A stone's throw from Bucharest's four-star Intercontinental Hotel more than 100 children live behind barred windows.
A gray, decaying one-story building is the Romanian capital's only reception center for runaway children, who often swell the numbers of the city's juvenile delinquents.The center now shelters 120 emaciated, shaven-headed youngsters crammed into one room, who often have to wait for more than a month for police investigations or for a very rare visit from a parent.
Most of them are unwanted and abandoned.
Under the rule of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, toppled and executed in a popular uprising last December, each Romanian family was compelled by law to have at least four children.
Abortion and contraceptives were banned and Romanians nicknamed the babies born under those conditions "Ceausescu's kids."
Chronic food shortages, bad medical care and plummeting living standards forced many poor families to abandon their children to the mercy of the streets.
According to the latest official estimates, Romania's 379 orphanages provide precarious shelter to more than 130,000 children, most of them abandoned.
"Ours is a place of shattered dreams, without toys or a mother's hug," George Odobescu, the manager of Bucharest's reception center for minors, told Reuters.
Official statistics show a large increase in juvenile delinquency since last December's revolution.
"The Bucharest police investigated 3,435 crimes, including murders, committed by minors during the first nine months of the year, compared to 1,227 recorded in 1989," said police spokesman Liviu Raducanu.
The large number of inmates between 3 and 18 years of age presents the reception center's small staff with insoluble problems.
"The center is more like a prison than an island of hope for these children," said Odobescu.
"We don't have nurses, not to mention a doctor, and the acute lack of space forces us to confine them together, be they good or kids turned bad."
Confronted with a steady inflow of new guests, classrooms were converted into bedrooms. Children must share beds and use thin blankets for cover because heating is limited.
"There is no running water in the lavatories and the sewage system is broken. There are no toys, no books, no gym, nothing for educational purposes," Odobescu complained.
All the center can offer is a small yard looking more like a pen and a stinking 60-square-foot room where the 120 children are crammed in front of a television set which is on day and night.
"It is a crime to keep children in these conditions," said Odobescu.
Under Ceausescu, little money, if any at all, was provided for the care and re-education of abandoned children, who were not even mentioned in official statistics.
Horrific television images filmed in the country's orphanages awakened Romanians to the shock of another unsuspected tragedy and shook them and the world into action.
"I hear we are getting help, but in view of this crisis situation, what has been done is far from enough," Odobescu said.
In September Prime Minister Petre Roman set up a committee for supporting child-care institutions, calling for international assistance to his government's efforts.
A government statement listed improper buildings, primitive technical facilities and equipment, the shortage of staff, food and medicine as the major problems facing the institutions which tend to Romania's abandoned children.