This paper explores discourses that have informed debates concerning care leavers in Romania over the last 50 years to understand why rights‐based reforms introduced in the mid‐2000s have been difficult to implement. The discussion is based on the analysis of a maximum variation sample of 40 documents published between 1951 and 2018. Across two historical periods during and after communism, framed by three political events which changed significantly the context of public childcare and leaving care, this paper explores how dominant discourses on ‘public childcare’, ‘care leavers’ and ‘children's rights’ have evolved, what mechanisms established them and with what consequences. The analysis revealed the stealthy presence of a ‘dinosaur discourse’ of deficit and ‘undeserving’, unsuccessfully challenged by the rights discourse, which alongside a neglectful attitude to social protection, informs the practice and ultimately the experience of public childcare and leaving care. However, the growing and increasingly clear voice of care‐leaver activists counterbalances this through a new narrative of strengths, value and capability aiming towards concrete change from below. The paper proposes a number of ‘absent discourses’ that could offer a powerful context for this new voice and avenues for meaningful action, with implications for research.