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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 July, 2005, 16:55 GMT 17:55 UK
Romanian adoptees struggle to adapt
By Kate McGeown
BBC News

In the third of a series of articles on Romanian orphans, Kate McGeown finds out what happened to the lucky few who were adopted abroad.

Lex aged two (left) and aged 17 (right)
Lex feels completely English, although he was born in Romania
Alexandru Wolf is like any other British teenager, preparing for his exams and thinking about life after school.

Known to his friends as Lex, he spends his spare time listening to music and practising his break dancing skills.

Few people would believe that 10 years ago the only life he had ever known was inside a Romanian institution.

Lex was eight years old when he was adopted by Della Wolf, who had built a special bond with him during years of volunteering at an institution in Bucharest.

"Deep inside I always hoped I'd be able to go and live with her," he said.

In 1995 Lex boarded a flight to the UK - and has never been back.

"I was so happy when I left. It was sad to leave my friends, but I knew I had something much better to look forward to," he said.

Once in the UK, he took some time fitting in - he was bullied at first in a school in Brixton - but now he has completely settled into British life.

"I don't feel Romanian any more. I feel English," he said.

Emotional damage

Like Della Wolf, many other Westerners adopted Romanian children in the 1990s - often motivated by television scenes of malnourished babies staring listlessly from cots in the years after Ceausescu's overthrow.

But sadly, not all adopted children have fitted in as well as Lex, and many continue to suffer emotional and behavioural problems.

One British woman, who did not want to be identified, said that looking after her two adopted Romanian children was much more difficult than she had anticipated.

The elder child was 10 when she came to the UK, and "it was like having a 10-year-old one-year-old," she said. "She had no knowledge of how to wash or eat, and she'd run in front of cars all the time."

"Many of these children also have problems forming attachments. I've heard of people whose adopted children just walked out of the house as soon as they turned 18, and have never been in touch again," she said.

Professor Michael Rutter, from London's Institute of Psychiatry, has been tracking the progress of Romanian children adopted in the UK.

Professor Sir Michael Rutter
Contrary to popular opinion at the time, we found there were definite long-term effects from being in an institution
Professor Michael Rutter

When they first arrived in the country as babies, more than half the 165 children he studied showed severe delays in development compared with their British counterparts.

But he found that, even at the age of 11, many of these children had not caught up.

"Contrary to popular opinion at the time, we found there were definite long-term effects from being in an institution," Prof Rutter said - effects which were more pronounced the longer the child had spent in institutionalised care.

According to Thais Tepper, co-founder of the US-based Parents' Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child (PNPIC), the problem is an international one.

In the US, the PNPIC estimates that 30% of children adopted from Romania have severe problems - some of whom, ironically, are now ending up within the American institution system.

Moratorium row

However well these adopted children have fitted into their new homeland, few others are getting the chance to even try.

Romania introduced a moratorium on adoptions in 2001 - spurred on by Baroness Emma Nicholson, who until recently was the European Parliament's rapporteur on Romania.

Describing the adoption system as corrupt, she recommended that the EU suspend negotiations on Romania's entry - currently scheduled for January 2007 - until the government did something to tackle the situation.

Adoptions were banned completely in 2004, leaving many pro-adoption groups - particularly in the US - angry and frustrated.

"They should make Baroness Nicholson live in an orphanage for a year," said Thais Tepper. "Then she can tell me whether she thinks it's a wonderful idea to stop inter-country adoptions."

Children in a Romanian orphanage (circa 1990)
Many adopted children are still affected by their early experiences

"It's great if the children can find loving homes in Romania, but in reality a lot of them are gypsies, and few ordinary Romanians are willing to adopt gypsy children," she said.

Stephan Darabus, Romanian director of the charity Hope and Homes for Children, has a different view.

He believes the country's state childcare system only started to show noticeable improvements when the moratorium was imposed.

Until then, he said, officials had too many incentives to make money from foreigners to bother improving the conditions of children still in Romania.

He said that many of the adoption agencies around at that time were really just businesses, doing little more than selling children to the highest bidder.

"I knew of one case where an agency took three children from one family home - they weren't even in state care - and sent two to Spain and one to Italy. There was no follow-up, no regard for the fact they were siblings, nothing."

Mr Darabus is right that Romanian childcare has finally begun improving, and the large communist institutions have now almost disappeared.

But the legacy of these institutions continues to affect many of the children who grew up there - even those who have now spent most of their lives in loving homes abroad.

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