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Salvaging the unsalvageables

International | INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION | Ten years ago it seemed that Romanian adoption was a feel-good tale about abandoned kids whose stories could now end, "And they lived happily ever after." The reality has been different: Some adoptions went smoothly and the children's lives are much better. Others suffered complications. And many were left behind

Issue: "Tyranny of the minority," June 7, 2003

That Izidor Ruckel survived past infancy at all is a miracle. At 6 weeks he was one of 41 children infected with polio when given injections at a Romanian hospital. Only two survived, and he was one of them.

But that injection would seal the course of Izidor's life. When his parents noticed something wrong with his leg, they took him to a hospital in Sighetu Marmatiei, eight hours away. They never went back for him. When Izidor turned 3, the hospital transferred him to the town's Institute for Unsalvageables-for kids with supposedly irreparable mental or physical handicaps. His childhood was like the script for Oliver, complete with broomstick beatings, milk-soaked bread for breakfast, and drafty rooms. "Every day for nine years, we would wake up and walk into the bathroom for a bath-completely naked, even in the winter," said Mr. Ruckel.

After Romanians revolted and executed dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu in 1989, the international news media beamed across the world horrific images of the former Soviet bloc country's 100,000 institutionalized children. Like thousands of American families, Danny and Marlys Ruckel were moved to action by the images. They adopted Izidor 11 years ago and became part of a trend: In 1991 almost 2,600 Romanian children found new homes in America. Over the next 12 years, American families adopted more than 7,800 Romanians. How those transitions began was the subject of a WORLD story 10 years ago, which featured other children at Sighetu Marmatiei. Checking in on their progress a decade later, WORLD found both good news and bad.

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After the Ruckels brought Izidor to America, he grew from a shorn-headed polio victim with emaciated legs to a medal-winning swimmer in the California State Games. Now 22, Mr. Ruckel is a budding crusader, holding down two jobs while he gives speeches on Romanian institutional life and tries to sell his autobiography, Abandoned for Life, to raise money for the abandoned children he left behind.

Forty children are left in the Sighetu Marmatiei institution, which is on track to close down in August. The children who came to America will have a reunion in Virginia this month.

But not all Sighetu Marmatiei adoptions turned out so well. Joseph and Linda Sawanowich sponsored two girls for adoption 11 years ago-only to discover later they couldn't adopt them because neither was an orphan. The girls, Janina and Ana, returned to Romanian families who had hunted for the girls for years before learning they had gone to America.

WORLD profiled the Sawanowiches 10 years ago when they were among the first American families to take in "unsalvageables." Struck by the children's squalid plight, the Sawanowiches, who are childless, wanted to open their home to them. They worked through Orphan Aid, a Chalcedon Foundation agency headed by Emmy-award winning filmmaker John Upton.

Janina and Ana, along with Izidor, were part of the group of 39 children Mr. Upton rescued from Sighetu Marmatiei. That's where the WORLD story left off. Now the Sawanowiches say Mr. Upton did not procure all the correct information and legal documentation for the girls before flying them to America. Instead of immigrant visas, he obtained temporary visitors' visas for the girls to enter the United States. That meant the Sawanowiches ran into roadblocks when they began the adoption process, and found out about the girls' true legal status only gradually.

Six months after the girls moved into their Hampton, Va., home, a pleading letter from Janina's mother followed them, asking why the teenager had left. Ana's family braved a 16-hour train ride to Bucharest to petition government officials to find the girl, whom newspapers listed as a missing person. When the Sawanowiches began Ana's adoption, they collided with a wall of Romanian uncooperativeness: Authorities refused to process anything with a child who had not been placed on the country's national adoption list. Under Romanian law, children qualified for the list only if they received no visits from parents or guardians for six months.

"I wasn't comfortable with adopting when Romania didn't want to cooperate," said Mrs. Sawanowich. "We felt very bad that we were a part of something not laid out on the table." Three years later, in 1996, Janina returned to her hometown of Baia Mare on her 22nd birthday-reunited with a mother who described her daughter as her "sunshine." Ana was reunited with her family five years later.

Mr. Upton told WORLD he was unaware that the Sawanowiches could not adopt Janina and Ana. He refused to comment on his role in bringing the girls to the United States. "The Sawanowiches are great people and they did a great thing, and God bless them," was his only response to questions about following Romanian legal procedures. Mr. Sawanowich and other adoptive parents think Mr. Upton probably went in with good intentions -but has left such a gnarled trail of damaged relations with Romanian officials that only the affected American families can sort it out.

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