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The children who couldn't love

Some families who adopted severely neglected Romanian infants two decades ago have found it a wounding and even hearbreaking experience.

The dream was irresistible. Love would heal all. "We went in so naive. I thought we would be bringing back these two kids and we would play happy families. We thought they were just going to slot in. It just hasn't happened."

Clare Evans* is one of hundreds of New Zealanders who, almost 20 years ago, were so moved by the plight of staring, mute, malnourished children in Romanian orphanages that they flew across the world on a rescue mission. In all, some 160 children were adopted by New Zealanders, some from orphanages and some from Romanian families.

Now, as the youngest of the adopted Romanian children reach 18, some of those parents are saying the journey since has brought heartache and pain. Although many children have settled well, parents say many others have gone off the rails in their teenage years, with problems ranging from promiscuity, arson and dropping out of school, to car theft, depression, self-harm, violence and suicide.

One Melbourne-based specialist counsellor has worked with 40 New Zealand families experiencing problems with their Romanian- and Russian-born children.

In a few homes, parents have resorted to locking their bedroom doors to keep possessions safe from theft and to -provide -

a refuge. In at least one family, with -Romanian children, the parents have taken out protection orders against them.

Evans says she formed a normal, loving relationship with one of her adopted girls, but the other is emotionally damaged, and will not let her in. "I will never trust her. There is no eye contact, no emotion, no empathy. I just don't believe anything she says."

Mental health professionals who have worked with some of the Romanian children say profound neglect at infancy has left some with attachment disorders - a condition that makes children aggressive, untrusting and unable to return the love of their new parents. Children who lack a close bond with a mother or other caregiver in infancy miss out on a fundamental building block in the development of the brain. Without it, they fail to learn to empathise and understand others' feelings. As they grow up, these children can experience emotional and social problems ranging from anxiety and anger to destructiveness and cruelty; they also have a tendency to lie and steal.

In some of Romania's wretched orphanages, babies and children were so neglected they had learned not to cry, because no one would answer their needs. The Kiwis who went there saw children who had been left lying in their cots all day.

Attachment-related trauma can affect any neglected or abused child, or one with repeated changes of caregiver - not just those in orphanages. Overseas studies show perhaps half of all adult prisoners have some form of psychiatric problem caused, at least partly, by attachment breaks in childhood. But some children prove remarkably resilient despite early mistreatment. A nurturing environment can bring major improvements, according to a Mental Health Foundation fact sheet on attachment disorders.

Jonquil and Bryan Graham, kiwifruit farmers near Takaka, were among the first in the flood of Kiwis who went to Romania for six months in 1990-91 to bring back children. Television images after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had shown a poverty-stricken nation overflowing with unwanted children. Ceausescu's policies had banned contraception, imposed extra taxes on the childless and required childless women to attend infertility clinics.

Now, Jonquil Graham fields phone calls from around the country and sometimes overseas from distraught parents at their wits' end, unable to cope with their adopted children.

She says the hardest thing is dealing with the harsh judgments of neighbours or friends who assume children are going off the rails because of poor parenting.

The first wave of problems began with children from Romanian backgrounds. Now, problems are also emerging among some of the Russian adoptees who came later. Graham says the problems are not just simple teenage rebelliousness, although difficulties typically emerge in force during the teenage years. A few had been taken into care for the protection of their parents. "We all thought the children would be pretty much okay. Some children have been; there have been some wonderful success cases. But there have been some children who have just been too damaged from birth."

The Grahams have nine adopted children, including three Romanian girls and two Russians. The couple have proved to have deep reservoirs of unconditional love and warmth that other parents can only marvel at.

Their 19-year-old Romanian twins, Natasha and Joanna, featured recently on TV3's 60 Minutes, have left home and live on their wits in Nelson. They mix with criminals and spend the odd night sleeping rough under a bridge or at a night shelter. The Grahams have a padlock on their bedroom door, but the girls are welcome home any time. Bryan puts on headphones if they become too abusive.

"Our bedroom is under lock because they will just come in and take things. Jo might see my CD player and just lift it," says Jonquil. "I tell people to enjoy the children. I know they're going to be hard, but as long as you're there as a solid old, boring rock, they'll come back."

Melbourne-based therapist Debra Tatum has run workshops and did individual counselling in New Zealand in 2004-05 for families grappling with attachment-related issues. "When a child has gone through trauma of any kind in the zero-to-three age range, the child loses the ability to trust adults. Mum will be doing her level best to provide nurturing and care. And the baby on a daily basis is rejecting that care," says Tatum. "The result can be almost catastrophic, with a lot of extreme antisocial defiance and opposition. They are running away, they are experimenting with sex and with drugs, and they are involved with anti-social and self-destructive behaviour. I have seen people's lives almost ruined by it. It's not because they decided to adopt a child, it's because they did not have the information they needed. Parents suddenly find themselves with a child who won't accept love."

Hazel van Dam counts herself as one of the lucky ones. She says her daughter Elise, 18, "is a beautiful, wonderful person" with whom she has a particularly close bond. Van Dam already had children when she learnt of the situation in Romania, but felt she had room for one more. Elise came from an impoverished Romanian family, not an orphanage. The 19th child in the family, she was malnourished but seemed otherwise normal.

"At least she was with people, so she hadn't been left abandoned in a cot. She's really sweet. She says, 'When you get old, I will never put you in a home.'"

However, Elise has "had her moments", leaving school and later giving birth to a baby who has since been put up for adoption. Elise says she mixed with the wrong kids at school, but is now settled. "I feel very close to Mum."

Patricia Goodwin*, though, is shattered by the experience of raising her Romanian children, now in their late teens and early 20s. "We never expected them to be grateful, we just wanted them to grow up healthy and functional. I know when their mothers signed the papers, they did it because they wanted them to have a better life, and opportunities they could not have in Romania. But they are not making the best of their opportunities. If they wanted a life on the streets, they could have had that in Bucharest."

She is torn between the desire to get a protection order against her children and concern that they are not mature enough to fend for themselves. "As time went on, I realised they didn't trust me as a mother. They were waiting for me to abandon them as their first mother had. There was never that special bond to you as a mother, because they can't trust you.

"Every day they try to make life such hell for you that you will give them up and then that pain of waiting for you to abandon them will be over. That seems to be the psychology inside their heads," says Goodwin, who says she is taunted and abused on a daily basis and does not feel safe around her children.

"I have called the police on a number of occasions. Looking around the dozen families I know with Romanian children, they are all wonderful people, all from different backgrounds and with different styles of parenting. But the common thread has been the way the children behaved as they came through adolescence. They have a lot of anger towards their adoptive mothers," she says.

Clare Evans' daughter now lives with her, and has a baby of her own. Evans says although she will always be there for her daughter, there is no trust in the relationship. "She has improved out of sight since having her daughter and has settled down a huge amount, but the trust isn't there, it disappeared a long time ago, and I don't know if it will ever come back. She's got a real chip on her shoulder."

Evans believes her daughter was damaged by the situation in her Romanian home. Her father was violent, a drug addict and an alcoholic and had been in jail. When the two-year-old was adopted, she had septicaemia (blood poisoning), and Evans believes she would have died had she not been adopted. "I did overhear her saying to a friend that 'Mum saved my life'. I have clung onto that."

Evans says the lack of a biological bond with both girls has been a bigger problem than she expected. "It's almost like I have these two people I have raised, but I don't know them. I find I'm like a stranger. They are lost. I think there's a sense of not belonging anywhere."

Critics of inter-country adoptions warned at the time that the Romanian adoptions would be fraught with difficulty, and would in many cases not be in the children's best interests. Evans now suspects the critics were right. "They had a point. If I could go back, I wouldn't do it. They are best to be raised where they are, even if their conditions are not good, and to be raised by their extended family."

Mary Iwanek, the head of adoption for Child, Youth and Family between 1992 and 2005, was an inter-country adoption critic who became a hate figure for some supporters of the Romanian adoption cause. But some of what she predicted then has now come about. In a 1990 Dominion article, she warned of bonding difficulties, persistent lying and stealing and educational difficulties ahead for children from deprived backgrounds.

Iwanek, now an international consultant on adoption issues, says the adoption of Romanian children was the product of particularly intense, emotional and fast-moving events that left officials flat-footed. Parents were not properly assessed here and little was known about the background of the children they were taking on or their individual needs.

Now, in inter-country adoptions, there is an attempt to match prospective parents with children and their needs. Adoptions into New Zealand are governed by the Hague Convention, which stipulates inter-country adoption is an option only for children who cannot be placed in their own countries. "It provides checks and balances. It could still be an appropriate process for a particular child. But it doesn't avoid the difficulties in behaviour for those children who have a background in bad care," says Iwanek, who believes the children with attachment disorders should receive special education services.

Judith Morris, a social worker psychotherapist based in Auckland who specialises in children with attachment difficulties, says the condition is poorly recognised in New Zealand, even by professionals. She is seeing an increasing number of Russian children with the problem, working with 15 children at any one time for three to four years of intensive therapy. Some of those with severe difficulties are now ending up in CYF care. One Russian child with attachment disorder had her adoption break down at 10, and was brought to Morris when her second foster placement was about to break down at 15.

"The model in social work in this country is very much if you love them and look after them, everything will come right. That just doesn't work with children with these problems."

Jonquil Graham urges parents to keep loving, despite the profound rejection they feel. "There are some parents who have been unable to cope. But that's not a good enough reason not to adopt. Some of these kids could have been dead."