02/27/2014 05:35 EST | Updated 04/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Struggles weren't left behind in Romania for many orphans adopted in Canada

VANCOUVER - She was so tiny in her crib that her soon-to-be-mom thought she was about 18 months old. Actually, she was 4 1/2, but neglect and malnourishment had taken their toll.

"What about this little girl?" Sonya Paterson recalls asking in one of a string of dark rooms in dark orphanages she visited throughout Romania. She was helping hundreds of Canadian and American couples adopt children from the crumbling communist state.

"'Is this little girl adoptable?' I said. 'She's got a nose similar to mine when I was little.'

"The orphanage director looked at me right in the eyes and said, 'Sonya, that girl's not for you. She's irrecuperable and you should get yourself a baby.'"

But the fact that Carmen had survived the barren, prison-like orphanage only endeared the bright-eyed little girl to Paterson and, later, to her husband David.

Carmen Louise Paterson was adopted on Aug. 11, 1990, one of about 1,400 children who were brought to Canada from Romania. Now 28, she is still tiny, at four feet 11 inches and little more than 100 pounds.

"I do remember some pieces. When I look at the pictures ... I remember more," she says.

"I remember that scared feeling of being left behind. I do have that sometimes, where it's like being abandoned. It's a memory ... and it's pretty vivid."

In the early days, she had nightmares. She struggled to catch up on the lost years spent without toys or love, when she had to rely on her own instinct to survive in the orphanage. Yet she still was a friendly, athletic girl.

In high school, her struggles became more emotional.

"Friendship level, emotional level, I found it very hard to relate to anybody because no one wanted to make the effort to relate to me."

She didn't fit in, was sometimes bullied, quit school in Grade 11 and left her parents. They found a place for her to stay in another city and she finished Grade 12, but their estrangement continued on and off for years.

She drank. She had bad friends. She struggled through what her mother refers to as her "identity crisis."

She suffered a cut to her artery during a fight with her boyfriend. It nearly killed her, though it brought the family back together months before her father died a year ago. Today, mother and daughter are very close.

"I'm very proud of her," Sonya says.

Carmen is enrolled in college. After a childhood in gymnastics, swimming and other sports, she has an eye to a career as a kinesiologist or a fitness trainer.

She's kept in touch over the years with some of the other children who were adopted from Romania.

"Some of us came out really good and some of us are still dealing with issues," she says.

"When I look back, it's no wonder some of us turned out to be emotionally upset or socially inept because of that ... I mean growing in that environment, are you kidding me? How can you not have problems?"

Carmen has learned to accept her early years and the effect they've had on her life.

"You work through it and you grow in character."


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