The orphans' Christmas saviour
Daily Express - 23 December 2006
by Nick Fagge in Romania and Rachel Porter in Londo
SARAH WADE looks like any other young single mum trying to keep up with her six-year-old tearaway. She's exhausted but full of love. She may not be able to afford many presents this year – he won't find the latest gadgets neatly wrapped beneath the tree – but Sarah knows she has already given him a truly life-changing gift.
This Christmas is the first she and Dylan will share as mother and son. Ever since she found him, when he was just a year old, abandoned in a filthy cot in a gloomy Romanian children's home, she has cared for him as if he was her own flesh and blood. Yet it has taken a heart-rending six-year battle with the authorities for Sarah to win the right to adopt him and provide him with a home for life. In the end, there was only one way to do it: she had to become Romanian.
"There was no way I was going to let him go. I am his mother now," says Sarah, from Luton, Bedfordshire.
"I came here for six months, six years ago, and now it is my home. I'm getting Romanian residency, which will mean I will be able to officially become Dylan's mum." It seems extraordinary that, while most people of her age are living a comfortable and carefree existence, Sarah has chosen this life for herself. But Sarah, 25, is clearly an extraordinary woman whose warmth and capacity for caring seem to know no bounds.
She arrived in Romania as a 19-year-old gap year student who wanted to help children stranded in the nightmarish conditions of the country's notorious orphanages before heading off to university.
Sarah says she had been haunted since the early Nineties when the first images emerged on TV of toddlers tied to the bars of their urine-soaked cots and left without ever knowing love or affection.
"I went to the hospitals and did whatever I could. I washed the children, fed them, played with them, whatever was necessary, " she says.
But the moment she set eyes on one little boy in a hospital ward packed with unwanted gypsy – or Roma – babies in the north-western city of Oradea, her plans and her life changed completely.
Dylan, one of the 10,000 babies abandoned by their parents each year in Romania, was dirty, underweight and undernourished.
"The first time I met Dylan he was covered in sick. He had pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, severe anaemia and was terribly underweight, " she remembers. "He was also born with hypoxia – a type of brain damage – and autism.
"He was more than a year old but he was the size of a three or fourmonth-old baby. He couldn't hold his head up, never mind sit or crawl.
"He wouldn't smile – he just lay in his cot and whenever I tried to pick him up he would scream.
"To cap it all, the doctor at the orphanage told me he didn't think Dylan would ever be able to walk as his feet were bent from being dressed in clothes that were too small." He had been dumped there by his alcoholic mother just hours after being born. Without access to contraception her pregnancy had been an accident and, with four other children already, she had no means to care for him. As hard as it is to believe, every day 20 newborns are left by their mothers at maternity hospitals across Romania.
"It is a really big problem, " says Sarah, who has now set up a charity, Romanian Relief, to tackle the issue.
"It is very common for Roma women to abandon their babies at a maternity hospital. They are often very poor and believe the child will have a better chance if they are brought up in a children's home. They simply do not understand the harm they are doing to their children by leaving them neglected from birth." Romania's abandoned babies are almost always from gypsy families.
On the rare occasion that a Romanian baby is abandoned, it is only a matter of days before a loving home is found. But gypsy children are shunned by Romanian families and left to a life of unimaginable misery in a children's home. At best they are cramped and under-resourced, at worst they are cruel, cold and dirty.
Unable to forget Dylan's face, Sarah couldn't bear to leave him. She then decided, against the advice of family and friends, to become Dylan's foster mother.
"Dylan had so many problems, " she says. "I remember at the time thinking it might be better for me to pick up and hold another child, as there were so many children who were desperate to be loved.
"The other children would laugh when you scooped them up and played with them. I'm not sure why but I didn't change my mind.
"From the second Dylan left the institution where he had spent most of his short, miserable life, he didn't cry. In fact, he didn't cry for months.
He just sat quietly with his little hands clasped together." Sarah thought it would be a shortterm arrangement. She was just a teenager and nowhere near ready for the responsibilities of motherhood.
But, just as her worried parents back home predicted, her bond with Dylan grew strong. Soon her life centred around each new milestone in his life.
Sarah concedes that looking after Dylan, whose real name is Josef, has not been easy. "Dylan used to have terrible tantrums when he would throw himself on the floor, scream and shout and bang his head. Now he has some behavioural problems and can harm himself and be aggressive.
He needs special care. But I balance that with the progress he has made." One of the biggest moments came when, six months after Sarah took him home, he took his first steps.
"I'll never forget it, " she smiles. "It was October 24, 2002, and we were in a cafe in the town centre. Dylan was sitting on my lap and I put him down for a second. He started toddling across the floor. Half of me wanted to shout with joy and the other half to sigh with relief. Now he runs around like any other little boy." In 2003, after she decided to adopt him, she was devastated to be told she must give him back. Foreigners cannot adopt Romanian children, she was told. The government in Bucharest had started a clampdown, which is now threatening to deprive hundreds of children like Dylan from their only chance of happiness with the foreign families who have fallen in love with them.
AT ITS height in 2000 the nation's foreign adoptions programme provided more than 3,000 new homes a year for unwanted children, mostly Roma gypsies. An estimated 300,000 orphans were adopted by foreign families, including 1,200 from Britain.
But following pressure from the EU, fears of child trafficking and concerns over the negative impact the process was having on Romania's international image, bureaucrats in Bucharest halted all foreign adoptions – including an estimated 1,100 cases that were in the final stages.
So with one swipe of a bureaucrat's pen more than a thousand children lost all hope of starting a new life with the family they had got to know and was happy to provide them with a stable and loving home.
Instead, they face being forced back with the families that abandoned them or growing up in one of Romania's hundreds of children's homes. The unnecessary hardship borne by these and Romania's 75,000 other orphans has led to high level demands from MEPs in Brussels, including Britain's Charles Tannock, that Bucharest overturn the foreign adoption ban immediately.
Dr Tannock told the Daily Express:
"The Romanian government should seriously consider the heartless position it is maintaining. Surely a loving, caring European or American family is preferable to this." Those who were lucky enough to be adopted before the change in the law would certainly agree.
In a heart-rending address to the European Parliament last month, 19 year-old Patreascu Peberdy, who was rescued by John and Beverly Peberdy from Milton Keynes, told how he was left unable to walk, talk or hear properly after being tied up in a filthy cot for the first three years of his life.
Patreascu said: "It is shocking to think there are thousands of children still within the Romanian childcare system who have not been rescued."
BUT when challenged by the Daily Express, the Romanian government has fiercely denied acting against the interests of abandoned children with this new legislation which, in a country historically hostile to its gypsy population, crushes any hope of happiness for Roma orphans.
Tatiana Popa, of the Department for Adoptions, says: "Romanians are not racist. You cannot say that Romanians do not want to adopt Roma children. We simply feel it is better for children to be brought up in their own country." But a source inside the Romanian government has confirmed that Roma gypsy children are very unlikely to find an adoptive family, saying: "It is true no Romanian family would adopt a gypsy." Dylan's case was further complicated by the fact that he was never officially abandoned. His mother intended to reclaim him when he was four years old so she could send him out begging. Sarah visited the mother's shack of a home and pleaded for Dylan to be released into her care permanently.
"She was sitting with her nine-year old daughter and they were both smoking and drinking vodka, " Sarah recalls.
Eventually, the matter was settled in court, when Sarah agreed to pay £20 compensation.
Now, Sarah can hardly believe that she has finally fought her way through the forest of red-tape that has stood in her way for so long. But few could have found the courage or strength that she required.
Far from home in her high-rise flat in Oradea she has run a charity, badgered the authorities and cared so patiently for Dylan who, despite his remarkable progress, still has physical and psychological problems to overcome.
But at least now his future is certain in one important respect. He has a mother who would move heaven and earth for him, and that's the only Christmas gift he, or any of the other abandoned children of Romania, have ever wished for.