ADOPTION SAGA MAY HAVE WIDE IMPACT
FROM ROMANIA TO VT., TROUBLES CONTINUE
BURLINGTON, Vt. - Michael Stamatis spent his formative years being tormented in one of the world's cruelest institutions.
Then, two years ago, everything changed: He was removed from an orphanage in Romania, adopted by a couple in Vermont, and began to recover from the psychic wounds any child would incur if subjected to sustained emotional and sexual abuse.
But the 17-year-old's journey from nightmare to dream didn't last long. The people who took Michael in have dissolved the adoption, relinquished their erstwhile son into state custody, and accused him of sexual assault - a felony charge for which the state plans to prosecute him as an adult.
Michael's saga is about to spark an international incident.
Outraged Romanian Embassy officials in Washington already have drafted a letter to legal and social-service authorities in Vermont warning their treatment of Michael could determine the future of all adoptions by Americans from his country.
Moreover, some adoption specialists worry this case could have even wider repercussions, inducing more governments to reconsider their policies on placing children with US families.
"When other countries see Americans adopting their children, then dissolving the adoptions and prosecuting the children, they wonder whether to get involved with us at all," said Maureen Hogan, who as president of Adopt America has been working to improve conditions in Romanian orphanages.
Vermont officials say they understand that Michael went through hell in Romania, but insist that they are doing everything possible to help him.
"Our recommendations have to be based on the standard of `best interests of the child' . . . and not on international relations, on any effect on adoptions generally . . . or on any other political considerations," said William Young, the state's commissioner of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
Constantine, as Michael was named in his native country, spent his first 15 years at the Siret Neuropsychiatric Institution in the northeast corner of Romania. The facility is widely known as one of the worst legacies of Nicolae Ceausescu, the longtime dictator who was deposed in late 1989.
As many as 200,000 boys and girls were institutionalized during Ceausescu's regime, the majority because their parents were too poor to care for them. Most were abused and deprived of the affection or personal contact necessary to develop normally.
While the current Romanian government has markedly improved conditions, and has begun deinstitutionalization programs, its orphanages generally remain damaging places for children to grow up. The one in Siret, where about 500 children now live, by all accounts is among the most horrific.
Before children from Siret are deemed ready for adoption by Americans, they undergo years of therapy and behavioral training by a team of US physicians and mental-health professionals who travel to Romania. The team is led by Ron Federici, a Virginia psychiatrist who is an authority on institutionalization and has adopted four children from Siret himself.
In the case of Constantine and two Romanian girls adopted with him, Federici also intensively screened the parental applicants to assess whether they could cope with the difficulties inherent in raising such challenging children. He approved Lisa and Tim Stamatis of Burlington, who had received high marks for their rearing of five special-needs children they had already adopted.
For the first year, by all accounts, the three Romanian children made substantial progress and everyone seemed happy with the new family arrangement. But then, for reasons that haven't been explained publicly, something changed dramatically.
Michael, the name the Stamatises gave their son, began to slip. The boy had a less-than-normal intelligence level and spoke no English, so he'd always had a hard time communicating. Now he was growing unresponsive to educational efforts, and the sexual acting out that he had done initially - a frequent behavior for sexually abused children who haven't learned other ways of making physical connections - began to recur, according to a detective's report filed in the case.
At the same time, the Stamatises' willingness or ability to deal with their children's problems changed, too. In the last several months, they have moved to legally dissolve their adoptions of Michael, one of his Romanian sisters, and a severely disabled child they had adopted years earlier.
The couple, whose lawyer did not respond to requests for interviews, also filed a complaint alleging Michael had inappropriately fondled the genitalia of both Romanian girls adopted with him. Federici and others described the parents' decision to initiate criminal proceedings, rather than to seek treatment, as unusual.
They say it might have been at least partly a financial move by the Stamatises, who would have been responsible for some child-support payments since they voluntarily relinquished their son into state custody. When the minor involved is the object of criminal charges, such costs are absorbed by the state.
Michael is currently being treated at a facility in southern Vermont, and no court dates have been set for him. Vermont officials declined to discuss why they decided to prosecute him as an adult as well as a juvenile.
Federici, Hogan, and the Romanian government insist the boy's language, cultural, and institutional problems are not being taken sufficiently into account.
"Imagine how lonely he feels, whatever they are trying to do for him; he doesn't speak the language and he knows nobody around him," said Federici, who is fluent in Romanian and has tried to become a party to the court cases involving Michael. He has been rebuffed by the judge and by other state officials.
They have not said why they have excluded the psychiatrist's participation as an expert witness or as a therapist, though he has volunteered to play either role at his own expense.
Federici said he is so concerned about Michael's welfare he has offered to take the boy and his adoptive sisters off of Vermont's hands altogether, again at his own expense. He wants to find other homes for the girls and to place Michael in a specialized treatment facility in Baltimore, where there are other onetime Romanian orphans with whom Michael is friends and whom he has seen during reunions arranged by Federici.
The press and science attache at the Romanian Embassy, Stefan Maier, has drafted a letter, which the ambassador is now reviewing, praising Federici's efforts and asking Vermont officials to reconsider the psychiatrist's participation.
Michael's prosecution, Maier added in a telephone interview, could hurt future adoptions from Romania.
"This way of dealing with this boy doesn't serve anyone," Maier said. "Not the children who need families . . . or the Americans who want children. This way, there are only losers.