When Harry Potter author JK Rowling saw a newspaper photo of a child in a caged bed in the Czech Republic almost two years ago, her initial instinct was to turn the page.
“I was pregnant ... and vulnerable in the way that a pregnant woman is to those kind of issues regarding children,” Rowling said. “It was an awful image and I almost didn’t want to let it into my head.”
But Rowling forced herself to look. And that experience persuaded the 40-year-old writer – whose Harry Potter books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide – to use her fame to help children in need in the Czech Republic, Romania and elsewhere.
“The next second I thought ’well you just need to read this article and if it’s as bad as it looks, you have to do something about it’ and that’s why I am doing it,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press at the British Council in Bucharest.
Rowling wrote to the Czech government in July 2004 complaining about the practice of restraining children in caged beds in the country’s psychiatric facilities, which spurred the government to restrict their use.
Rowling’s interest in child welfare in the region did not stop there. She became a trustee in January of a new Bucharest-based foundation called the Children’s High Level Group, which raises money for children in need and promotes childcare reforms in Romania.
“Romania is a model for other countries hoping to reform ... Romania was the state that acknowledged there was a problem and set out to do something about it,” said Rowling, dressed in a duck-egg blue suit and brown suede boots.
Romanian orphanages first came to world’s attention after the 1989 downfall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
In an effort to boost Romania’s population of 23 million, Ceausescu banned birth control and abortion, which led to thousands of infants being left in state institutions.
Following his execution, televised pictures of malnourished orphans living in squalor, many suffering from Aids, were broadcast around the world.
There are about 32,000 children in Romanian state institutions, two-thirds of them teenagers, down from more than 100,000 when Ceausescu was ousted.
The country has closed large institutions in recent years, placing children in foster care and extended families.
Rowling was in Bucharest for two days this week, meeting some of the country’s institutionalised children.
She was guest of honour at a celebrity gala held at Ceausescu’s former palace which raised more than £100,000 for the foundation.
Rowling, who shuns the trappings of celebrity and has three children aged one, three and 12, said fame has one great advantage: “You can parlay that kind of interest in you personally into awareness of issues you’d like to raise,” she said.
Before focusing on the plight of children, Rowling worked with programs to fight multiple sclerosis, the disease that killed her mother, and charities for one-parent families, having been a single mother.
“With this issue it was something that really shocked and touched me,” she said.
She has words of praise for reforms carried out by Romania in child welfare, although work still needs to be done.
“The image that the world had ... ten years ago of Romanian orphanages ... is not an accurate picture of the overall state of institutionalised children in Romania anymore. So by launching the group here we are trying to ... establish the progress that is possible.”
Rowling recalls with tears in her eyes how an institutionalised boy gave her paintings that had won him first prize in a talent competition yesterday. The boy said he met his birth mother last year – but that she died three months later.
In a hushed voice, she also tells of six abandoned babies she saw the day before in a maternity hospital.
“I have a baby at home and again that is something that touches you,” she said. “It’s shocking although I understand the reasons these children have been abandoned are not the simple reasons that many people in Western Europe may assume. This is a complex social issue and it will need complex social solutions.”