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Romanian Adoptions

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Romanian adoptions

After the repressive Ceausescu regime was overthrown in late 1989, the world became aware of thousands of children who were warehoused in Romanian orphanages. Experts estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 children lived in these baby homes or orphanages for the school-aged or in institutions for persons considered to be "irrecuperable" (unrecoverable). Most children experienced severe emotional and physical deprivation.

When Westerners saw television documentaries of the appalling conditions, many were eager to adopt and rushed to take action. Some flew to Romania without completed home studies, orphan visas or any documentation. However, thousands of adoptive parents from the United States, Canada and other countries ultimately succeeded in adopting children.

The simultaneous adoptions of so many Romanian orphans provided researchers with a unique opportunity to view the impact of adoption on primarily institutionalized babies and young children. Many of the children experienced developmental delays and emotional problems, while others successfully adapted to their new families.

Health of Adopted Romanian Children

Most of the children were in poor physical health and significant numbers were malnourished, had infectious diseases, and nutritional, growth and developmental issues.

In addition, behavioral problems such as temper tantrums, rocking, sleep disorder problems and indiscriminate friendliness occurred.

In 1998, Michael Rutter and the English and Romanian Adoptees Study Team reported on the progress of a sample of children adopted from Romanian orphanages. They reported on 111 children adopted before the age of two years by parents in England, comparing them to 52 children of similar age adopted within England. Upon entry into their new country, the children's physical health was poor. Says Rutter, "Severe malnutrition was the rule; chronic and recurrent respiratory infections were rife; chronic intestinal infections (including giardia) were common; and many of the children had skin disorders of one kind or another." The children were also found to be developmentally delayed, with a mean IQ of 63.

A small subset of the Romanian children had only been in the orphanage for several weeks. These children were very different from the long-term orphanage children. Their mean IQ score was nearly 97 and their weights and head circumferences were significantly better than those of the orphanage children.

Romanian Children at Age Four

Many of the children followed in Rutter's study made astounding progress in the first few years after adoption. For example, 51% were below the third percentile in weight when they entered their families. But at age four, only 2% were at this level. Catch-up growth in height was also dramatic.

Developmental and cognitive improvements were also noted and were most dramatic in children who were adopted from the orphanage before the age of six months. In fact, researchers found that, at age four, the Romanian children adopted before six months closely resembled the growth and developmental progress of the English children who were adopted in-country. Rutter said the researchers "found no measurable deficit in those who came to the U.K. before the age of 6 months. Not only were their cognitive levels well up to U.K. norms, they did not differ from those of the within-U.K. adoptees." Neither the length of time institutionalized nor the degree of malnutrition seemed to account for the better outcome in the young babies.

The mean I.Q. of the children improved from 63 to 107. Of the children who were adopted after the age of six months, the mean IQ doubled, increasing from 45 to 90.

Problems with Attachment

Not all the findings were positive. Some of the children continued to experience serious behavioral problems as well as difficulty attaching to their adoptive parents. A Canadian study compared three groups of children: Canadian-born children who had not been adopted; Romanian-born children whose median age at the time of adoption was 18.5 months; and Romanian-born children adopted before the age of four months (the "early-adopted"). Researchers found no significant differences between the Canadian children and the early adopted Romanian children in terms of attachment but did find more attachment problems among the later-adopted children. However, many of the later-adopted Romanian children had formed attachments to their parents.

Continuing Medical Problems

Chronic HEPATITIS B and D, long-term growth and nutritional problems, as well as speech and language delays, continue to be a problem for a significant number of children, and some continue to experience severe gastrointestinal problems.

Orphanages Are Bad for Children

Studies of the Romanian children as well as children adopted from other countries have revealed that the longer that children are institutionalized, the more damage may occur. Experts such as Nina Scribanu, M.D., have stated that for every three months in an orphanage, a child loses a month of development. Although the physical circumstances in Romanian orphanages have improved, psychological and developmental outcomes have not significantly changed for those children who have suffered a period of neglect.

Recommendations for the Future

Based on studies done in Canada and elsewhere, Jerri Ann Jenista, M.D., made the following recommendations in Adoption/Medical News:

  1. All institutionalized children should be considered to have special needs at the time of adoption.
  2. Efforts should be made to place children as young as possible to limit exposure to orphanage living.
  3. Parents should be thoroughly prepared for the special needs of orphanage children prior to actual adoption.
  4. Children should receive a thorough medical evaluation at the time of arrival into the adoptive home.
  5. All children coming from orphanages should receive remedial educational services, beginning as soon as possible.
  6. Agencies and adoption facilitators should be required to provide long-term post-placement support services.
  7. Research should continue to try to determine ways of improving orphanage settings to minimize the severe effects experienced by some children.

E.W. Ames, et al., The Development of Romanian Orphanage Children Adopted to Canada: Final Report, Romanian Adoption Project (Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada: Simon Fraser University, 1997).

Kim Chisholm, "A Three-year Follow-up of Attachment and Indiscriminate Friendliness in Children Adopted from Romanian Orphanages," Child Development 69, no. 4 (August 1998): 1092-1106.

Jerri Ann Jenista, M.D., "Romanian Review," Adoption/Medical News 3, no. 5 (May 1997).

Sharon Marcovitch, et al., "Romanian Adoption: Parent's Dreams, Nightmares, and Realities," Child Welfare 74, no. 5 (September-October 1994): 993-1017.

Michael Rutter and the English and Romanian Adoptees (ERA) Study Team, "Developmental Catch-up, and Deficit, Following Adoption after Severe Global Early Privation," Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 39, no. 4 (1998): 465-476.

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