02/27/2014 05:40 EST | Updated 04/29/2014 05:59 EDT

'Quite a journey' says mom who adopted Romanian orphan

VANCOUVER - Their stories are by turn tragic and triumphant.

After the Iron Curtain was torn down almost 25 years ago, childless western couples flooded into Romania looking to adopt. Suzanne McFarlane and her husband were among 1,400 Canadian families who did.

McFarlane first saw Jennica from a taxicab on Feb. 14, 1991, as the little girl wandered, alone, along a backcountry road. She weighed 19 pounds and McFarlane thought she was an infant. In fact, she was almost three years old.

They left the country on Feb. 28, mother and daughter.

"It's been quite a journey," says McFarlane.

Nothing could have prepared the Alberta school teacher for the conditions in Romania's orphanages, and nothing — not even warnings from a psychiatrist — prepared her for the challenges they have faced since.

Jennica, who had been in the orphanage most of her life, couldn't sit up or feed herself. Her legs didn't bend because of the daily "vitamin" injections given by orphanage staff, which also fuelled an AIDS epidemic among the children. Many of the parents believe the injections sedated the children to keep them quiet.

"I knew there would be a delay. I just didn't expect the emotional delay to last forever," McFarlane says now. "You believe that love and good food can fix anything. And it can't."

Now 26, Jennica is developmentally delayed, has a form of autism and suffers from attachment disorder. The list goes on.

When she was nine, she moved into a group home but continued to go to school. By 15, public school was no longer an option and McFarlane created a "Little House on the Prairie" classroom in an empty space offered by their church for home schooling.

Jennica loved dressing up pioneer-style and writing on slates. Every weekday, McFarlane taught the daughter who didn't want a mother. Every night, Jennica returned to her group home.

Two years ago, while Jennica was living back at home, she tried to strangle her mother. McFarlane's husband, Roland Ferdynus, was home, heard the commotion and pulled the girl off.

Jennica now lives in an adult group home.

"She wasn't just doing this to be nasty," says McFarlane, now 64. "She really didn't know how to love us back."

A few months after the McFarlanes adopted Jennica, Sig Stark adopted Jonathan with her husband, Lorne. The Starks already had three children and Jonathan was now the youngest.

"I can say it's been really difficult," she says.

When he came home to Edmonton, they weren't sure if Jonathan spoke Romanian or Hungarian. He had the language skills of an 18-month-old, though he was at least three and half.

"People in our church told us all he'll need is good food, a loving home," she says.

"And then a friend of ours who is a psychiatrist spent some time with Jonathan ... and she said, 'Sig, I think Jonathan is going to be really lucky if he stays out of really big trouble.'"

As a child, Jonathan, now 27, would have fits of rage, sometimes tossing around furniture that weighed more than he did. It took seven years for him to be diagnosed with frontal lobe epilepsy, with seizures, extraordinary strength and anger.

"It was very scary and it scared the other children," Stark says.

In Grade 4, Jonathan went to live for a year at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, where he received intense treatment, but returned home every weekend.

He moved back in with his family in Vancouver 10 years ago and eventually moved out last year.

He is now taking medication and hasn't had a seizure in a decade. Last May, he moved into a home with support from the Burnaby Association of Community Inclusion.

He is intellectually disabled and has an attachment disorder. What seems to bother his mother the most is that he often lies and still pushes his family away.

Stark now believes that such neglect in early life can never be repaired, although she thinks it's still worth trying.

"Each child has value. They all have gifts."


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