Monday, April 6, 2009

Saving The Children

[Madonna's application to adopt a second child from Malawi has been turned down]

It was the rocking that disturbed us most. Until she was almost a teenager Anya rocked herself to sleep, just as she had always done in the orphanage. Anya was one of 150,000 victims of the Ceausescu regime. The Romanian dictator tried to spread communism by artificially increasing the population. He banned abortion and the use of contraceptives and gave financial incentives to anyone with more than four children. The compliant but impoverished population could not cope and dispatched their extra offspring to state-built orphanages. There the children received little education and no love; the healthy were prepared for Ceausescu’s special police; the remainder were left to rot.

These weren’t orphanages at all: most of the children had parents or close relatives who simply couldn’t provide for their huge families. When the dictator was overthrown in 1989, it left the country with a huge problem.

In 1990 I took our programme Challenge Anneka to Romania. I will never forget the sights and sounds of the “orphanage” we chose to help. Or the smell. An intense stench of faeces, urine and decay, which overpowered you at the door. Three stories high, with a dank rat-infested basement, this was home to 650 of Ceausescu’s children. About a dozen staff tried to care for them without resources or training. There were no toys, playrooms, lights or heating, no working toilets and just one shower room with cold water. The kitchen reeked of rotting food and damp.

Each room contained twenty tiny rusting cots, and in each cot lay two children. Some were just skeletal babies, lying in urine-soaked filthy grey bedding; others were much older. Most of the children were too weak to cry; the older ones just sat and rocked. Rats ran around freely. In ten days we transformed its facilities, but the children remained.

Anya’s orphanage wasn’t as bad as the one we converted for the programme. It had toilets and heating. There was a swing in the yard outside. But there was no disguising the rocking. All the children did it.

Our motive for adopting wasn’t altruistic. My wife had discovered we couldn’t have more children, but we still wanted a larger family. Too old to adopt in the UK, we tried Columbia, but found we didn’t qualify. Romania matched our desire for a child with a child’s desperate need for love.

Madonna will almost certainly win her appeal to adopt baby “Mercy” later this week. She probably has the necessary resources and influence to sway the appeals procedure. However I admire Malawi’s concern for protocol. For in Romania, as a result of our television programme and others about the situation, the floodgates opened and thousands of British and American families tried to adopt, not because they genuinely wanted more children, but because of sympathy for the children they’d seen on television. As a result greed and corruption created a commercial international adoption industry, and that is one reason why Malawi is keen to set hurdles even for someone as altruistic as Madonna.

Adoption is the last, not best solution; communities should be helped to look after and integrate their own. But in our case, in a country riddled with debt and corruption, it was the only way forward for Anya and for us. It was difficult: four years without education, comfort or hugs took their toll on her, emotionally and intellectually. But eventually she grew into a beautiful and confident young woman. She is now 21, and last week started her first paid job.

“Mercy” is lucky – she is young, and, assuming she finds a home quickly, the effects of the institution will be short-lived. It’s a shame her experience of family life will be through nannies and an itinerant lifestyle. The poor child really needs a family, not a rock entourage. But almost anything is better than life in an orphanage.


Expat mum said...

Great post indeed. I am not convinced that life with Madonna will be that great, but her children seem to be ok so far, and apparently Lourdes was ver upset. I am sure it's better than an orphanage as you say, but if her family have placed her there for financial reasons (lack of), couldn't Madonna just help them that way and take a child who really has no family?

Tom Gutteridge said...

I agree, that's the conundrum. So many "orphaned" children are not orphans at all, but victims of poverty. Apparently Madonna does a great deal for Malawian charities, but does that give her the right to break the rules? An interesting dilemma.