Maria was only nine when her father sent her to work on the streets of Romania’s second largest city, Cluj. At an age when she should have been playing, she was instead being sexually abused and raped by older men.
The abuse lasted for three years before the police picked her up and persuaded her to testify against her parents, who are serving a nine-year sentence each, for human trafficking.
Although she missed out on years of schooling, Maria, now 16, managed to catch up with her classmates and recently graduated from secondary school. But the scars remain.
Three years after being given shelter by a centre for victims of human trafficking, Maria started having nightmares.
“She was waking up crying,” said Iana Matei, director of Reaching Out Romania, which runs three centres for trafficking victims. “I was relieved. We could finally talk about all those suppressed memories and abuses.”
In 2014, more than two thirds of human trafficking victims under 18 had been trafficked by a loved one or a trusted acquaintance, according to Romania’s anti-trafficking agency.
“Parents borrow money from loan sharks and when they can’t pay their debts, they give their child to their lenders,” Matei told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Children know that if they run away, the loan sharks will kill their mother, so when they are picked up by police, they say their exploiter is a close relative, so they don’t create problems.”
Hundreds of Romanian children are trafficked to European cities where they are forced to beg, steal or sell sex by criminal gangs, anti-trafficking experts say.
In 2013 and 2014, Romania was identified by Europol as one of the main countries of origin for European victims of human trafficking.
Each year around 700 victims are officially reported, although the real figure could be much higher with many victims to afraid to come forward, experts say.
In Romania, many rescued victims are not properly cared for, either ending up in orphanages where they are still at risk of abuse or back with their families who are often responsible for their exploitation in the first place, social workers say.
“We have four cases of girls being raped in orphanages and when one of them reported it to the supervisor, the woman said she could do nothing because nobody would believe her,” said Monica Boseff, director at the Open Door Foundation, which runs the only emergency shelter for trafficking victims in Romania.
Charity workers say children are often trafficked from inside their orphanages with state employees playing a crucial role within trafficking rings. As a result, some children run away to live rough on the streets.
Those who remain in orphanages do not receive the care and counselling needed to overcome their trauma, and are often put together with other children with very different needs, critics of the system say.
Officials admit shortcomings in the welfare system.
“There is a general problem with the Romanian welfare system, which is overwhelmed as there is a lack of specialized personnel due to the limited funds available,” said George Adrian Petrescu, head of the Romanian anti-trafficking agency.
There are only a handful of charity-run shelters for trafficking victims in Romania, a country of 20 million people.
Although built five years ago, the only state-run shelter never opened due to a lack of staff.
Only a few children are referred to shelters run by charity organisations which offer counselling, legal assistance and even private tutoring.
“I have two girls that finished school top of their class, I have other two girls that are now studying law and working part-time,” Matei said.
The 2015 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report recommended that the Romanian government allocate public funds for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) helping victims, and provide funding to staff a new government shelter among other measures.
Petrescu from the Romanian anti-trafficking agency hopes a law to allow the state to fund NGOs will be passed soon, but adds it may not be the top priority for the Ministry of Justice.
The TIP report also called for more prosecutions of traffickers, better medical care and psychological counselling for victims, and for an anti-trafficking hotline to be staffed at evenings and weekends.
The free helpline set up by the anti-trafficking agency only operates Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“It is not an ideal situation. After the economic crisis, the agency was restructured and currently there is only one person working at the helpline,” Petrescu said, adding six more staff were needed.
For Matei, the greatest priority is to change the law regarding victims of human trafficking and social protection.
At present, the two laws contradict each other, which makes it almost impossible for trafficked children to be taken away from their parents that abused and exploited them, she said.
“These children can recover, but the state isn’t interested in doing that. They are the broken toys that we throw away,” Matei said. “We are dealing with a generation of victims.”