Warning: This is not an article for those who have prejudiced opinions about the Roma. Please do not read it! Because it is not about ethnicity. It is about how, by presenting several implausible elements which the journalists never checked, a story done by the New York Times starting from the painful and unacceptable experience of a child being separated from his family, may generate an effect so disparate from empathy. The overblown heroic portrayal of a character is not beneficial for the Roma community in Romania and raises doubts regarding their actual discrimination.
• 36-year-old Vasile Mutu and 32-year-old Florentina Pătru, the unmarried parents of baby Constantin, do not fight dire poverty in Romania, as depicted by NYT.
• Their assets – houses, cars and land, were not mentioned in the story.
• In the pictures seen by the whole wide world, they appear living together with another family, ”11 people crammed temporarily into a small house” painted in pink, while their bigger house is located only 50 meters away.
• Meanwhile, both parents left for France and their children live in a large house belonging to the family, being looked after by their relatives. Someone else lives at the moment in the pink house where the NYT filming took place.
• Vasile Mutu, an asylum-seeker in USA for ethnic-based persecution, has several misdeeds in his criminal record, among which two convictions in France, according to an official of the Romanian Police force.
• The latest misconduct was on January 14, 2019, when Mutu was detained by the police in Râmnicu Vâlcea for 24 hours then released on parole until March 14. At the present, he is being investigated under criminal case 292/P/2019, opened after a fight with axes.
Discuții între medici din interiorul spitalului Balș, unde e bărbatul cu coronavirus: ”Consultăm TOȚI PACIENȚII CU ACELAȘI ECHIPAMENT. Dacă unul e pozitiv le dăm tuturor”!
• When holding him under detention, the policemen also suspended his license for non-lethal weapon, issued in 2016.
• The utterly disturbing statement made by Constantin’s mother according to which she had been sterilised in 2017, without her knowledge, is dismissed by the very document the patient herself filled in.
By Delia Marinescu, Adriana Oprea and Cătălin Tolontan
contributors: Alexandra Nistoroiu and Oana Moisil (Paris)
We intended to leave on a field trip on Friday, June 14, the very release day of the teaser to the story in which The New York Times announced that the youngest child separated from his parents by the Trump administration was a 4-month-old boy.
Tatăl tânărului mort „dintr-o eroare de comunicare” la Colectiv: ”Arafat, Streinu-Cercel și Rafila ne asigură azi că stăpânesc coronavirusul așa cum ne asigurau că avem de toate după Colectiv!”
We aimed to find out what drives one to take their baby into their arms and run together to the end of the world to apply for political asylum from ethnic-based persecution. And how does the separation from one’s own baby affect one’s life. Be it even temporarily, the separation from a child is horrifying.
Yet we did not know where to go, as Constantin’s parents hometown was not mentioned in the first article.
How did our research start and what it turned into
Sunday, June 16, the NYT story was fully published along with a 25-minute documentary on paid channels FX and Hulu. The story showed that at the beginning of 2018, Vasile Mutu, a Romanian Roma man, was held up at the Mexico – USA border, together with his 4-month old infant, Constantin.
The father requested political asylum, claiming that his family is persecuted based on ethny back in Romania. The American authorities analyzed Vasile Mutu situation and out of unknown reasons, says NYT, they locked him up in a detention center.
Momente emoționante.Cum au fost primiți oamenii recuperați de pe urma coronavirusului
Meanwhile, the 4-month old Romanian infant, ”Baby Constantin” – as the American newspaper calls him, became the youngest immigrant separated from his family, due to the policy enforced by President Donald Trump.
The separation from the family was the most massively contested measure taken by President Trump, who ultimately gave it up. A failed policy.
The Times piece was quoted and praised by CNN, Salon, Business Insider, The Hill.
Olteni village, Bujoreni commune, Vâlcea county
Constantin was given into temporary custody by the American state to a family in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a town placed between Detroit and Chicago. After 5 months in America, first the father, then the baby were repatriated to Romania. The woman who took care of the baby in Michigan came personally to Romania and put Constantin into his mother’s arms, on Otopeni airport.
In their article, NYT do not indicate the county were the Mutus live, making public only the name of the town: Olteni.
As Olteni is a name common for 11 towns in Romania, the identifying itself of the village has been a challenge, a first step towards the unrevealed geography of the story.
Libertatea identified the hometown of ”Baby Constantin” comes from: Olteni village, Bujoreni commune, Vâlcea county.
Vasile Mutu: ”Of course the American journalists paid me, it is my face that appears all over the news”
We managed to get the phone number of Vasile Mutu, Constantin’s father. He told us that he is working in Paris, together with his wife and baby and that he cannot see us there for a press article as he lacks a stable home yet. Moreover, he added, the journalists from The New York Times had paid him for the aired report.
“Of course the american journalists paid me, it is my face that appears all over the news”, he explained the reason for which he claims to have received money from the American journalists.
Being contacted through email, Caitlin Dickerson, the NYT reporter, denied.
The New York Times does not pay for interviews, and as such, did not do so for the story to which you refer. I spoke to Mr. Mutu yesterday morning and he told me that he made no such assertion to anyone
– Caitlin Dickerson, NYT
Upon a request made by Libertatea, Danielle Rhoades Ha, Communication Vicepresident at NYT, stated: „We do not pay sources for interviews, ever. Our mission is to help people understand the world through unrivaled, expert and deeply reported independent journalism. Our story and The Weekly episode were based on months of rigorous reporting that revealed the human impact of the U.S. government’s child separation policy on one family.”
The Libertatea reporter is nevertheless not the only one Mutu spoke to about being paid. Two other persons, the mayor from Bujoreni, Gheorghe Gângu, and Ilie Mărunțelu, local counselor in Bujoreni for the Roma Party, stated for Libertatea that they also knew that Mutu has an exclusivity paid contract with NYT.
Mutu also stated for the Libertatea reporter that the NYT investigation will help him with the trial he says he has begun in the USA against the American government, for the family separation, claiming damages.
Another villager stated for the newspaper, undercover of anonymity, that ”Mutu was bragging he received a lot of money from the Americans and that he would get some more, from donations”.
Facts are stubborn things
So we reached on our field trip the Olteni village and Râmnicu Vâlcea, following the information presented by The New York Times that intrigued us. Keeping the faith that facts should be presented as they are, as goes the historical NYT credo – ”Without fear or favor”.
NYT: ”One bathroom with no shower shared among 11 people”. Actual documents: ”2 houses, a 288 sqm one and another of 65 sqm”
Caitlin Dickerson describes the life of infant Constantin Mutu family as follows: ”The Mutus, who are pursuing a claim for damages against the United States, are back in the village where they grew up, crammed temporarily into a small house they share with another family — one bathroom with no shower shared among 11 people. They bathe with cups of water warmed on the stove and keep their clothes in an attic, climbing a rickety ladder every few days in order to change them”.
The life conditions of the Mutus are yet different from what the report depicts. According to the Libertatea research on site, Florentina Pătru owns:
• Three plots of land amounting to 2,768 sqm
• Two houses, a 288 sqm one and another of 65 sqm
• A BMW 320D
All these assets are registered under her name at the Bujoreni Town Hall, according to the documents consulted by the journalists.
Vasile Mutu holds nothing under his name and all the estates and goods officially belong to Florentina, who never had a job. Her only income is represented by the maternity allowance, the children’s allowance and an allowance for a seriously disabled child (a 13-year-old girl).
In the report, the family makes finely honed brooms and Vasile Mutu chops wood, but under the name of Kornea Kapatoos the same man sells luxury Audi and BMW cars
During several days at the beginning of this year, the New York Times team was in Bujoreni, to document their article.
One of the pictures shows a few of the Mutu family members making finely honed brooms.
The photo explanation is: ”The family makes finely honed brooms and axes out of wood, a trade passed down through generations of their ancestors”.
”Mutu’s grandparents still make brooms, Mutu (reporter’s note: Vasile), doesn’t”, explains Roma leader Ilie Mărunțelu.
”The Rudar Roma people are wood workers, they make baskets, brooms, sticks for agricultural tools. Now they have ceased to do so, as they are traveling abroad. The system in Romania prevented them to pursue their occupation, they are requested to get licenses in order to sell their merchandise”, adds Ilie Mărunțelu.
Vasile Mutu goes in the village by the nickname Cornea. He created a Facebook page under the name of Kornea Kapatoos, where he sells luxury cars: Audi A6 Allroad and various BMW models.
Another photo on The New York Times site presents Vasile, Florentina and their 5 children in the backyard of a house near the railway tracks. They stand before a clothes line with clothes hung for drying, a symbol of poverty.
World Bank Report from 2018: ”The poverty rate for the Roma population in Romania is almost 70%”
The poverty and the vulnerability deriving from it are real in Romania. According to a study published in November 2018 by the National Institute for Statistics, out of a total of 19 million inhabitants, 4.6 million live under the international poverty line – they have at their disposal only 23 lei (5.5 US dollars) per day.
Studies demonstrate that the theory according to which in Romania people are poor because they are too lazy to work is just a busted myth.
19% of the Romanian employees are in danger of poverty, which means that, very often, work does not grant dignity to the ones providing it.
As far as the Roma population is concerned, the poverty rate ranges about 70%, shows a report of the World Bank from 2018, while the same study states the life expectancy for the Roma is by 6 years lower than the one of the non-Roma people at national level.
Nevertheless, Vasile Mutu and Florentina Pătru, who own, according to the town hall papers, three plots of land, two houses and a BMW 320D do not belong to the poor Roma category, as depicted by the NYT picture, taken in the pink house’s backyard.
The Roma discrimination, a reality correctly signaled by NYT
Vasile and Florentina state in the NYT report that the persecutions are the fact that triggered their decision to try to get to America.
The NYT note that discrimination against Roma are a reality in Romania is entirely correct.
”They do not find a job here in our county. You feel discriminated once they see you. Nobody hires my Roma, because they lack education. Mutu went to school for 6 years. Florentina 6 years as well – never worked a day in her life, she had the children early”, explains for Libertatea the situation from Vâlcea Ilie Mărunțelu, the leader of the Roma community in Bujoreni.
”When they see you do not have education, they never call you again. I was hired in a shop with a recommendation from the local chief police officer who said: I am responsible for this boy”, Mărunțelu recalls the manner in which he managed to get himself a job.
Within the depiction of the persecutions endured by Florentina and Vasile, exposed by The New York Times, there are yet a few rather shocking elements.
NYT: ”The doctor had also performed a tubal ligation” after Florentina ”signed documents that she could not read”
The two told journalist Caitlin Dickerson that the last drop that made them leave the country for Mexico to USA was Florentina’s sterilization without her consent, right at the moment of Constantin’s birth, on October 11, 2017.
In a haze of pain while she was in labor, Florentina signed documents that she couldn’t read. When she returned to the hospital for an appointment to check on her recovery, a hospital employee told her that the doctor had also performed a tubal ligation. She and her husband had planned to have more children, as is traditional in their culture. They were devastated
– Caitlin Dickerson, nyt.com
The tubal ligation is an irreversible sterilization method for women, if it is accompanied by cutting the tubes, not only stitching them together.
Undergoing such a procedure without the patient being aware of it would be truly horrifying. It would go against human rights, against any ethical code or medical deontology.
The manager of the County Hospital in Vâlcea: ”It would have been a crime!”
The New York Times also never mentioned the name of the hospital where Florentina claims to have undergone a tubal ligation without knowing.
”It would not only be a breach of humanity and of medical ethical rules, but also a crime!”, is the astonished reaction of Dan Eleodor Ponoran, manager of the county hospital in Râmnicu Vâlcea, the place where Libertatea discovered Florentina Pătru gave birth, on October 11, 2017.
The manager of the hospital with 1.300 beds listens to the story quietly. It is the first time the information is brought to his attention and he has not been contacted up to now by any other journalist.
Manager Ponoran often passes a Roma person within the community in Râmnicu Vâlcea. ”I often get the title of the Roma of the week in the local newspapers, although I am not Roma”, smiles Ponoran.
Written in the hospital file of Florentina Pătru: ”I solicit tubal ligation”
According to the medical documents, Florentina’s C-section procedure was undergone at Section 1 of the hospital, from 11:40 to 12:20 and unfolded normally, with the baby getting the score 9 out of 10.
Behind his desk cluttered with files and newspapers, gynaecologist Marian Stoica explains: ”To stitch together the tubes of a patient against her will or benefiting from her lack of attention is impossible, as it is not only about signing something. As a rule, the patient explicitly writes down that she desires the tubal ligation”. ”So there is not any standard form being signed?”, we ask. ”No, no, the patient wrote everything herself”, he claims.
On the document accompanying the birth, Florentina Pătru almost drew, with big letters of a person who is not very familiar with handwriting, the words: ”I solicit tubal ligation”.
Doctor Brânzan: ”So she cannot claim she could not read, as long as she was able to write”
Instead of ”trompe” (tubes), Florentina wrote ”tompe”, an understandable phonetic error.
We tell the doctors that the sophisticated verb ”solicit”, from Florentina’s tubal ligation request is implausible in the current vocabulary of a woman with only six years of school.
”Are women told what to write?”, we ask the head of the department. ”If the patients are illiterate, there are also situations when we write down, but always in front of several witnesses”, explains doctor Stoica.
So we know what is written on Florentina’s file and we also know that she is most probably the one that wrote the message. What we still do not know is if the mother with only 6 years of school entirely understood what she wrote, as the problem of informed consent is a rather sensitive issue in Romania.
Doctor George Brânzan gets in, the one who conducted Florentina Pătru’s birth of ”Baby Constantin”.
”According to the rules, the medical procedure, in this situation the C-section and tubal ligation, is asked for or consented by the patient and approved by the head of the hospital department”, the gynecologist says.
On October 11, 2017, in the hospital operating room where Florentina Pătru gave birth, three doctors underwent the procedure, the fourth only assisted and head of department Amza approved the intervention.
Brânzan lays back on the sofa inside the head of the department office: ”It is clearly incorrect what the patient states in the article, that she blindly signed. The paper shows not only that she signed, but also she wrote the consent herself. So she cannot claim she couldnt read, as long as she could write”.
”Have you ever had ethnic-based discrimination complaints?” ”No, never”
Surgeon Brânzan, who is also the chief of the College of Physicians in Vâlcea, an institution that addresses the patients’ complaints and which is not very popular among the Romanian society, does not try to be agreeable.
He had had situations when he was accused by patients for medical faults, ”but not a single ethnic-based accusation, for having discriminated Roma patients”.
In 2012, according to the local press, George Brânzan was accused by a family for the death of a baby by miss-supervising the mother’s pregnancy.
”Not at the hospital, nor at the College of Physicians have you ever had any ethnic-based complaints?”, we insist. ”No, never!”, he replies.
Roma leader: ”I believe she requested it. I don’t believe that the doctors do such a thing”
”I believe she asked for the procedure. I don’t believe that the doctors do such a thing, I don’t believe that the women in my community are done such methods”, says Ilie Mărunțelu, leader of the Roma community in Vâlcea.
”They (the Americans) did so in order to get more audience, they went a little overboard, I think”, he refers to the NYT article.
In his turn, after being asked if he has ever heard of cases where the Roma women in Romania were sterilized by force, Gelu Duminică, president of “Împreună” (Together) Agency stated: “I admit I have never heard. I heard of separated rooms in maternity wards, because certain women were Roma or belonged to an inferior social category”.
“I have heard of such practice in Slovakia, not necessarily lately, but at least in the early 90s that is what the reports indicated”, further states Duminică, regarding the forced sterilization procedures undergone on Roma women.
The doctor denies having accepted money
Vasile Mutu is also mentioned in the fragment regarding the birth published by NYT. ”Vasile sold two pigs and a cow to pay a doctor to do the procedure.”, the journalist writes.
What does doctor George Brânzan have to say? ”These are the words of a desperate man. It is not true, I did not take any money from that woman”, he counterattacks the bribe accusation and says he has never been investigated for anything of the kind.
Informal payments are a common practice in the Romanian hospitals. Recently, the Health Minister Sorina Pintea has asked the patients to stop giving bribe, especially taking into account that the doctors’ wages in Romania were doubled or even tripled during the last few years.
”Recently I was doing the math for a friend doctor working in Wales. You earn 5,500 pounds in the UK and I can give you, in Vâlcea, 4,500 euros per month”, says Dan Eleodor Ponoran, the manager of the county hospital where Florentina Pătru gave birth.
”He has several misdeeds on his legal record, including two convictions in France”
”They had occasional run-ins with police. Once, Mr. Mutu said, he was arrested for stealing cable from a construction site”, further states NYT about Vasile Mutu.
He actually has a more diverse criminal record.
This year, on January 14, police and gendarmerie forces in Râmnicu Vâlcea had to come in force during a fight with axes at the ”Paradis” motel, where a baptism party was taking place. After the violent assaults between the families, arisen due to the amount of money offered as a gift to the newborn, 7 persons needed medical care. They had head trauma, one of them being hit in the head with an axe.
Two of the aggressors were held up for 24 hours. One of them was Vasile Mutu.
He was released under parole by the prosecutor until March 14. At the moment he is being investigated within criminal case 292/P/2019.
When putting him under detention, the policemen also confiscated his license for non-lethal weapon, issued in 2016, Vasile being the owner of a ball bullet gun.
The criminal case with the fight from the Paradis motel is not the only one including Vasile Mutu. ”He has several misdeeds on his criminal record, including two convictions in France”, confirmed an official of the Romanian Police force, without providing any further details.
They were warned they would lose the child allowance, if they don’t return by Monday
On Friday, when the Libertatea journalists were in Bujoreni, Vasile Mutu called from France and summoned us to stop the investigation.
”It is an abuse! I am calling my lawyer in America and if she says I should sue you, I will” he said, being upset that we were discovering the truth about his houses.
A social worker has recently visited Vasile Mutu’s relatives and found all the 5 children, including Constantin, being looked after by grandparents and their mother’s relatives.
The children now live in a big house, with a second floor. In the small pink house, the one filmed by NYT, we found on Friday two teenagers. Being asked ”Are you related to Vasile and Florentina?”, the girls replied ”We don’t know”.
When they left the country, Vasile and Florentina did not inform the authorities, as the law stipulates, who the care-takers for their children were going to be. The social worker from Bujoreni warned Vasile Mutu by phone that unless he comes back home by today, June 24, their maternity allowance in the name of the eldest son will be ceased.
Constantin, the little boy who has impressed the whole wide world through the story published by NYT, is now 1 year and 8 months old. He lived 5 months in America, separated from his parents. Now he is waiting in a yard in Bujoreni, for them to return from France.
Translated by Karina Han
Versiunea în limba română: Povestea spusă „fără teamă sau favoruri” a familiei de români cu care The New York Times a lovit în Trump. Tatăl lui “Baby Constantin” are două condamnări în Franța și este cercetat pentru violență într-un dosar penal la Râmnicu-Vâlcea. Mama a spus că a fost sterilizată forțat în România, deși cererea scrisă cu mâna ei e la Spitalul Județean