Shame of A Nation

 

Shame of a Nation

Izidor Ruckel was born in 1980. When he was six months old, he became ill and his parents took him to a hospital where he contracted polio from an infected syringe. Later, the hospital doctors encouraged his parents to drop him off at an orphanage. From 1983 until 1991, Izidor lived in the Sighetu Marmatiei orphanage.

No one knows how many children were in Romanian orphanages at end of communism. The number is estimated to have been somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000. What we do know is that child abandonment was actually encouraged by the Romanian government as a means of population growth by discarding children who could not be productive workers for the state.

Sighetu Marmatiei is located in Sighet, a small city in northern Romania. It is the hometown of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

The Sighetu Marmatiei institution is located on the western edge of town behind a 6-foot wall. The sign above the entry reads “Camin Spital Pentru Minori Deficient,” which translates to the “Hospital Home for Deficient Children.”

In 1990, shortly after communism fell, ABC News’ 20/20 producer Janice Tomlin visited Sighet and produced the awarding series “Shame of a Nation.” Tomlin’s photos and videos brought the world’s attention to Romania’s horrific child welfare practices.

Communist newspaper encourages Mothers to leave their children in State Care

Dan and Marlys Ruckel of San Diego watched the 20/20 broadcast and went to Romania with the intention of adopting a child. On October 29, 1991, Dan and Marlys adopted Izidor. He was one of many Sighet orphans to make San Diego their new home.

In 2016, Izidor moved back to Romania, where he has committed his life to children without families and finding the means to support the 60,000 orphans of his generation who were never adopted.

Izidor meets his new mother
1990 – Izidor behind orphanage bars
Izidor’s family
I recently met Izidor at the Cluj train station to talk about his life, why he moved back to Romania, and the current state of child welfare.

TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND

From 3 until 11, I was in a hospital for children, not an orphanage. But back then, and still today, there is no difference between how a kid is treated in a children’s hospital or a state orphanage. They are both institutions.

Two years after arriving in the US, I started to miss the institution in Sighet. Nobody in the US had the answers that I was looking for, and I took out my anger on the people that loved me most, my adopted family. I was a child from hell.

Then a Romanian family came to San Diego for Easter and I heard about Christ. I wrote down tons of questions and began to find the answers I was searching for. People ask me how I overcame this. It isn’t because of my parents or anything I did, it was because I allowed Christ to tell me who I really was.

As my anger subsided and family life improved, I was asked to write a book to help families who adopt abandoned children. The book, Abandoned for Life, was published in 2003 and sold over 30,000 copies.

Izidor in the US with his father

For 17 years, since 2001, my primary life goal has been to tell people what happened in my institution and make sure it stops happening to other children in Romania. I have spoken hundreds of times, including on the BBC, in the Washington Post and recently in an interview with Morgan Freeman that will be aired this October in 176 countries on National Geographic.

DESCRIBE LIFE IN THE ORPHANAGE

We woke up at 5, stripped naked, since most kids wet themselves in bed, and went to another room for new clothes while the floor was cleaned. We ate breakfast, washed up and were put into a clean room where we just sat there rocking back and forth, hitting each other, sleeping or watching someone cry until they were drugged. After lunchtime, we went back into the clean room, repeating the same things as the morning. Then we were fed, bathed again, put into clean clothes and into bed for the night.

WHAT DO YOU WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE?

First, that the children suffered more than anyone knows. No reporter can capture the suffering. The abuse was worse than anything reported. If you were handicapped like me, you were hidden and never allowed outside the institution.

Secondly, despite all trauma and emotional wounds, no life is ever lost. If we give these kids, now adults, some opportunity, with love, nourishment and development, they can function in the world and develop independence. I stay in touch with the kids I grew up with and they can be helped. They still have dreams.

WHY DO YOU KEEP RETURNING TO SIGHET ?

There are many reasons. First off, it was my home for 11 years and believe it or not, there are memories I cherish. The few times I was allowed out of the institution, I was in awe of the natural beauty of Sighet. Romania to me was the beautiful land outside the institution, not the evil inside the institution.

I like to visit some of the nurses. I call them my seven angels. Their love and compassion was the only source of hope I had.

There is also a specific memory that reminds me that God was with me even though I did not know who He was. On one of my trips outside the institution, I saw a dead man hanging on a cross. The nurse said it was Jesus Christ, but without any explanation. I actually thought he was some poor guy from Sighet.

I kept feeling sorry for him when I got back to the institution. Now I take a picture of that cross every time I am back in Sighet.

I go back to reconnect with the kids I grew up with. In 2014, four of us went back to the institution. Dolls, furniture and clothes were lying around like it just closed. Crows were everywhere like in a haunted house. But it was remarkable that each of us remembered things that the others had forgotten. It felt really good for us to share our common experience. When I asked them if they missed this place, we all said ‘yes’. It was our only childhood home.

But the biggest reason is to find out what really happened there. Even though the place had been closed for 11 years, it is still filled with records and supplies. When I was seven, a kid named Duma was beaten so badly that I hid under the sheets, fearful that I might be next. In the morning, I saw Duma’s naked bruised body and by lunch he was dead. Last year I found his medical records. His official cause of death was “stopped breathing.”

There was another kid named Marian who was hyperactive and was often given medicine. His father visited him every weekend and I would jealously look out the window as they sat on a bench. In time, Marius stopped eating and lost the will to live. I remember looking out the window on the Sunday when he died in his Dad’s arms. His Dad was crying and praying to heaven.

In 1995, there was a media story that Romanian orphans were given rat poison. Three years ago, a nurse from institution confirmed that Marius and many other kids were given rat poison.

Many former orphans are returning to Romania for answers. For me, it is all about forgiveness and making sure Romania stops sweeping the child welfare issue under the carpet. Children’s rights and interests are still being ignored.

From left to right: historian Mia Jinga, Izidor Ruckel and the director of IICCMER, Radu Preda. Photo: Lucian Muntean

On June 1, 2017, the state-funded Investigation of Communist Crimes (ICCMER) submitted a criminal complaint to the Ministry of Justice for the deaths of 771 children in the Sighetu Marmatei, Cighid and Pastraveni orphanages between 1966 and 1990. Investigators say this is just the tip of the iceberg for a much wider investigation that is needed into Romania’s 26 orphanages.

ICCMER investigators and archivists say official records list pneumonia and brain disease as the main causes of deaths, but witnesses say the causes were exposure to the cold, poor hygiene, starvation, lack of healthcare, rat poison, and violent physical abuse.

Investigators say Communist records classified children into 3 categories: reversible, partially reversible and non- reversible. Children in the latter two categories were thrown into centers to die.

Radu Preda, director of ICCMER says “My plea as a father is to ensure that these things never happen again. Let us do something on the media level and at the institutional level in order to ensure that no child in this country who has a handicap, or illness, or has been abandoned will ever be slapped, starved, tied down or left to die in their own feces.

We need to acknowledge the utterly uncivilized society of our communist past and rid all traces of this sickness from our child protection system.”

TELL ME ABOUT THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION YOU ARE A PART OF?

I agreed to help bring attention to a criminal investigation led by the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes (ICCMER). This investigation focuses on the deaths of children in Sighet Marmatiei and two other institutions.

I asked the investigators if they were going after nurses and they said “No, only the people who dispensed medicine and managed the facilities.” Once I knew that, it was okay with me.

But I am less interested in putting people in jail than I am interested in getting financial resources from the State to support the 60,000 orphans of my generation that were never adopted. Most of them have no means to support themselves as adults and are homeless. My hope is that this investigation will lead to a much larger class action suit on behalf of these 60,000 citizens. There needs to be a cost for gross neglect or things will not change.

TELL ME ABOUT HOW THE ROMANIAN MEDIA COVERS CHILD ABUSE AND WELFARE

I could not believe all the Romanian media at the June 1st press conference announcing the criminal investigation. This was history! Romanians finally fighting for something that we failed to do all these years. I always challenge the Romanian media since all of the stories on orphans and child abuse come from international news organizations. Even today, all the footage of child neglect comes from international organizations.

For years people were embarrassed and scared about this issue. But now it seems young people are waking up to the fact that this is still going on.

IS THERE STILL ABUSE IN ROMANIA INSTITUTIONS

Yes there is. I do not know from firsthand experience, but I have heard so from people I know and trust. I am trying to get access to more institutions to help kids and social workers. I am not living in Romania to embarrass or destroy people. But the government officials in Parliament seem to have no clue what is really happening in their institutions.

DO YOU THINK ROMANIA SHOULD OPEN INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION?

I am fighting for international adoption for children with special needs or those that have no chance of being adopted in Romania. Most of the people in the government reject this idea on the basis that children will be damaged by losing their culture and identity if they get adopted outside of Romania.

That’s a horrible excuse. From the moment these children enter the institution they are stripped of everything. Their dignity, freedom and their brains become mush. Tell me, what culture are they losing by being adopted abroad?

The issue in Romania today is all about money and jobs for political patronage. The State pays institutions, residential homes and foster care a stipend for each child. If the State found adoptive families for 20,000 of the 60,000 children in State custody, they would lose 33% of their funding and the jobs they often give to family and friends.

In my generation, the government wanted to dispose of the children. Today, they want to profit from them.

WHAT BOTHERS YOU THE MOST ABOUT THE CHILDCARE SYSTEM TODAY?

I am actually impressed with how many good social workers want to change the system. I get lots of emails from social workers and was shocked to see how many social workers showed up at the Romania Without Orphans conference last November. It is a great joy to see all of the Romanian families that have adopted and want to adopt.

We all know that institutions are not the answer. But I am not in favor of just shutting down the institutions. Simply putting kids on the streets is even worse. At least institutions provide a bed, food, clothing and shelter. Our train stations are filled with homeless.

The biggest problem we have today is that the workers who worked in the institutions in the 1980’s through the mid-1990’s still work in the system. You can’t expect change by renovating buildings when you have the same people and same culture.

I visited 6 orphanages 2 years ago. Most of the kids saw my story on television and were comfortable talking to me. I asked each child, “Do you like living here?” They said “See that lady over there? She still beats us.” I asked “how long she has been working here?” They said “from day one, since this place opened.”

It is constantly the same response. And I thought “Wow, there is the problem.” These people need to be replaced.

I want to work with the system. I want to stay in Romania. I can see that people are really looking for answers. I am getting a powerful response when I speak to the new generation of Romanians. I believe the time is right to confront our past and create a system that works in the interests of children.

The massive decline in child population is the greatest threat to Romania’s future

AUTHOR’S CONCLUSION

I was moved by Izidor. He travels around Romania on filthy trains. He carries his suitcase without complaint, despite a partially paralyzed leg. He does not have much money and is not motivated by fame or public attention. What he has is a passion and purpose.

Romania in 2017 reminds me of growing up in Germany in the 1970’s. I remember talking to my German teenage friends about Nazism and the Holocaust. They had no answers, no ability to comprehend the horror, just a deep passion to fight any legacy of Nazism. I feel the same sentiment among young Romanians today as they feel deep anger towards any abuse or injustice towards children.

It is cliché to say that our future is in our children. But in Romania the numbers speak for themselves.

Every decision made in our homes, communities and government, needs to be made in the context of “Is this a good place to raise healthy children and are we doing our best to find every child a loving family?”

 Izidor is in desperate need of a new leg-brace for his polio damaged leg. Please see the link and share or donate if you can.
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Romania’s Institutions For Abandoned Children Cause Life-Long Damage

Romania’s Institutions Cause Untold Damage

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Romania’s institutions have a history of neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse which still continues to this day and causes emotional, physical, and mental scars.

Institutionalized care, according to Dr. Victor Groza, the Grace F. Brody Professor of Parent-Child Studies at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, causes problems with developmental, physical, psychological, social and brain health. Dr. Groza stated, “The regimentation and ritualization of institutional life do not provide children with the quality of life, or the experiences they need to be healthy, happy, fully functioning adults.” They are also unable to form strong and lasting relationships with adults, leading to severe problems with socialization, primarily building trust and lasting relationships amongst adults and children alike.
This article, kindly provided by Dr. Victor Groza, is an easy to follow guide to the risks inherent to children institutionalised at an early age. Dr. Groza has been developing social work education and promoting best practices in child welfare and domestic adoptions in Romania, since 1991.
Victor Groza; PhD,LISW-S Grace F. Brody Professor of Parent-Child Studies, Director; Child Welfare Fellows Program Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Sciences, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.http://msass.case.edu/faculty/vgroza/  – Faculty website for further reading.

https://www.facebook.com/adoptionpartners/?fref=ts  – Website about Professor Groza’s post-adoption practice.

57,581 Children Abandoned in Romania.

3,436 adoptable children recorded in Adoption Register at March-endBY 

A total of 3,436 adoptable children were registered in the National Register for Adoption, at the end of March 2016, of whom 3,069 (89.32 percent) benefited from special protection measures in family type services and 367 (10.68 percent) benefited of special protection measures in residential type services, according to the statistics published by the Ministry of Labor, Family, Social Protection and Elderly People.

Also on 31 March 2016 there were 57,581 children in the adoption system with special protection, out of which 20,156 children (35 percent) benefited from special protection measures in residential type services (16,224 children in public residential type services, 3,932 children in private residential type services) and a number of 37,425 children (65 percent) benefited from special protection measures in family type services (18,815 children were in fostercare, 14,158 children were in the care of relatives up to grade IV included and 4,452 children were in the care of other families or persons.

The representatives of the Labor Ministry signals that, starting 1 January 2005, public services of social assistance created inside the city councils are the main in charge with the growth, which on 31 March 2016 offered services for 42.83 percent of the children that benefit from this sort of services, the accredited private bodies provide services for 19.65 percent and 37.52 percent are beneficiaries of prevention services provided by the Directorate General for Social Assistance and Child Protection.

On 31 March 2016 there were 1,135 public residential type services and 342 residential type services of accredited private bodies. These services include: classic or modular orphanages, apartments, family type houses, maternal centers, emergency reception centers, other services (the service for the development of independent life, day and night shelter).

From the total of 1,477 residential services, a number of 352 (public residential type services and and private residential services) were designed for children with disabilities. The number of children that benefited from a special protection measure in these services provided for children with disabilities was, at the end of March, 6,586 children, recording a decrease of 705 children compared to the same period of 2015.

On 31 March 2016, the Directorates for Social Assistance and Child Protection in every county/sector of Bucharest, the “Child Protection” departments counted 32,655 employees, 31 people more towards the end of the first quarter of last year, and 51 people more versus 31 December 2015.

In the total of 32,655 employees, 4,439 (13.59 percent) were hired in the DGASPC’s own structures, 12,016 (36.80 percent) were fostercare professionals, 12,398 (37.97 percent) were employed in residential type services and 3,802 (11.64 percent) were hired in daytime care services.

The Promise I Kept; A True Story

Be Careful What You Read.

Long before I had put pen to paper to write ” The Promise I Kept”, I once recommended to a friend that he read several books of a metaphysical nature. Sadly, he was not open to the idea of having his narrow religious views challenged and told me to, ” Be careful what you read”. The Promise I Kept is not an overtly religious book, but I would like to suggest that you be careful if you are going to read it. It might change your life or the life of an orphan.

Cover of The Promise I Kept

Cover of The Promise I Kept

” The Promise I Kept” is a powerfully and vividly written story”,

said Tony Tingle, editor at Memoirs Publishing in the U.K.

 

Review by Colby Pearce, Principal Clinical Psychologist at Secure Start and author:

I recently finished, The Promise I Kept, Adele Rickerby’s memoir about the personal journey that led her to adopting a child from a Romanian orphanage in the aftermath of the downfall of the Ceausescu regime. It is a well-crafted story that is accessible to most readers and can be read cover to cover in two-three hours. People will take out of the story different things, depending on their own life journey and interests. I found the insight into the inner world of the mother and evocative descriptions of the characters and places she experienced along the way most satisfying. I am happy to recommend it to the many who are fascinated by personal memoirs and accounts concerning adoption.

1.
 A Burning Desire June 1, 2014
Adele Rickerby’s, The Promise I Kept, is a superb story of what the can be accomplished when one sets a goal and has the burning desire to carry one through the innumerable obstacles. Due to certain health issues, she is not able again to conceive another child. But her desire to be mother again does not die and she decides to pursue the adoption process.
Adele’s story of wanting to be mother again, despite all the immediate roadblocks that were presented to her in Australia, should had been enough to discouraged anybody from trying, but the burning desire inside her, carried her far away from the borders of this country to a land that just having been freed of a despotic ruler and was trying to find itself. Among all this chaos Adele is there, going through every and other hurdle that comes along in this journey, from mindless and corrupt bureaucracies, inhumane proposals, and much more, she is finally able to come back home with her new daughter.
This is just another great example of what the mind can conceive, it can achieve.Show Less
2.
 Good story! January 5, 2014
An interesting story about a courageous women who singlehandedly travel on the other side of the world and struggle through a bureaucratic maze to finally achieve her dream to adopt a child. A must read for anybody who contemplate adopting a child oversea!
3.
 You read this from cover to cover November 27, 2013

A very interesting wee read about a young woman on a mission to the eastern block, to adopt a child. If we cast our mind back to that era it was certainly was a troubled time both politically and socially in the ‘block’. Between being thrown off trains because of her New Zealand citizenship, and not able to speak the language, she faced and conquered many problems and challenges with patience and doggedness . The corrupt ‘officialdoms’ backstreets and dangers are compensated by the sheer generosity of strangers. All these faced by a smallish woman with the burning desire for another child, despite a failing marriage at home. A very compelling read.

Mark JohnstonShow Less

  1. A must read book for those of us who adopted from Romania, or anywhere. It’s about a mother’s perseverance and how she found conditions and the baby she adopted. It’s about hope and what happened in Romania post-Ceausescu. It is haunting and if you were in the same position, would you be brave enough to just go with your gut and do what is right for the sake of a child?

The State Of Orphanages In Eastern Europe and the Post-Institutionalised Child

This article talks about four key areas-  The Physical Effects on the post-institutionalised child

The Effect on socio-emotional intelligence.

The Effects on Linguistic Development

The Legacy of Institutionalisation on Mental Health.

The Effects of Institutionalization on Children

Introduction

Institutionalization of orphaned and unwanted children has been a long-standing Western tradition, and only in the last century has society begun to realize the damning ramifications of the practice on children. This form of care still remains common in a few former Soviet countries, tragically condemning children to a life of stunted development. This article, then, will tackle the effects of institutionalization of children in former Soviet countries in particular, starting first with the history of institutionalization practices the typical institutionalization experience is like in former Soviet orphanages, and then its profound effects on physical well-being, intelligence, and socio-emotional development.

The State of Orphanages in Eastern Europe

Historically, orphanages in Western cultures have followed the “medical model” approach to childcare—namely, that good caretaking consists of meeting a child’s basic physical needs, with little emphasis on caregiver affection and the attachment needs of children. Most developed Western countries moved away from this model in the 1950s, after the pioneering work of John Bowlby’s attachment theory and Harry Harlow’s work with monkeys showed that healthy attachment is essential for normal development. However, both institutionalization and the medical model approach remains prevalent in former Soviet countries, with several hundred Russian orphans still living in orphanages. Infants in these orphanages are fastidiously kept for, well-groomed and well-fed, but human interaction is minimal. Infant-to-staff range anywhere from 8:1 to 35:1, meaning that infants receive only a bare minimum of human interaction. Frequently, they are frequently left in cribs for a good majority of the day and only receive interaction with staff when their basic needs, like feeding and bathing, are met at predetermined times, and the rest of the time, they must lie in their own feces and urine. Staff members rarely hold or cuddle infants, and they routinely ignore crying, both due to policy and due to the sheer number of other children they must attend to. With so many children to manage, individual needs are ignored, prompting a report by Case Western Reserve University to call the orphanages “warehouses.”

The actual orphanage environment is no more stimulating. Groza, Ileana and Irwin described typical orphanages as “colorless, shockingly quiet and devoid of any of the usual visual or auditory stimulation,” and recalled one orphanage in which the 4-year-old children there had never once left the room assigned to them. Many orphanages lack proper schools and provide no educational or entertainment material for the children to peruse, meaning they must provide their own stimulation. Punished for being “hyperactive,” many children end up simply doing nothing at all. The sight of children staring blankly into space for lack of anything better to do is tragically common.

The Physical Effects of Institutionalization

The physical effects of such a deprived environment have been long noted. The noted nineteenth-century pediatrician Henry Dwight Chapin, for instance, discovered that there is a significantly higher infant mortality rate in institutions, even when infants were otherwise healthy, and this mortality rate was so high in 19th century orphanages that the term “hospitalism” was coined to describe the common plight of orphaned babies. At one Romanian orphanage, most children were below the 20th percentile for height and weight, rendering them more vulnerable to disease. Officials there estimated that mortality rates in the winter could be as high as 40%, and on any given year, about half of the children died within the first 24 months after arriving at the orphanage. Children who do manage to survive typically suffer stunted growth, generally at a rate of one month’s delay for every three months spent in an orphanage. Growth stunting for some children is so severe that they can be diagnosed with “psychological dwarfism,” a phenomenon in which emotional or abuse disrupts the secretion of growth hormones and stunts normal growth. It is not unheard of for such children to grow three to four inches in just a six-month time span after being adopted. While most health problems resolve within a year of adoption, children nonetheless remain smaller than their non-adopted peers throughout childhood. The longer the orphanage stay, the shorter the child tends to be for their age.

Complementing this physical stunting are motor skill development problems, like possessing low muscle tone and not demonstrating age-appropriate motor skills. One study found gross motor delays and fine motor delays in 70% and 82% of Russian children, respectively. Like the other physical effects mentioned above, these motor skill problems resolve themselves in more stimulating environments.

The Socio-Emotional Effects of Institutionalization

Of course, the effects of institutionalization do not limit themselves to merely physical development. Indeed, the greatest legacy that institutionalization leaves is on children’s socio-emotional development. Perhaps the most well-documented effect is on attachment. John Bowlby noted that all children need a stable, responsible caregiver to attach to; without one, a child is set up to have difficulty with relationships later in life. By definition of being institutionalized, however, children in orphanages do not have a caregiver to attach to, as staff members work on shifts, may switch jobs, and have other children to care for—there is no one dedicated long-term to an individual child.

Generally, children who are institutionalized after the age of two and have had quality care during their infancy are not terribly affected by this indifference, but children who enter institutions before the age of one tend to do quite poorly. These children realize early on that no one particularly cares about them. Infants in nurseries are eerily silent, a direct result of learning early on that their vocalized distress will never be rewarded with attention. They frequently fail to attach to anyone, and, unused to physical contact, are highly sensory and tactively defensive and recoil from human contact if it is given. Unlike normal children, they become even more upset when someone tries to console them and prefer to “cry it out” by themselves, as that is how they are accustomed to doing.

Infants who present ambivalent and avoidant attachment to caretakers often go on to present characteristic disordered attachment styles later in life. The most common relational style seen in institutions is known as “indiscriminative friendliness.” Starved for affection and used to an ever-changing rotation of caretakers, these children seek affection inappropriately from everyone and anyone, including complete strangers. However, other children completely give up on soliciting affection from unresponsive caregivers and cease to be social altogether, instead developing what is known as “institutional autism.” Although not actually autistic, these children develop stereotypically autistic behaviors, like rocking, head-banging, stereotyped behaviors, and bizarre rituals, seemingly as a way of providing some stimulation in their own, otherwise sensually barren lives. Unlike autistic children, they stop this sensory-seeking upon placement in a more enriched environment.

These disturbed attachment styles, unfortunately, frequently persist after adoption. A full third of adopted Romanian children demonstrated avoidant attachment to caregivers, and an even higher percentage had only ambivalent attachment. Often, the most indiscriminately friendly children violently unravel in a post-institutional environment and become aggressive and controlling, deregulated by the lack of structure and the constant showering of warmth and affection they were denied for so long. Many attachment disordered children do eventually recover, but a significant minority of cases is eventually diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder. The prognosis for reactive attachment disorder is generally fairly poor, especially for older children. After a certain critical point of development, it seems, children simply cannot develop the capacity for normal, warm human relationships.

Related to the problem of attachment is social skills development. According to John Bowlby, if children are institutionalized for too long, the child will lose the ability to interact with other humans in a normal way. In one study of Romanian children, it was reported that while most parents were concerned that their children were too withdrawn and avoidant within the first year after adoption, after a few years, children’s greatest social problems were externalized. Parents frequently complained of aggressive, manipulative behavior and difficulty getting along with peers. The longer children had lived in an orphanage, the greater parents reported their difficulties to be, and the worse the impairment in intelligence, the worse the child’s social skills tended to be. Another study on Romanian children found that an astounding 55% of preschool-aged children were unable to demonstrate developmentally appropriate social skills like meaningful eye contact. Some children are so profoundly deficient in social skills that they arguably lack any sort of conscience or feelings for others at all and instead present symptoms of sociopathy.

The Effects of Institutionalization on Intelligence

Yet another well-documented, deleterious socio-emotional effect of institutionalization is intellectual disability. By school-age, a majority of Russian children living in orphanages are diagnosed with “oligophrenia,” a vague descriptor in Russia for “general mental deficiency,” and a study of internationally adopted children showed that upwards to 50%-90% of preschool-aged children had developmental delays upon arriving in their new country. Many children had multiple delays, usually in motor and language skills. Similarly, in another study of Romanian children, every single child in the study was developmentally delayed upon arriving in Canada and frequently tested into the borderline mentally retarded range. The more time a child spends in an orphanage, the more profound the intellectual impairment; for every year that a child spends in an institution, his cognitive development will be delayed by about six months.

Some of this damage is observable at the biological level. Total brain volume is significantly negatively correlated with time spent in an institution. The hippocampus in particular shows markedly decreased volume, which research has demonstrated is due to overproduction of cortisol, a hormone released in stressful situations. Repeated release of cortisol in stressful situations, like that of neglect in orphanages, destroys the hippocampus, which is central in learning and memory. Damage is not limited to the hippocampus, however; FMRIs of formerly institutionalized children have revealed that the prefrontal cortex tends to be both immature and reduced in volume, which leads to problems with impulse control and decision making. Accordingly, then, children do particularly poorly on tests measuring visual memory and attention, learning visual information, and impulse control.

Fortunately, most children usually make rapid gains in intellectual development upon removal from the institution environment. However, the legacy of institutionalization often lingers, as the precipitous drop in intelligence institutionalized children experience is not entirely reversible even after being placed in an optimal adoptive family environment. Three years after adoption, children in one study had only very modest gains in intelligence, and most scored in the low average IQ range. The longer a given child lives in an institution, the worse his intelligence tends to be, especially if the child has lived there since infancy.

Linguistic Development in Institutionalized Children

With no one talking to them, it hardly comes as a surprise that linguistic development is severely retarded by institutionalization, too. Language delays, in fact, are the most commonly diagnosed problem in post-institutionalized children. Children learn from interacting, not from passively hearing others, but this is exactly the opposite of what institutionalized children doing. Glennen discovered in an observation of a Russian orphanage that when language was spoken in the presence of children, it was usually between caregivers, and on the seldom occasion a child was spoken to, it was typically in the form of simple commands. Most activities, like meals, were conducted in almost complete silence. Accordingly, with no opportunity for actual practice, about 60% of 2 1/2 institutionalized children in one study had no expressive language whatsoever, and at age 3 1/2, only an astounding 14% were capable of speaking two-word sentences. Nonverbal communication skills are often no better; children’s skills tend to be either minimal or negative in nature, like hitting. Deficient language development is one of the hardest effects of institutionalization to undo; after certain critical linguistic periods are missed, no amount of intervention will ever fully remediate a child’s language deficits. A child’s rate of acquisition, then, literally determines his capacity for language later in life.

The Legacy of Institutionalization on Mental Health

Finally, institutionalization leaves individuals with a significantly hiked risk of mental illness and disturbed behavior. So common is disordered development that a specific mental disorder has been suggested specifically for post-institutionalized children, known as Developmental Trauma Disorder. This disorder is hallmarked by what is known as “mixed maturity,” in which children demonstrate normal maturity in some areas, but act like a much younger child in other areas. Academic skills, depth and appropriateness of relationships, and social skills tend to be more representative of those of a younger child. Frequently, these symptoms will mimic those of ADHD and PTSD’s, with poor social skills and hyperactivity. The stress of repeated traumatic events, such as institutionalization, changes the make-up of the central nervous system in such a way that children are biologically conditioned for a heightened fear/stress response. Children are maladaptively hypervigilant as a result, and because they frequently misperceive totally innocuous events as threats, they present immature, aggressive, and socially inappropriate behavior. The inability to pay attention and the hyperactivity is directed related to the degree of neglect, and is unrelated to low birthweight, nutrition, or intellectual disability.

Unsurprisingly, the prospects for children who are not adopted from these institutions is often grim. Of the approximately 15,000 children who grow out of Russian orphanages every year, the Russian Interior Ministry University estimates only about 20% are successful post-institution—10% commit suicide, 30% end up in jail, and 40% end up homeless. The cycle of child institutionalization tends to repeat itself, with many orphanages reporting that they have children who are the third or even fourth generation to have been institutionalized.

Adoptees do better, but still struggle, as these problems follow them even after they leave the orphanage. In her landmark study on institutionalized Romanian children, for instance, Ames noted that children frequently try to apply maladaptive behavioral strategies learned while in the orphanage to their post-adoption lives. Many children, for instance, engage in behaviors like stealing, manipulating, fighting, and lying, because doing so earned them extra attention or food in orphanages. Similarly, as testament to their highly regimented, unstimulating lifestyle, children can be highly dependent on others telling them what to do, often for years after adoption. Many cannot determine for themselves when to stop eating, and one study recounts that some children will lie in bed quietly for hours until prompted to get up.

Although many of these behaviors disappear as children acclimate to a stable post-adoption life, many other behaviors persist. Even in the best of adoptive environments, adoptees suffer a rate of mental illness about 70% higher than the general population. Their difficulties are not necessarily due to poor genetics, either; adoptees from China and Korea, which eschew institutions in favor of foster care, experience mental illness at a rate three to seven times lower than adoptees from former Soviet countries, which use institutions. Indeed, 72% of parents in Ames’ study of Romanian children cited their biggest concern with their children not to be anything physical or intellectual, but socio-emotional. More than a third of the children in the study needed professional help for behavioral problems several years after adoption. Children who are older at the time of adoption, who experience abuse, and who have multiple changes in caregivers were more likely to have problems. The most common problems included conduct disorder, antisocial behavior, poor relationships, and affective disorders.

Clearly, as has been demonstrated, institutionalization has a profound impact on every aspect of a child’s functioning. The gross amount of neglect, both physical and emotional, causes severe damage that is not always possible to undo, and the longer the time spent in the institution, the worse the effects. The vast majority of children never get adopted, meaning they languish in stunted emotional, cognitive, physical and social development forever. While there is hope for those who do get adopted, the effects of institution more often than not leave a damning legacy.

References

Ames, E. (1997, Fall). Orphanage experience plays key role in adopted Romanian children’s development. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nacac.org/adoptalk/orphanageexperiences.html

Aslanian, S. (2006, September 16). Researchers still learning from Romania’s orphans. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6089477

Delaine, L. (2000, May 1). The plight of Russia’s orphans. Retrieved fromhttp://www.russianlife.com/blog/plight-orphans/

Federici R. (2007, July 18). The neuropsychology of bonding and attachment disorders. Retrieved from http://www.rainbowkids.com/expertarticledetails.aspx?id=57

Federici (2008). Raising the post-institutionalized child risks, challenges and innovative treatment. Retrieved from http://www.drfederici.com/raising_child.htm

Gindis, B. (2005, December 23). The second glance at institutional autism in internationally adopted children. Retrieved fromhttp://www.adoptionarticlesdirectory.com/Article/The-second-glance-at-institutional-autism-in-internationally-adopted-children/81

Gindis, B. (2011). Navigating uncharted waters: School psychologists working with internationally adopted post- institutionalized children. COMMUNIQUÉ, 27(1), Retrieved from http://www.bgcenter.com/communique-article.htm

Gindis, B. (2012, March 12). Internationally adopted child: Navigating between PTSD, ADHD, and DTD. Retrieved fromhttp://www.adoptionarticlesdirectory.com/Article/Internationally-Adopted-Child–Navigating-Between-PTSD–ADHD-and-DTD/184456

Groza, V. (1999, October). US policy promotes institutionalization of children in Romania. Retrieved fromhttp://msass.case.edu/faculty/vgroza/international/adoption/uspolicy.htm

Groza, V. (n.d.). Interview by A Martin [Web Based Recording]. Adverse impacts on children living in orphanage institutions. , Retrieved fromhttp://www.adoptvietnam.org/adoption/health-institutional-impacts.htm

Groza, V., Ileana, D., & Irwin, I. (n.d.). Dickens, Boys Town or purgatory: Are institutions a place to call home? Retrieved fromhttp://www.comeunity.com/adoption/institutionalism2.html

Meese, R. (2006, May 1). A few new children: Postinstitutionalized children of intercountry adoption. Retrieved fromhttp://www.adoptionarticlesdirectory.com/Article/A-Few-New-Children–Postinstitutionalized-children-of-Intercountry-Adoption/920

Nalven, L. (2004, October 1). The impact of early orphanage life on development. Retrieved from http://www.rainbowkids.com/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=218

Nalvin, L. (2004, October 1). The impact of early orphanage life on development. Retrieved from http://www.rainbowkids.com/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=218

Noble, K., Tottenham, N., & Casey, B. J. (2005). Neuroscience perspectives on disparities in school readiness and cognitive achievement. The Future of Children, 15(1), Retrieved from http://futureofchildren.org/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=38&articleid=117§ionid=768

Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund. (2011, November 14). Life in the orphanage. Retrieved from http://www.roofnet.org/orphanage_life

Sanghavi. (2010, April 25). Adopted boy’s return highlights problems in Russian orphanages. The Washington Post. Retrieved from www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=9&ved=0CHkQFjAI&url=http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/23/AR2010042302223.html&ei=c8DgT63RKabN0AHfndGCDg&usg=AFQjCNEXAcSC6PDnzbeVxF9ZrYSHAMHhcg&sig2=29QZV_ZKz-gaTEY4JTXn9w

Society for Research in Child Development (2010, February 5). Length of time in institutional care may influence children’s learning. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 27, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­

The New Zealander Who Went Through Hell To Adopt

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By Diana Mesesan.

The New Zealander who went through post-communism hell twenty-five years ago to adopt a Romanian baby.

Adele wrote in her memoir, ”The Promise I Kept”; You wake up one morning to the sound of history knocking loudly, impatiently, persistently at your door. To answer it is to take a leap of faith into your future.

 

Adele Rickerby went through the hell of early post-communism to adopt a girl from Romania.

As the plane was flying over Brisbane, an Australian city set on a wide, beautiful river, one of the mothers gathered at the playgroup pointed out to the plane and told her little daughter: “We came on a plane like this one when we returned from Romania.”

The woman was one of Australians who adopted a kid from Romania in the early 90s. Several people living in Brisbane, whose kids were born in Romania, started a playgroup, so that the children would get together regularly. They’ve never kept it a secret from them that they were adopted.

Adele Rickerby, a New Zealander who moved to Australia after she got married, would also bring her daughter to these playgroups. She felt like she had a special bond with the couples that went through the same experience. They were an extended family for each other. For Adele, adopting a child from Romania was not an event from the past that simply went forgotten as years went by. Instead she would think every single day about her six weeks in Bucharest in the early spring of 1991, as she was struggling to adopt a baby girl. After she semi-retired, due to a surgery on her back, she found the peace and time to sit at a table and write down her thoughts. This is how “The Promise I Kept”, her book on adopting a baby girl from Romania, was born.

Romania allowed international adoptions until 2001, when it placed a moratorium on the practice. It officially banned these adoptions four years later. But even domestic adoptions go through only with great difficulty. Last year, only 840 children were adopted in Romania, despite that fact that the country had over 58,100 children in the special protection system at the end of March this year. The big problem lies in the complicated laws which define when a child is “adoptable.”

Adele Rickerby herself had to overcome a number of limitations to adopt the baby, she tells me during our first Skype discussion. Her voice is very warm and a bit nervous. It is the end of summer here in Bucharest, but the beginning of spring in Australia. Her Romanian-born daughter, who is now in her 20s, helped her install Skype. Adele laughed about it. “I have a reputation for being bad with technology.”

When Adele came to Romania to adopt the baby, after she had seen the terrible images of Romanians kids in orphanages, it was late winter. Bucharest, which had just come out of the Communism era, was gray and felt unsafe. Many kids were sold illegally in those early days of freedom, and the rumours about a moratorium were everywhere. Adele was afraid that she would not be able to get through with the adoption. But spring was slowly making its way.

April 1991: The winter train ride between Budapest and Bucharest

In April 1991, Adele Rickerby took the plane from Australia to Frankfurt. She had a luggage full of documents, which were necessary for the adoption. Back in Brisbane, she left her 6-year old daughter, which she hugely missed, and her husband. Their marriage was kind of falling apart. She was planning to take the plane from Frankfurt to Romania, but when she arrived in Germany, there were no free seats for that weekend. Instead of waiting a few days for the next flight, she booked a train from Germany, which passed through Austria, Hungary and then reached Romania. She had this strong sense of urgency, that she needed to get faster to Bucharest.

Everything went well through Germany and Austria. However, soon after the border with Hungary, Hungarian soldiers got on the train and asked for her passport. Then they ordered her off the train and threw her luggage out of the window. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and she didn’t wasn’t sure where she was.

Adele had no choice but to get off the train, and the train left without her. “I was just standing there in the afternoon, not knowing what was going on.” She went to the wooden train station and waited. Then a man who spoke English and was well-dressed approached her and told her that he was the local taxi driver. He could help her get a visa for Hungary, then take her to the train station in Budapest so she’d catch the same train. “We will get to the border and we will get a visa for you. The same train leaves Hungary at nine o’clock at night. I will make sure you are there on time,” the man told her. She then paid 350 dollars to this stranger to drive her across Hungary. She had the feeling that the man and the soldiers which got her off the train knew each other and were part of a scheme. But what could she do about it?

“I got in the taxi. It was getting dark and we started to drive through the back streets of this village. Where are we going, I asked him. I need to get petrol, he replied, which was fair enough. I had no choice but to trust him.” She sat in the back of the car. The man started talking about his wife and family, while Adele was looking out of the window. The Hungarian villages and town they were driving through looked particularly disheartening in the dim winter light. After she finished her nursing training in Australia, Adele did a lot of travelling around the continent with her husband. “I was like, I’ve done a lot of travelling, I can cope, but nothing could prepare me for the shock of Hungary and Romania.”

It was just getting darker and colder, but they made it and arrived at the railway station at Budapest. They found an empty carriage, the man threw her suitcases and her sleeping bag, and then he left. Within 15 minutes the train left too.

She spent all night just travelling the rest of the way into Bucharest. It was very dark, and every time the train passed through a little town, officials would get on the train, come to her carriage, look at her passport, at her visa, then go through her luggage, searching for contraband.

“We’d go through villages that were very poor; a light bulb in this village, a soldier with a rifle just walking on the platform. It was still a lot of snow on the ground, the end of winter; a peasant man’s jacket made out of of sheep’s skin.”

At about 8 o’clock, when the train was getting closer to Bucharest and Adele was tidying up her belongings, taking her sleeping bag off, three well-dressed man came into her carriage. One of them was an engineer for the railway station and was on his way to a meeting. He could speak English and asked her was what she doing there. “I said I was adopting a baby girl.”

She remembers the main saying: “Our country is poor, but our hearts are rich.” Then the train finally arrived at the Gara de Nord railway station. It was early in the morning.

May 1991: The promise
The only person Adele knew in Bucharest was a Catholic woman called Mihaela, who had hosted other couples from the US, New Zealand and Australia willing to adopt babies from Romania. Adele knew that going through the whole process would take about six weeks. The law gave the adoptive mother the opportunity to change her mind within this period. She was planning to do the adoption as a New Zealander, because the Australian Department of Immigration had rejected her request to adopt from Romania.

She phoned Mihaela, who was in holiday, but luckily hadn’t left Bucharest, so she picked Adele up from the railway station. After so many hours of uncertainty and fear, Adele felt desperate for a shower, a hot meal and conversation with English-speaking people. She found another couple from Australia in Mihaela’s house. Adele wrote in a diary during her six-week stay in Bucharest, describing her experiences. It later became the source of her book “The Promise I Kept.”

In those speculative days after the fall of communism, Romania had several people who worked as intermediaries between foreigners wanting to adopt kids and state institutions. Some were willing to intermediate sales of children. With 20,000 dollars one could buy a baby on the black market. Some were decent people, who spoke English and grabbed the opportunity to make some money. The man who helped Adele get through all the process was a doctor, who was well-educated and spoke English. She paid him a small fee. But these go-between persons weren’t the only ones asking for cash. Sometimes even the birth mothers would demand money, even if they had given up their children. However, Adele didn’t go through that. The mother of the girl she adopted was a very young girl herself, living in a small apartment in Ramnicu Valcea, with her parents, a brother and a sister. They had no money and no way of supporting the newly-born kid. It was also the stigma attached to being a single mother. Poverty and the blame passed on to single mothers forced many women to abandon their children during communism and afterwards.

Adele met the mother and her family in their apartment, where they had a meal. It was very emotional for both parts. Adele thinks that maybe the grandparents were even more distressed about the whole thing, because they understood the enormity of it, while the mother was still very young. But the girl did tell Adele that she wanted her daughter to have a future, so Adele promised her she’d give her daughter a future. “And that’s the promise I kept,” she said. “25 years later, the daughter is very beautiful, has a wonderful partner. She is a pharmacy assistant, and she has a lovely family and home.”

Then she met her future daughter, who was in an orphanage. A nurse held the baby up to the window. “She was four-month old and she was really cute,” Adele said. The judge, who had the final word on the adoption, said yes, and Adele finally had the little girl in her arms.

The Mother
One year after returning to Australia, Adele divorced and had to raise her two daughters by herself. “I had whole sentences that I wanted to write down, but I was really busy and I didn’t have the opportunity.” But two years ago, she had to give up work, due to a surgery on her back. She rented a little unit and went away by herself for several months to write her book. It was really difficult revisiting the whole experience, she said. “It was one stage where I couldn’t finish it. And I had to leave it for about 6 weeks before I ended it.”

After she finished the book, Adele was approached during book launches by Romanian adoptees, who didn’t understand why they were left and abandoned.

Several Romanian kids who were given for adoption are now trying to find their families. There are even Facebook groups, where they share their experiences. The media has immediately picked up the topic, searching for emotional stories. But for some of the adoptees, this can be a traumatic experience. They discover all sorts of terrible situations and they are tormented by the question of why they were given up for adoption. “They are trying to pull their lives together but in the meantime they also feel this burden of responsibility towards their birth families,” Adele said. Her own daughter was once approached by a newspaper interested in her experience. But she said no. “I’m not gonna do that so that they’re gonna have a story.”

Adele lives with her Romanian-born daughter, so she still gets to hear “Mom, can you do my washing?” or “What’s for dinner tonight, mom?”. The girl works a lot, but she has Fridays off and they go out and have coffee together. Her older daughter now lives in another city, but not too far away.

Adele shares a very close bond with the other adoptive couples from Brisbane. They’ve organized trainings about adoption, they’ve set up this playgroups for kids, they’ve spent Christmas together over the years. Adele was once talking with a couple from England, who also lived in Brisbane. “When do you get over Romania?” they asked themselves. “But you can’t get over Romania. You can’t have an experience like that and not change your life. You can’t live superficially,” Adele said.

Adele has now been living in Australia for 30 years. She is not very close to her family in New Zealand. “My mother died when I was not even 13. I don’t think we were close when we were growing up. I like to say that mothers have a glue that bind us together and when my mother died, the family fell apart. I think that’s the truth,” Adele says. Then she pauses for a while, and adds: “Maybe that’s why it meant so much to me to adopt a child. I know what it’s like not to have a mother.”

 

” The Promise I Kept” is available as a kindle edition from your Amazon.com store.