'Horror Asylums': Romanians Clamor For Accountability As Nursing Home Abuses Sicken Nation

BUCHAREST -- Beatings. Starvation. Untreated scabs that seem to run bone-deep. Bodies riddled with bedbug bites and maggots around the genitals. The plundering of apartments and bank accounts.

The macabre images and shocking accounts of maltreatment at privately run care facilities for the elderly and the disabled, subsequently dubbed "horror asylums," have transfixed Romanians since a bombshell exposé six months ago chronicled the alleged abuses and led to dozens of raids, arrests, and charges earlier this month. Around 200 residents were reportedly rescued from the wretched conditions.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has called the nursing-home scandal "a national disgrace" and the case has prompted comparisons to Romania's notorious communist-era orphanages and the tragedy of "Ceausescu's children," as well as to a dark Hollywood comedy from 2020, I Care A Lot, in which a guardianship expert cons judges into declaring elderly victims unfit and handing over their property.

"If you're human, if you're not made of tin, this story really breaks you down on a human level," Ovidiu Vanghele, whose exposé along with fellow journalist Bianca Albu revealed alleged physical, mental, and financial abuses at three care homes outside Bucharest run by the St. Gabriel the Brave association, told RFE/RL's Romanian Service recently.

He likened the victims' treatment to being "trampled into the grave" and said each new testimonial from a current or former employee or image from inside the facilities "really tears you apart."

But stoked by outrage over senior officials' responses, the abuses and ensuing scandal are also tearing apart leftist Social Democratic Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu's government less than a month after a coalition power-sharing deal put him in charge with public patience already sapped by a nationwide teachers' strike.

The revelations have reinforced perceptions of mafia-style dealings and disregard by elected and appointed officials after dire early warnings from neighbors, journalists, and NGOs who uncovered the irregularities under Ciolacu's coalition partner and predecessor as prime minister, center-right National Liberal Party leader Nicolae Ciuca.

Political Casualties

For more than a week following the raids, there was mostly finger-pointing within the cabinet, including by Families, Youth, and Equal Opportunities Minister Gabriela Firea, a former mayor of Bucharest and Social Democrat with direct and indirect ties to the St. Gabriel the Brave association and whose husband and sister have held senior positions in institutions that could have possibly guarded against such abuses.

The "horror asylums" scandal claimed its first senior political casualty when Labor Minister Marius Budai stepped down on July 13, a week after saying he had no reason to resign and couldn't have closed down problematic care homes anyways.

A day later, Firea also agreed to resign after reportedly receiving a 72-hour ultimatum in a face-to-face meeting with Ciolacu seemingly intended to stop the political bleeding.

Vanghele and Abu's initial reporting for the Romanian-based Center for Investigative Media (CIM) and the Buletin de Bucuresti (BdB) involved three St. Gabriel the Brave care homes, including in the Bucharest satellite towns of Voluntari and Ilfov, and was published in January and February.

Their reports went largely unacknowledged by many, including Ciuca's government, prosecutors, and oversight agencies. But the Center for Legal Resources (CRJ), a nonprofit that defends the rights of particularly vulnerable Romanians, pursued and confirmed many of the abuses and irregularities at those same care homes. By March, the CRJ was complaining of official inaction and appealing publicly to Ciuca, saying it had filed criminal complaints with a regional prosecutor.

Eventually, the disturbing accusations spawned an investigation by the Directorate for the Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT). Its investigators announced their conclusions earlier this month, saying that "two criminal gangs" had been established in Ilfov in 2020 "with the aim of exploiting people with disabilities or in vulnerable situations." Transcripts subsequently released by the directorate lent weight to Vanghele and Abu's accusations and pointed to care providers beating, starving, and humiliating patients, and in some instances helping themselves to patients' apartments and ATM cards.

After DIICOT released its findings in conjunction with dozens of raids resulting in four arrests and abuse charges against at least 26 others on July 4, Prime Minister Ciolacu vowed to show "no mercy for the scoundrels" involved. He blamed "complicit public officials" and "a systemic problem, corruption, and inertia." A half-dozen inspections and regulatory bosses have now been dismissed and Ciolacu has ordered immediate inspections of both state and private homes for the elderly, children, and the disabled across the country.

But it's unclear whether the lightning checks, dismissals, and cabinet-level resignations are enough to satisfy 19 million angry Romanians, especially with new disclosures emerging just about every day.

This week, a lawyer representing neighbors of one of the St. Gabriel the Brave homes alleged that authorities stymied his clients' well-intended complaints. And, in what many Romanians regard as particularly vexing, the association has sued some of the complainants for 3,000 euros ($3,369) in moral damages for daring to speak out about what those neighbors regarded as horrific abuses unfolding at the newly opened care home next door.

The lawyer, Silvio Munteanu, said on Facebook on July 11 that the neighbors had made "dozens" of appeals to "institutions empowered to take measures in relation to the activities of this association [St. Gabriel the Brave] starting in October 2021."

The responses to the neighborhood complaints described by Munteanu hint at an atmosphere of impunity. They also appeared to undermine a denial by Voluntari Mayor Florentin Pandele -- who is Firea's husband -- of any knowledge of the miserable conditions that were exposed early this year.

A Controversial Figure

Pandele, a former merchant marine, has been a controversial figure accused of having outsize local influence since first landing the mayor's job in Voluntari in 2000. He has been linked to scandals including allegations of improper city spending and a criminal investigation after he was seen attacking a man on video. He has suggested he was not informed of the complaints around the care homes and that his office had no authority to inspect them.

Voluntari is an area outside Bucharest probably best-known outside the country as home to British-American hypermasculinity influencer and pornography entrepreneur Andrew Tate before he and his brother Tristan were arrested in December 2022 and charged with crimes including rape and human trafficking.

Investigative journalist Vanghele has questioned claims by officials -- including Ciolacu -- that they were unaware of serious regulatory and other problems in the sector, citing previous investigations, including his own detailing six deaths at a small, unauthorized home for the elderly in 2014. As speaker of parliament when Vanghele and Albu's reporting on the alleged abuses in Ilfov was published early this year, Vanghele added that Ciolacu "should have had this information."

He also cited Firea's fierce resistance to resigning from the government despite "her practically indisputable links" to the St. Gabriel the Brave association. Beyond Firea's marriage to Pandele, her sister led a publicly financed social assistance network that was responsible for inspecting and monitoring nursing homes in Voluntari until she left that job in February.

A "friend and colleague" of Fiera's who was also a vice president of the St. Gabriel the Brave association, Ligia Gheorghe, took a leave of absence from her duties as Fiera's adviser after news of the abuses broke. And the association's president, Stefan Godei, was employed at Bucharest City Hall under Firea's tenure as mayor and as a driver by Firea's Senate office as recently as this year and has worked inside Social Democrat circles and appeared alongside Firea in photos.

On July 6, Firea denied any wrongdoing and alleged that she was being drawn into the scandal by rivals eager to quash her bid to return to the leadership of Bucharest, where she was mayor from 2016 to 2020. She called it a political "lynching." Despite her resignation, Firea has fiercely maintained her innocence and described recent events as a "total war for my demolition."

'The Height Of Hypocrisy'

A former labor minister, Violeta Alexandru, told RFE/RL's Romanian Service that abuses like those at the "horror asylums" are probably not unique. She suggested that "too many people are in charge and, in fact, no one" is in charge in a system that doesn't demand sufficient accountability in part because many institutions don't do their jobs "head to tail." The current situation demands "some resignations [or] dismissals -- a signal," she said ahead of Budai's and Firea's departures.

Before his resignation, Budai, whose ministry oversees the accreditation and verification of nursing homes, said nearly 600 residential care centers had been inspected between March and May and that improprieties had been found in 370 of them. In 20 cases, he said, inspectors proposed withdrawing their licenses.

None of the nursing homes operated by the St. Gabriel the Brave association and singled out by Vanghele and Abu were among them; their licenses were suspended only after DIICOT became involved.

"It seems to me the height of hypocrisy, insensitivity, and indolence and -- how can I say -- politicking, empty words," Vanghele said of the atmosphere that allowed St. Gabriel the Brave and other nursing-home operators like it to continue their operations and of the political protection that they appear to have enjoyed. "They continued because they knew they could continue unscathed."

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Key Words: Romania, Nursing Home Abuse, Human Rights

Historic Street Scene in Romania, adapted from image at state.gov