, director of Bucharest's Victor Babes hospital. "In our country, it was very frequent, because of the misery and bad living situation we were in. Even girls in the eighth grade were compelled to have a child when they became pregnant."
The home here in the village of Videle, a 90-minute drive southwest from Bucharest, is not considered among the worst. Yet a staff assistant said matter-of-factly that "about 30" children, or nearly one-fourth of the total 135 child residents, die each year. The home's handful of orderlies have little or no medical training and scant knowledge about the causes of death.
"Sickness, agitation," suggested one.
Since discovering the homes, teams of doctors and international charities have been visiting them, delivering medicine and supplies and urging Romania's post-revolutionary government to help make improvements.
Romanian state television showed pictures of one home, but otherwise the government has been slow to respond, Delmas and others said. There have been a few improvements, but mostly in homes nearest Bucharest, the ones visited by foreign television teams.
In many of the homes, leaky roofs still funnel rain water onto children's beds. Food is sometimes served by throwing it on the floor. Staffers hardly know their charges' names, much less their medical problems. Children are handcuffed to beds so tightly that the cuffs eat into their wrists, according to doctors. Those too small or unable to feed themselves often waste away because their nursing bottles, propped on piles of rags, slip away and there is no one to right them.
"They die of hunger, of very dirty environment, of nobody touching them and of never getting out of their beds," Delmas said.
They also die of AIDS. About 65 percent of Romania's 428 cases of infant acquired immune deficiency syndrome are abandoned children who went to hospitals from orphanages and state homes to be treated for severe malnutrition and were transfused with contaminated blood or hypodermic needles, according to the most recent Romanian government figures. Hepatitis B also is rampant.
The home at Videle contains both the malnourished and the handicapped. Once they arrive, children rarely see their families again.
"In the beginning, when they bring the child here, they have a hard time leaving it. But then they become accustomed to this, and they miss the child less and less," said Rodica Jancu, the home's director.
Once inside the system, it is almost impossible to get out. At the age of 3, abandoned children go through what Romanian officials call a "switching center" -- a cursory examination that shuttles them off to homes for handicapped or to children's asylums where they may learn a task, such as basket-making. After that, there is virtually no diagnostic testing in the homes for the handicapped and little teaching or physical therapy.
"The only 'cure' is death, and that does not cure very quickly," said one doctor.
At Videle, children who have mild epilepsy or polio-splayed legs are put together with those who suffer severe autism. The blind or deaf sit in rooms all day with those who cannot control their bodily functions.
Valentin Kovacs, a friendly, mildly retarded 15-year-old boy, spends his days wandering the halls. He was curious and friendly with a visitor, following closely, and was fascinated by a pair of eyeglasses.
"I have shoes!" he exclaimed, showing off a pair of moccasins donated by a Dutch charity. Asked what kind of things he likes to do, he thought for a moment and answered: "To sing, to count and to go back to my mother."
Vasilica Bogoju, 14, is "almost normal," staffers say. Her only obvious defect is physical: Her lower legs are badly twisted and cannot support her body, so she walks on her knees. She is shy but able to speak clearly, and the orderlies have become fond of her. They keep her fully clothed and have even given her a pair of earrings. They had hoped she would be allowed to go to a special school and learn basket-making.
But she was turned down. Why? "Her legs," said a nurse.
The Videle home received a shipment of clothes and toys from a Dutch charity in March. Yet about half the older children squatting in the dayroom recently were naked. Only a few pairs of shoes have been distributed, and those only last week. The toys are displayed in a closed room on the first floor where the children do not go.
"Oh, they destroy their clothes," an orderly said. "We would have to have a new set of clothes for each child each day."
The orderlies -- there is one for every 60 children -- are mostly older women from the village. They do not seem embarrassed by the conditions, but said they could use more help. There is one teacher, and the director said the home recently has tried to establish a kindergarten.
The state gives them 50 cents a day to feed the children. "What can you do with that?" asked one orderly standing in the stairwell as a boy ascended carrying a bucket of cold stew of tomatoes, water and bread heels.
For recreation, the children play on concrete floors in a bare room. At the sight of a visitor last week, a group burst into a loud chorus of the song that was the anthem of the revolution: "Ole, ole, ole! Ceausescu is no more!"
Foreign doctors working here are increasingly critical of the new Romanian government's inaction, while many Romanian officials chide foreign doctors as being alarmist. One foreign doctor said he was told to calm down because "things are surely worse in Ivory Coast."
Doctors with wide experience say, however, that Romania's system -- with its combination of neglect, bureaucracy and haphazard medical care -- is in a class by itself. Even in the poorest countries in Africa, they say, mentally and physically disabled children are not left alone in bare rooms for hours every day, deprived of the sound of human language or physical contact.
That kind of treatment, the doctors say, can be blamed on a totalitarian system that made a cult of physical labor and encouraged the idea that anyone unable to labor for the state was not quite human.
"As soon as someone here was considered unproductive -- unable to work for the state -- he was completely abandoned. It's something typically totalitarian," said Delmas. "To this day, in many hospitals they don't understand why AIDS children should be kept clean, because in their minds these babies are going to die anyway."
In the beginning, foreign relief teams were patient with the Romanian government's halting steps. But while they once made allowances for the country's poverty and the aftereffects of Ceausescu's terror, they now are increasingly blunt in citing bureaucratic inertia and an erosion of compassion that may be Ceausescu's bleakest legacy.
Other critics note that while spending on the children's homes has increased only slightly, the new government, since January, has spent $440 million importing luxury electronic goods, such as color television sets and videocassette recorders.
Last week, frustrated by the lack of progress, a delegation of French doctors, the International Red Cross and the U.N. Children's Fund met with Romanian officials to demand more effort from the Health Ministry. Some have begun hinting they will pull their teams out of Romania unless the government makes a concerted effort to improve the situation.
When an earthquake struck Romania last week, it was lunchtime. On the top floor of the Videle home, orderlies spooning gray porridge into the mouths of some crib-bound toddlers dropped what they were doing and, with a visitor, raced down four flights of stairs and outside the cement-slab building. After the shaking stopped, the staff stayed outside, waiting for a feared aftershock, which they said could come in two or three hours.
At windows, the puzzled faces of children could be seen. From open windows came the wails of smaller children, raging at the interruption of their meal.
Asked whether it was important to get the children out before the aftershock hit and possibly damaged the building, staffers looked puzzled. They knew the history of the area, they said, and aftershocks are usually less strong.
"Besides, there are only eight of us and 135 children, so how would we get them out?" one orderly asked.
"Many of them don't have clothes, so if we brought them out we would be exposing them to other diseases," agreed Ion Iordache, a local man who became a bookkeeper at the home after the revolution.
"Don't wave them down here," he advised. "You will only scare them."