Federiconi told the director, Our organization would like to help you if we can, especially to identify the autistic population and give you some resources. She said, We dont know what we need. Could you come here and tell us what we need?
An Adventure, Not a Tour
In July 2003, Federiconi made her first trip to Romania. She had been assured that, when she arrived at the Bucharest airport, Dragos, an English-speaking person, would be there to make sure that she safely boarded her train. Dragos, however, delegated the task to a friend, who spoke no English. The driver delivered Federiconi to the train station, handed her tickets, and left her at the door to fend for herself.
There was a big marquee that tells you what trains were leaving for where. I couldnt read any of it, of course. Eventually, an English-speaking tour guide offered her to help her find her train, when it was due to arrive. He also offered her a tour, which she turned down. Federiconi waited for the train in a beer garden. Before long, she had two companions, an English-speaking man, who was traveling to Germany, and a woman, dressed in traditional Romanian clothing, who spoke no English.
After the man left, the woman talked nonstop to Federiconi in Romanian for an hour and a half. She also drank three beers that Federiconi had purchased for her. After she finished talking, she kissed Federiconis hand and left. Eventually, the tour guide put her on her train.
Federiconi traveled north through Transylvania for ten hours. At 4 a.m., not sure of where she was, she got off the train, where she encountered someone from Hope and Homes. The next day, she was told, When we heard that Dragos didnt pick you up, we figured that you were just lost.
But Federiconi had made it to Maramures, and she returned two times, most recently in September 2004.
Visiting The Institutions
During her first visit, Federiconi saw the institutions. I visited both of those institutions while kids were still in there and saw the conditions and the children, she said. What they are doing is closing down institutions. What theyre doing right now is very similar to what I worked in thirty years ago. Their first mission is to try to reunite the children with their families if the families are still around and can take them. When reuniting children with their families is not an option, children are placed in foster homes or in small family homes.
Life for children in the large state-run institutions was very hard, Federiconi said. Many of them experienced neglect and abuse, which included beatings and being tied to metal beds for hours at a time. The result was the children suffered from the loss of sensory stimulation and from the effects of never having been held or given any physical contact. Federiconi described the population of the institutions as being mixed, with typical children and special needs children. Quite a few of the typical children had learning disabilities, caused by environment factors, Federiconi said. The special needs children exhibited autism tendencies, including difficulty in communication, social skills, and in recognizing social cues. The children also had difficulty relating to their environment. Some of the children were hypersensitive, shrinking away from touch and startling easily at noises and visual stimulation. Others were hyposensitive. These were the children who, when they could not find stimulation in their own environment, engaged in self-stimulation activities or in self-injurious behavior.
Federiconi said that, after experiencing the institutions, she could see that Autistic Services, Inc., could best help Hope and Homes by providing training to staff on working with special needs children by introducing best practices, through staff trainings, consultations, program analysis, and implementation.
They were falling short of best practices, she said.
Continuing The Process
Federiconi said that she is encouraged by the progress that she has seen in her subsequent visits to Romania. She has visited children in their homes. Even after not seeing her for six months, they remember who she is and they greet her by name, frequently waving the photographs of them that she had mailed to them. She said that her returning to see them means a lot because many professionals come once and never return.
When I go to visit and I see the changes, its just amazing, especially having witnessed them while they were in the institution.
Federiconi spends much of her time training managers, directors, and Child Protection staff. The trainings cover such subjects as maintaining best practices while working with children, sensory integration, autism, and behavior strategies. The people whom she trains, in turn, train the staff members who work directly with the children.
Federiconi has also had Romanians visit Western New York, for trainings and to see the work that Autistic Services, Inc., does with both children and adults with autism and related conditions. She said that, every time she visits Romania or Romanian professionals visit the United States, Enthusiasm is growing and recognition is growing. Thats what its all about. Im trying to teach key people so that they can teach their own people. I cant continue to go there to teach their people. It should be that they teach one another. The people whom Im training are the people who live there and can communicate with them.
When enthusiasm does lag and when the Hope and Homes people and other Romanian staff see what a daunting task lies ahead of them, Federiconi reminds them that deinstitutionalization in the United States has been going on for more than thirty years and that the process is not yet over.
Recognition of the process has grown tremendously in Romania, where the collaboration between Hope and Homes and Autistic Services has received a great deal of media attention, much more than here in Western New York. Autistic Services.
Federiconi said that the lack of media attention in Western New York has been a disappointment. Were trying to bridge the children who are leaving institutions and going to other places to give them a second chance at life. I just want people to know that something good is coming out of Buffalo for some very, very needy children.
Hope for the Future
Until recently, Federiconi was paying for many of her trips to Romania from her own pocket and with some assistance from Hope and Homes. She said that she was happy to donate her money for this cause.
Im very committed to working with this population. When you give your money for something like that, it feels good, she said.
The collsboration between Autistic services, Inc., and Hope and Homes Romania has been successful, Federiconi said. The goal now is to replicate that success throughout Romania and other Eastern European countries, such as Bosnia, Croatia, Moldova, and Belarus. To continue the process, a new not-for-profit organization has been set up as a subsidiary of Autistic Services, Inc., called Bridges for New Beginnings, Inc. Its goals are to continue the deinstitutionalization process, to prevent the circumstances that caused children and young adults to be placed in institutions, and to establish a training center for professionals to learn about best practices. The goal of the training center ids to reduce abuse and neglect and to help in the transition process from institution to family-type alternatives.
Early in 2003, Veronica Federiconi saw a photo-documentary of the lives that children led in Romanian institutions by Brendan Bannon a local photographer. Federiconi said that the pictures reminded her of her experiences working in institutions in the early 1970s. Federiconi, whose background is in educational psychology, became interested in working with special needs children when, as a nursery school teacher, in 1970, she had two Downs Syndrome children in her class. She became involved in the of deinstitutionalization of children with developmental disabilities shortly after Geraldo Riveras 1971 expose of abuse occurring at the now-closed Willowbrook School in Staten Island.