Dr. Lucy Le Mare Discusses The Romanian Adoption Project – A 25-year Longitudal Study

July 20, 2017

Dr. Lucy Le Mare’s background is in developmental psychology. In the Faculty of Education, her main interests are in school adjustment and the social and emotional well-being of children and how they function socially in school. In this interview, Le Mare gives insight into the Romanian Adoption Project and its importance for research, education and adoption communities.

The Romanian Adoption Project started in 1992. What is the background of the study and how did you get involved with it?

The social-political situation in Romania during the early 90s' led to thousands of children being raised under conditions of severe deprivation. At that time, the country was closed from the rest of the world and was governed by the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. When the government was overthrown the country opened up, which allowed Western journalists to travel and see what was going on in Romania. Beside the widespread poverty, they saw orphanages with thousands of kids who were abandoned by their parents because preventing pregnancy was prohibited. The state guaranteed that they were going to take care of these children, which resulted in women leaving hospitals without their babies. The conditions of these orphanages were horrific and children were raised under pervasive deprivation and without any kind of nurturing.

During that period, Prof. Elinor Ames - who used to be in the Psychology department of SFU - was invited to Romania. She had the opportunity to see these orphanages, and also saw that some of these children were going to be adopted into middle class Canadian homes. Elinor recognized that this was an opportunity to assess the impact of early deprivation, and the possibility of overcoming it. This is how Elinor started the project. She was able to contact families in BC who adopted Romanian children between 1990 and 1991. Initially, families who participated had adopted children who were 8 months of age or older. Elinor wanted to analyze how they were developing. To do so, she established two comparison groups: Canadian born children – non-adopted - that matched age and socio-demographic characteristics, and adopted kids from Romania - adopted at a very early age, less than 4 months. When Elinor retired in 1997, I applied for funding to carry on the project. When I took over the Romanian Adoption Project, Elinor had seen these kids when they were 4 years old; I saw them when they were 10 years old. I was very interested on how they had adjusted to the demands of school. What I could see is that the social emotional was still a continuum problem. This has been true all the way through.

After 25 years and five phases almost completed, have you ever considered changing some aspect of the study?

Absolutely. In the original study there were three groups. During the first three phases of the study, the focus was on maintaining those groups and making comparisons among them. At phase four, a number of families had dropped out and we needed to recruit more. In the beginning, the study was conducted just with families from BC, but at this phase we recruited families from all over Canada. Another aspect that changed is that we have stopped making comparisons with the Canadian born group because we have not been able to recruit more Canadian born participants. Nevertheless, the questions I become interested in do not require comparisons. The design of the study has gone from comparison to looking at associations within the Romanian adoptee group. One of the ways in which the study has also changed is that, as the adoptees have gotten older, we rely more on collecting information from the adoptees themselves. Before the information was collected from their families and teachers.

What are the challenges of this project?

I would say that keeping the families involved has been the biggest challenge. Circumstances happen which make it difficult to keep them involved. Keeping participants as representative as we can of the Rumanian orphans has also been a challenge. We have found that families are most likely to leave the study because they experience challenges and are no longer as representative as they should be. Some other families think that there is no need for them to be involved with the study anymore, as they have already overcome that episode. The ability of older adoptees to self-report has also been challenging for the study.

For phase 5, you developed web-based questionnaires to collect data. This is the first time that you used the internet and technology to do so. How different and effective is this new development when compared to your previous techniques?

In the first three phases of the study, we saw all the participants individually and travelled all over the country. We met the families, teachers, school environment and interacted with the children. The information was accurate and precise. Due to funding at phase 4, we mailed out questions. At phase 5, we decided to use the internet. It’s better to see people in person, and unfortunately you can miss all that with a web-based questionnaire. Some participants don’t know how to use the platform; however, it’s very convenient and inexpensive.

What kind of impact would this project have on communities?

In research communities, I would say that this is one of a very few projects that have studied deprived children over time. It has been quite important in terms of adding to the body of knowledge around the impact of early deprivation, and how long it last. In terms of the educational community, I think there is a lot to learn. In public schools kids come from all kinds of backgrounds. Although international adoptees are a small fraction, there is a larger number of kids in foster care. What we have learned from this study is relevant to the development of foster care children, and sheds light on how schools can support them. One of the common features of children who experience deprivation is the difficulty of regulating their behaviour.

What aspects do you think should be considered to further similar research in a different context?

I’m struck by the parallel between the outcomes for Romanian adoptees and children within BC foster care. Some kids from BC foster care end up moving from home to home without developing a sense of safety and security. When you read reports on school performance, you will see that the impact of social emotional deprivation is the same issue for both, Romanian and BC adoptees.

How has this project shaped your career and professional development?

This has been the main project for me, and has also reinforced the importance of good nurturing. In terms of my teaching, it made me think of the role of teachers in children’s life, and the impact they can have.

What advice would you give to scholars looking to enter your field?

I would say don’t try to go alone. Make connections and form partnerships with scholars who have similar interests. Working collaboratively will guarantee success.