When the Iron Curtain was torn down almost 25 years ago, the images shocked the world: tens of thousands of Romanian children warehoused in cold, grey institutions, sometimes stacked six to a bed.
Malnourished and ailing, children rocked themselves in silence on thin, threadbare mattresses. Most didn’t talk or cry. There was no point. No one was listening.
“Three-year-olds didn’t chew because they’d never had solid food,” says Lucy LeMare, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University, near Vancouver.
Bottles were often tied to cribs for babies to feed themselves.
“Nobody held it for them, or fed them or held the child. If the baby could cope with it, good; if not, they got sick and died,” says LeMare.
Under Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the number of state orphanages had swelled to more than 600 grossly underfunded institutions. After he was executed by his own people on Christmas Day in 1989, childless western families flooded the country to adopt. Canadian families took in more than 1,400 children from Romania in 1990 and 1991, roughly half of them from orphanages.
The circumstances presented a tragic and unprecedented opportunity to assess the long-term impact of deprivation in early childhood, and Simon Fraser researchers have spent the past two decades studying the adoptees’ development. They surveyed them as toddlers, then twice as school-aged children and again around 17.
They’re now beginning a new survey with the hope that, as adults, the former Romanian orphans may be able to shed light on what helped and what hampered their ability to cope with their early trauma.
The research so far has reaffirmed – in the extreme – that the scars of early neglect run deep.
The most recent survey, published in 2007, found that about 40 per cent of Romanian adoptees had been diagnosed with a mental disorder, compared with 15 per cent among the general youth population in Canada.
“When people saw those images after the fall of Ceausescu, they looked at those babies and thought, ‘What that child needs is love and I’m going to love that child and everything is going to be OK,’ ” LeMare says.
“It turns out that that’s not always the case. Everything isn’t always OK and what they need is actually more than just a loving home. In fact, the kinds of challenges and difficulties of those kids make it very challenging to provide a really warm, supportive and loving home.”
Within a month of Ceausescu’s death, Sonya Paterson was in Romania.
Over the next few years, through her charitable organization, she would help 350 Canadian and U.S. families adopt about 500 children.
“It was so overwhelming,” she recalls. “The kids are there with their little pyjamas on, in their cribs, sleeping in their own excrement and urine. Horrific conditions.”
In 1990, she and her husband, David, adopted Carmen.
“We adopted, as we were aware, children that were going to have special needs.”
Researchers found the challenges were directly proportional to the amount of time the children spent in the orphanages, and the effects didn’t recede with time. The last study found the need for services actually increased as the children became teens.
The difficulties came into a glaring spotlight last year in British Columbia when a young woman named Kayla Bourque was sentenced for the torture and killing of her family pets. The judge was told that Bourque, whose own defence witness testified she was a psychopathic sexual sadist, had been adopted at eight months from a Romanian orphanage.
Bourque’s was an extreme case, LeMare says.
“I would hate for anybody to get the impression that all of the Romanian adoptees are sociopaths, because they’re not,” she says.
“But given the early experiences of some of these children, they were very extreme. The deprivation, the horrific conditions they came from, I suppose in some ways we ought not to be surprised that some of them have really extreme disorders as adults now.”
There are university graduates, young parents and role models among the adoptees. But there are also a higher-than-average number of people with developmental disabilities, mental-health issues, criminal records and social struggles.
Paterson’s own daughter, Carmen, faced difficulties, and Grade 12 marked the beginning of a decade-long “identity crisis” that strained their relationship to the maximum. Today, they are reunited and Paterson is proud of her daughter.
“Our environment affected us, but it is not who we are,” says Carmen, now 28.
“You get to choose. You get to live your life based on who you are – not based on your environment and not based on what anyone else says.”
If you adopted a child from Romania or were an adopted child and would like to get in touch with others, you can reach Sonya Paterson through https://www.facebook.com/groups/RomanianAdoptivefamilies/.