Poverty is a mental disorder

tyranny of normality

Special needs schools are filled with low-income children. The harsh conditions in which they were raised affects them in ways interpreted as mental disorders. Their parents are content knowing that in school, their children have access to a hot meal, free school supplies and easier classes. The state is content with marginalizing “problematic children.”

But these children are condemned to stay on the margins forever. Such schools are meant to offer personalized curricula for students with special needs, who do not fit into the regular school system. In practice, they are known as “schools for the mentally ill.” This is where those unwanted by the system end up.


The Hulubaru family has lived in a shack on the sidewalk of a street in Bucharest for the last few months. There are six of them living in a box where it is dark even during midday. They have no running water, electricity or heat and sleep huddled against each other to stay warm.

Last year they were evicted from the house in which they were living. Since then, they have grown used to the cold and the dark. They wrinkle their nose when I enter their home with tarp walls and turn on the cell phone flashlight.

Fernando, the youngest of the family, leaps at the sight of my phone, “whoa, what games do you have on it?”. He purses his lips when I reply that I do not have any, but is content with flipping through the photos. His large, black eyes are blinking fast, and he starts asking me questions so fast that I have no time to answer each of them: “Where did you take this one? You’ve really seen the sea? That’s so beautiful! Who’s this? Whoa, is this a boat?”. Fernando wants to know. Everything. I should tell him, faster, what am I waiting for?

This curious boy is seven years and eleven months old, and has a handicap certificate for developmental delay.  As do his brothers. Michi, the middle one, attended a local school in the Colentina neighborhood for a while. He did not like it, and used to cry whenever it was time to go to school: “He was lazy, he wouldn’t wake up, he told me that the teacher would always make him sit in the corner [as punishment]. I think it’s because he couldn’t hang out with his brothers,” says the mother, Aneta Hulubaru, as she tightens her flowery headscarf around her chin. Michi does not say anything, he merely hides his eyes in his palms, shrugging his shoulders. Every now and then, he parts his fingers to watch us.


He was slow to learn, he’s shy,” the mother scolds — “he learned how to write, but he speaks Romanian with difficulty, he’s better at our language [romani]. And he can’t handle reading. The teacher said he needs a speech therapist to keep up. I didn’t know how much that would cost and he said that I need to go with him. I was afraid of losing my job, I didn’t have time to argue with Michi to make him go to school,” Ms. Hulubaru sighs. She also says that she did not pay for this “I don’t get any welfare for them. Only double allowance. But I gave them to special school so that me and my husband don’t lose our jobs.”

As I am about to leave, Michi puts on his dusty blue jacket and accompanies me to the bus station. To keep up, he takes long strides, like a giant. About half way, he stops and gives a strong squeeze to my hand. He wants to tell me something, “but don’t tell anybody.” He stammers and stutters until he whispers:

I’m scared.

He’s scared of speaking “ever since dad fell off the fence.” But he is not stupid. He says he will get older, and “this will pass.” He will be a fireman and put out all the large fires in this world.


Forty-two out of one hundred Romanians live in poverty or are socially excluded. It is easy for their children to receive a disability certificate. They get evaluated by a specialist who measures their IQ. A score lower than 70 points means, according to the DSM, intellectual disability, but in Romania the term “mental retardation” is more common. The Hulubaru brothers all scored below 70.


According to a study recently published in Nature, poverty and social inequality impact children’s brains from birth. Scores on cognitive tests that evaluate reading skills and memory drop proportionally with parents’ income. Moreover, the poor are more predisposed to depression and other mental disorders. In his book, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon cites a study which shows that the incidence of major depressive disorder is three times higher in people who are on welfare than in the rest of the population.  

Depression and anxiety disorders can even be encountered in children of younger ages, according to Diana Stănculeanu, a therapist who has been working at Save the Children for many years. I met her one morning at the organization’s headquarters, before one of her therapy sessions. Wearing a blue dress and her hair in a ponytail, Ms. Stănculeanu sips on a large mug of coffee and speaks alertly: abuses, poverty, violence, the “wrong” ethnicity or the absence of a family all affect the child.   

When problems get worse, the therapist says that the IQ is lower because of trauma: “When I experience intense emotional discomfort and am going through suffering, my resources, including cognitive ones, are redirected to ensuring some minimal emotion management, not to learning new things. If I’m also told in school that I am stupid or naughty because of this, I’ll distance myself even further from all the things surrounding studying, education and learning. That is how educational deficits emerge, which can very easily be confused with an underperforming intellect.”

Intelligence has a certain flexibility. An environment that is not challenging enough can reduce the IQ by ten points, while a stimulating environment can raise it by just as much, says Mugur Ciumăgeanu, a psychotherapist who has been leading the National Center For Mental Health. He gestures a lot when he talks about poverty. “In Romanian society, poverty is a topic even less interesting than «insanity»”.

Mr. Ciumăgeanu believes that psychologists should pay more attention to children who take IQ tests, particularly those who live in disadvantaged regions: “The important thing is not to test the actual knowledge of the child, but the way he or she can learn. If he catches on to your tips and solves the problem, you mark that answer as being correct. Unfortunately, this approach of formative evaluation is not very popular in state run institutions. And it’s not convenient to anyone. Poverty often leads to situations in which the family pays a bribe so that their son or daughter ends up in special needs school, or so that another family member who represents a burden for all ends up in a social center.”


I have also spoken to Codruța Sudrijan, a psychologists who has been working for the Child Protective Services for three years. Until 2008, she performed evaluations for school assessment and classifications on the basis of handicap. Many times, impoverished Roma parents came to her asking that their child be sent to a special school. “They said the child would be better off there, they will have a warm meal, that some neighbor finished that school and is doing fine.”

Ms. Sudrijan lowers her voice as she continues speaking and sighs: “It was some sort of protection, as far as the parents were concerned. They didn’t want the other children to bully them, ‘because we’re gypsies, you see.’ The stigma was so great that they didn’t dare fight for anything else. From their point of view, they belonged there.” The parents would only change their mind when the psychologist would explain to them in lay terms that if they send the children to this school, it will not be easy to find employment later.

This was not the only strange thing that was happening to these children. For some non-verbal intelligence tests, many six and seven year olds that had not been to kindergarten gave answers that were… special. For example, the children would be shown index cards with images that were missing an element: a fish without the fin, a car without the wheel, a suit without the buttons. Their task was to identify what was missing. The Roma children would say that the fish is missing the water, the car is missing the road, and the suit is missing the human.

According to the test’s scoring rubric, all of these answers are wrong. In some cases, cultural differences come to be viewed as mental retardation.

Luminița Costache, an education specialist for UNICEF Romania, has witnessed examples of Roma children who were given first grade placement tests and were classified with intellectual disabilities because they could not recognize certain animals.

For instance, a boy was shown a picture of a horse and was asked what animal it is. He did not say “horse” before ten seconds ran out, so he had points taken off. He spent a lot of time thinking, but that was because he came from a Roma family that traditionally breeds horses. The boy was simply trying to identify the correct breed of the animal.

In other cases, the test results are influenced by “factors that have to do with trust, or how comfortable the child is around someone who is not Roma,” says Ms. Costache. Others simply do not speak Romanian.


In neighboring countries, cases of minority children that unfairly end up in special needs schools are documented and monitored in the media. The last EU report on Roma discrimination paints a detailed picture about Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia and Greece.

The Czech Republic even received sanctions from the European Human Rights Court after 18 Roma students sued their country for discrimination — the children argue that they were wrongly diagnosed with intellectual disability and sent to special needs schools. The Court ruled in their favor in 2007.

In Romania, the Ministry of Education does not even keep count of how many Roma children are in the special education system, even though the law demands them to do so. So it cannot officially judge if these are isolated cases or widespread phenomena.     

Maria Câmpan is one of the teachers who has witnessed how Roma children could have adjusted to mass education, but instead ended up in special needs school. Maria is an educational psychologist and has worked for two years between 2012 and 2013 at Special Needs School No. 1 in Bistrița. She says that half the students she was teaching there who came from low-income families or who were diagnosed with behavioral disorders could have adjusted to regular schooling.

Of those diagnosed with behavioral disorders, most of them were Roma and ended up there after a school in their home town where several children of the same ethnicity were studying was shut down. Ms. Câmpan says that some children were integrated in the mass education system, “but there were also some about whom was said that ‘they couldn’t handle it,’ and the authorities even attributed this to their behavioral disorders. These kids ended up special needs schools.”

Ms. Câmpan believes that these children are not better off in special school. She left because she did not feel like she was making any progress with them. She managed offer them emotional support, but “on the cognitive side it is very difficult to bring balance between children – unfortunately, those who could have advanced faster were being slowed down by the others.”

These children should be helped to integrate into the mass education system, but in two years of teaching there, Ms. Câmpan has not seen a single student be transferred to a regular school. “It’s far more likely to disintegrate from mass education to the special schools.”


Ion Gârniță is the father of four children, three of which have graduated from special needs school. He says that some employers will not even look at their resumes when hearing where they graduated from. “It depends on the person, but some will not give them work once they find out which school they come from. They say they must be crazy if they went there. But they’re not. And they’re not stupid either, but that’s just what the situation was.”

Their mother, Mariana Manole, enrolled her children into a special needs school in Bucharest. The woman suffered from late stage cirrhosis, her son from a previous marriage was in jail for robbery and, because of drinking and lack of money, she would often argue with her husband.

The year that Denisa, the youngest daughter, started first grade, the teacher called Ms. Manole to a parent-teacher conference and told her that her daughter’s place is in special needs school. The father says that Denisa “had eyesight problems and was always nervous during class.” The other Manole children were also having trouble with schoolwork — the older one, Cosmin, and the middle one, Alberto, failed out — “we weren’t studying much, we were causing trouble.” Of all of them, only Bebe, the youngest son, somewhat managed to keep up.  

Except for Bebe, all the Manole children were diagnosed with intellectual disability and were admitted to special needs boarding school. They used to live there for the week and came home only on the weekends. Less than a month into the school year, their mother passed away. Three years later, they were moved to a center for children with mental disabilities. From bad, to worse.


People do not talk much about centers for children with disabilities, so parents have no idea where they are sending their children. Ms. Stănculeanu, the Save the Children therapist, says that the system’s goal for these children is to “tolerate them, to keep them docile somewhere in a place where they can’t harm themselves, but also can’t harm us (personally, educationally, administratively). The hell with the rest of education, and with thinking about education as something that takes place beyond eighteen years of age. What will happen to them when they get out? They will most likely end up in the streets, in the psychiatric ward, or in jail.”

Cosmin, the eldest of the Manole brothers, agrees. The boy graduated at eighteen from Saint Andrew’s but, after a short period of living in a public housing apartment, he was living on the street. “Do you know what the problem is? Raising us in boarding school since we were young, sending us to school, feeding us and so on… It was all for nothing. When we got kicked out of there, what was I supposed to do? It’s just me and a bunch of strangers. This is why many end up sniffing glue or in prison.”


The Sector 6 City Hall decided to be transparent starting with the Manole brothers. Before they left the institution, their names, ages and diagnoses were posted on the public internet — even if this is confidential medical information.

Denisa and Alberto left in 2012, when the institution was restructured. Denisa got married in Giurgiu, and lives off her disability benefits, and Alberto lives in a studio apartment with seven other people. To sleep and wash there, he pays 5-10 RON a day. Cosmin mostly sleeps in homeless shelters.

Until last month, he worked for a few weeks at a candle factory, but he had argument with his coworkers after they called him a hobo. They found out that he was showering at work because he lived in a shelter where the bathroom was locked. Cosmin cursed them, they fired him, and now he is drunk most of the time.

Alberto does not have a job yet. He finished a special needs professional school a couple of months ago, but could not find work. The trouble is that last year, Alberto had a bike accident. He was hit by a car at high speed, and the handlebar pierced his knee — “I can’t bend it anymore, it’s already rigid.” He works during the day wherever he can find small jobs here and there (“clean a window, make another couple of RON”). He often contemplates suicide and getting rid of “it all.”  


Special needs schools are an educational graveyard, and the only thing they prepare you for is failure,” says Gelu Duminică, a representative of Agenția Împreună. Mr. Duminică is a sociologist, and when he does not talk about the problems in the education system, he jokes around and laughs heartily. He does not think that special needs schools are “bad,” but the study he is conducting and many other examples seem to suggest otherwise.

The NGO he is working for is helping the European Centre for the Rights of Children with Disabilities to conduct research on the special needs education system. The preliminary conclusions show that “the result of the extremely precarious quality of education leads to marginalization, lifelong isolation, poverty and a very high rate of institutionalization.”

From the point of view of the state, things seem very “European”. Special education and schools are part of a “process of recovery-compensation (psychotherapeutic, medical, social or cultural) that prepares children for life as adults.”

But the reality is exactly the opposite, says Şerban Iosifescu, the director of the Romanian Agency for Ensuring the Quality of Pre-universitary Education. He thinks that one of the solutions is the integration of as many special needs children as possible into the regular school system. But this poses its own problems, especially when it comes to the mentality of the teachers. He tells how his wife, a middle-school teacher at a neighborhood school, had a child with a mild mental disability in her class. With the aid of the assisting instructor and the class teacher, the girl finished fourth grade without much difficulty.

She is now in secondary school taught by other teachers, she started receiving bad grades and will probably fail out of her grade. “Once, twice, until her parents will be convinced she has to go to special needs school,” says the president of the Agency. He thinks the main flaw in the education system is its focus on the mean: “If we look at the size of the poster boards, the dimensions of the desks, the preparation of the teachers… It’s all tailored to the mean.”

Another problem is that in Romanian schools, grades are used to measure intelligence — “this makes the child who can’t read think that he is a dumb idiot,” says Mr. Iosifescu.


Special needs schools resemble social aid organizations more than educational institutions. Alberto went to special needs professional school because he received a warm meal and could “be around people.” Cosmin also has fond memories from special school. When I ask him about what he was learning there though, he scratches his head and says it was “easy stuff, don’t remember what, but suuuper easy.” He proudly says that he was good at it. Neither one of the Manole brothers thinks that a better school would have helped them.

Aneta Hulubaru says that “special needs school is better than the regular one. They have more patience with them [the children]. I liked their teachers, they take care of them, take them to the cafeteria, teach them. I really didn’t like regular school, it was far and I was not in the mood for jokes about being a janitor.”

The mother is happy because the school her children attend now has a speech therapist on site. The schedule is from 7AM to 4PM and she no longer has to leave work to pick them up from school. She does not even need to buy school supplies anymore. Nor contribute to the class fund. Moreover, her children are fed and happy. The family’s youngest, curious Fernando, enthusiastically tells us about what they do in school: “we brush our teeth, we also play, we have recess, we have sports, we have karate, we have shows.”

These families must make a choice between their children “having food in their belly on a given day or studying in the right environment,” says Ms. Stănculeanu, the Save the Children therapist. “In some cases, the risks are so great, that they really must choose: do I keep him or her in the school he deserves to be in, or in the school that also brings him sandwiches?”

We must not condemn the parents who send their child to school to get food and notebooks, says Mr. Duminică: “if the child doesn’t go to a school like that, he or she will quit.”


The Romanian society keeps trying to establish what is normal and to keep those considered abnormal away. The European Union keeps making pressures for reintegrating the “special ones” into the mass education system.

Meanwhile, Scandinavian countries, leaders in quality of education, are doing away entirely with the concept of “normal child.” To them, all children are special; that is, each child has his or her needs and potential. The role of teaching is to give everyone the right education, but also to bring everyone together into the same school.


Just because I come from Roma camp on the hill,
they put me in a school for mentally ill.


A story by Sorina Vasile

Translated by Angela Rădulescu

Contributors: Oana Moisil, Ana Poenariu, Maria Carevasăzică, Vlad Popov, Denisa Păunescu.
Editors: Ștefan Mako, Vlad Ursulean, Luiza Vasiliu, Tiberiu Cimpoeru și Lina Vdovîi.

PS: The name of the children are changed in order to protect their identity

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