Adapting To New Life Difficult For Romanian Orphans

March 24, 1997

Shocking images of children living in decrepit Romanian orphanages prompted a wave of adoptions in the early 1990s. A five-year Simon Fraser University study of 46 children who once lived in those horrific conditions and now reside with adoptive parents in B.C. shows some families are having difficulty coping.

One-third of the Romanian orphans have developmental, social and behavioral problems and their adoptive parents are in need of professional help to deal with them, according to SFU psychology professor Elinor Ames, who led a team of student researchers in a comparative study of how the Romanian orphans have been faring since their arrival in 1990-91.

The researchers found another third have only a few problems, while the remaining third are doing well.

Those who are worse off stayed in orphanages longer, were adopted by parents who have less socio-economic status and minimal access to resources, were adopted into families who took more than one orphan at the same time, or have younger mothers (with less 'life experience').

"In some cases, the parents were just overwhelmed," says Ames, who now spends much of her time speaking to adoption groups. "Their hearts went out to these children, but they've taken on more than their resources allow them to handle."

According to Canadian standards, all 46 children were developmentally delayed when they arrived. "Many of these children spent their early months or years lying quietly in cribs for 18 - 20 hours a day with nothing to look at or hear," says Ames, who went to Romania as part of a fact-finding group to see first-hand the conditions of the orphanages. "Most didn't have enough to eat or drink."

Many orphans initially refused solid foods or didn't know when to stop eating. They made stereotypical movements, like rocking back and forth or staring at their hands. Ames says such actions didn't indicate brain damage or emotionally-produced pathology, but rather were adaptations to the conditions of the orphanages.

Almost all of the orphans are 'indiscriminately friendly' with strangers, which can pose other problems, especially if it extends to being willing to go with a stranger. "Having to compete for attention in orphanages taught them to appreciate any adult who will pay attention to them," she says.

Because the orphans are developmentally behind, some have social problems, Ames notes. Some children, at age four-and-a-half, still exhibit signs of the 'terrible twos.' "While parents are trying to teach them all the things they don't know, they also have to learn to get along with other kids," she says. "Playing with peers is probably the most complicated thing most children do. Adults will make allowances, but if other children don't know what to make of you because you behave differently, they don't play with you. So you don't learn social skills.

"Parents were mainly concerned about medical problems in the beginning," says Ames. "When we went back a second time, 72 per cent of parents said their biggest difficulties were social or behavior problems."

Researchers tracked down nearly all of the Romanian orphans adopted in B.C. for the study, which looked at how they were adapting about a year after they arrived, then followed up two years later, when researchers videotaped mothers and children together at home, interviewed mothers and gave intelligence and school readiness tests to the children.

Researchers compared three groups of a total of 120 children -- Romanian orphans who spent at least eight months in an orphanage (and who were between four and nine-years-old at the time of the second testing); Canadian-born children, matched to the same age, sex and family make-up; and children who were adopted from Romania before the age of four months, who would have gone into orphanages.

Ames says the two-thirds of children who are doing well will probably keep making good progress, but adds: "I'm worried about the other third. How they do will depend on their parents' ability to seek and accept help for themselves and their children."

The research findings are critical, given a boom in international adoptions, as more North American mothers are keeping their babies, notes Ames. Among researchers' recommendations is a call for adoption agencies and officials to provide better preparation programs for parents of internation- ally adopted children, and continued support afterwards. They also urge that all adoptions from orphanages be considered as Ospecial needs' adoptions.

Priority should be given to the adoption of younger children to lessen the negative impact of orphanage life, they urge. Researchers also recommend that all adopted orphanage children be given thorough medical checkups and be put into infant development programs as soon as possible. --30--

CONTACT: Elinor Ames, (604) 291-3362
Marianne Meadahl, media/public relations, 291-4323

Simon Fraser University

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