Scars heal slowly as Romanian orphans find new lives

10 August 2002

Scars heal slowly as Romanian orphans find new lives

August 10 2002

Fresh air, good food and love have transformed the lives of more than 80 children who have been adopted by Australian families, reports Julie Szego.

Michael was two when his adoptive parents, Michelle and John Levine, collected him from a Romanian orphanage. They found a toddler who recoiled from blankets and teddy bears, but watched with intense concentration the pouring of water from a cup or blades of grass gliding to the ground. He cuddled up to complete strangers and, for reasons still mysterious, shrieked in distress during visits to the doctor, especially if they involved removing his shoes.

Ms Levine recalls that her son - now "articulate, energetic and exuberant" - couldn't speak at all, despite his age. "He made funny little sounds," she says, "although he always seemed to understand what we were saying."

After the fall of the Ceausescu regime in 1989, images of Romania's orphanages, with their rows of vacant-eyed children in cots, came to symbolise the moral decay at the heart of communism.

Many children had been abandoned by parents unable to provide for them. They were the results of a population policy that banned contraception and abortion in a bid to boost a crippling economy.

Thousands of Western couples, including Australians, rushed to adopt the children. But Romania's problems were not solved by the fall of communism. There are still many abandoned children in the country's orphanages and, until recently, a lucky few were finding new homes in the West.

Three-and-a-half years of fresh air, good food and stimulation have transformed Michael from a neglected and traumatised toddler into a bright little boy bursting with potential. He now sleeps with a continental quilt over his head in a bed crowded with stuffed toys.

But the effects of early deprivations still linger, with Michael showing signs of immaturity linked to delayed emotional growth. Ms Levine says: "Sometimes I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and then we'll have a bad week. We try to take each day as it comes."

The Levines can take comfort in the knowledge that their experience conforms with the latest research.

A study on 165 Romanian adoptees by the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College in London found dramatic catch-up rates among children, but the hurdles to development were greater the longer they had been institutionalised.

Despite the problems experienced by many children, only 1 per cent of the adoptions had broken down.

The research team, headed by Professor Michael Rutter, summarised the results as "a complex mix of spectacular success and worrying sequelae (a morbid condition resulting from a previous disease)".

Australian families adopted 88 Romanian children during the past decade, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Lynette Kramer Halprin, vice-president of the International Adoptive Parents Association, says Victoria took 41 babies and children aged under five, and only one adoption has broken down.

She says the children had been suffering malnutrition, behavioural problems and developmental delays. Many toddlers couldn't walk or talk properly, while babies struggled to sit up or roll. "Attachment disorders" made them either abnormally extroverted or withdrawn. Others displayed obsessive behaviour, which the British researchers have labelled "quasi-autistic".

Ms Levine can gauge the impact of institutionalisation by comparing Michael with his younger biological sister, Juliana, who was in the orphanage for only one year. Juliana, who the Levines have also adopted, is more socially cautious and less hassled by change, Mrs Levine says.

Juliano, on the other hand, was a silent and withdrawn two-year-old when he met parents Belinda and Joe Pisana.

"I did years of IVF, but could never picture a baby, but when I saw him, I started crying because I just knew he was my child," Ms Pisana recalls. "He had huge, big, brown eyes and little sticking-out ears . . . which were so cute. He had such an angelic-looking face." In the early days, Juliano had difficulty chewing, was plagued with ear and eye infections, resisted baths and struggled to walk.

Tears also marked the first meeting between Cosmin and adoptive parents John and Olga Fedorko. "He was bawling his eyes out and so were we," Mr Fedorko says.

Once in Melbourne, Cosmin walked around the house in a daze, acted impulsively and was "very skittish, very unsure".

"He was one of the oldest kids in the orphanage and was used to having a caretaker role, stacking chairs, taking care of the younger kids. We had plans to spend as much time as possible with him but within three days we knew he had to be with other children," Mr Fedorko says.

He says that six months later Cosmin told them about some of his unpleasant memories of the orphanage.

Stories about children revealing past abuse circulate among parents. One child apparently "freaked out" when his mother produced a rolling pin for baking.

But time is a great healer. Mr Fedorko says Cosmin, now eight and in grade 2, has a compelling intensity. "Sometimes I do feel that part of him is a bit too much reliant on the approval of others and that he is still more obliging than other children. He's such a popular and effervescent kid."

Last year a moratorium on international adoption was introduced after Britain's Baroness Nicholson alleged that orphanages had been trafficking in children. Romania tackling the problem of abandoned children appears to be a condition of its accession to the European Union.

The International Adoptive Parents Association is lobbying the EU and Romanian leaders to restart the program, arguing that children are being more damaged the longer they stay in institutions.

Meanwhile, for all their optimism, the adoptive parents recognise that repairing their children's past is a work in progress.

Julie Szego is The Age's social affairs reporter