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Romanian Orphanages and Children

When, in 1989, the brutally repressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled by the Romanian people, the world finally got a glimpse into that isolated and poverty- stricken country.

What they saw was devastating. The western media was awash with images of Romanian children suffering untold misery in state orphanages. Many of the children were in fact not orphans but had been placed in the institutions because families were too poor to parent them: birth control was not permitted and the State believed it could do a better job.

 Thousands of parents all over the world responded by going to Romania to adopt a child. In some cases it took as little as two weeks to complete the process. It is also alleged that some individuals simply bought children who were living with their families.

Canadian researcher, Dr. Elinor Ames, from Simon Fraser University, went to Romania at this time and determined to start a research study which would track the progress of some of the children who came to British Columbia. She wanted to understand the effects of institutionalization on their development.

British Columbia received 142 children from Romania between 1990 and 1991; 75 of these were included in the study. Three groups were compared. The first (the ROs) were Romanian orphanage children who had spent at least eight months in an institution and had been adopted between eight and 68 months of age. The second (the CBs) were a group of non-adopted Canadian-born children, raised in birth families. These were matched to the ROs on sex, age and demographic variables. The third group (the EAs) had been adopted from maternity hospitals in Romania prior to four months of age. All were abandoned or destined for orphanages but, significantly, they had not lived in an institution. Under Dr. Ames’s direction, the children were assessed by the researchers at 11 months post-adoption, and again at four-and-a-half years of age. Following Dr. Ames’s retirement, the project was taken over by Dr. Lucy Le Mare (also of SFU) who, with her research team, assessed the children again when they were 10-and-a- half years old.

After 10 years of tracking the children and their families, the research team has reported their results. Many of them are not surprising, others are; all of them are important for parents who have adopted or plan to adopt children who have experienced institutionalization, even if for a short time. Though the study has been characterized as controversial and criticized as painting a negative picture of the adoptions, Dr. Le Mare concludes that, "In general the adoptions have been successful. The kids are happy in their homes and the parents are happy with their kids."

While some of the findings, if taken in isolation, (there was significant variability between children), are a cause for concern they also provide parents, who have adopted institutionalized children, with important pointers on how to meet the challenges.

At the time of adoption, 78 per cent of ROs were delayed in four areas (fine motor, gross motor, personal-social and language.) Eleven months after adoption there had been some significant improvements; however, a third of the RO children still showed significant difficulties. At four-and-a half the RO group, in comparison to the CB group, were delayed in all areas assessed. The EA children did not differ from the CB group except in IQ. However, it is important to remember that within the RO group there was significant variability. One third demonstrated few if any difficulties, a further third were moving toward average levels, and the remaining portion were showing significant difficulty in several areas.

This variability also applied to the RO group when they were revisited at age 10-and-a-half. But, in comparison to the CB and EA group, the RO children had lower IQ scores, lower school achievement scores, greater attention difficulty, and were more likely to have failed a grade in school (60% of the older kids who had been institutionalized for longer had been kept back a grade). This group also had more behavior problems (38% at the level that may require clinical intervention), were more likely to be insecurely attached, had parents who reported greater parenting stress, were more likely to have parents who have split up, (20% ROs, 13% CBs, 17% EAs), were less "popular" with their peers and experience less social support from peers and friends.

A number of the RO children had been diagnosed with learning disabilities. A concern of the researchers is that they may be given the same labels as children who have never experienced institutionalization, but they may not be suffering from the same problems or that they need the same type of treatments.

In the areas of attention focusing, impulsivity, and inhibitory control, the RO children performed significantly worse than the CBs and EAs. Interestingly, within the RO group, the children who experienced more nurturing and stimulation at home at age four demonstrated better attention abilities at age 10.

Though it is quite normal for any child or adult to have varying levels of insecurity during their lives, the study also found that the RO children who were insecure at four-and-a-half (63%), felt similarly insecure at 10-and-a-half years of age. The CB and EA kids were more likely to have moved into feeling secure by the age of 10 and their security of attachment was much more likely to be stable.

Despite the problems that many of the Romanian orphanage children face, there are many successes. The study found that the self-concept of these children is as high as those in the other groups, and that the parents of the RO children feel as attached to them as the other parents. In terms of support, these children feel as supported by their parents, and the parents report being equally likely to repeat the experience with their child as the those in the CB and EA groups.

  • Lower income and younger parents, regardless of their child¹s behavior problems, experienced more stress, suggesting that it may not be advisable for such families to adopt an institutionalized child.

  • The study found that the children of the families that broke down had experienced extensive institutionalization and went to the most inexperienced families.

  • Parents who are adopting a child who has lived in an institution should at first not concentrate on introducing their child to the outside world. Limit contact with other people, avoid arranging lots of activities and concentrate on home life and family relationships (what they do at home with their child). The child may initially benefit most from holding, rocking, lots of eye-to-eye contact and plenty of one-to-one attention and stimulation.

  • Parents must also be powerful advocates for their child. Many of the difficulties that these children face are not of the "garden variety," and parents need to speak up to ensure that they get the help that they need. Be careful in choosing a therapist to help your family. Research carefully and seek the advice of other adoptive families or call the AFABC for some contacts.

When adopting an institutionalized child, don’t expect all the same things that other parents get from their children or that they will progress at the same rate.

Dr. Ames emphasizes, "With these children you are not bringing up any child; they need a lot more."

Learn to measure success differently than the rest of society; it certainly isn’t an inferior measure —perhaps all of society would benefit from doing so. A point that came over strongly from participants at the presentation was that parents had been given a great gift—the ability to learn to love unconditionally.

This is just a snapshot of the findings of this long-term study. Funding for the next phase, which will study the children at around 14-15, is being sought. Dr. Le Mare also hopes to expand the research to include other children adopted from Romania. For more information contact Dr. Le Mare.

Reprinted with permission from Focus on Adoption the magazine of the Adoptive Families Association of British Columbia.




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