A lost boy finds his calling
Someone dims the lights, and an old video clip begins to roll. In a dank room, dozens of children with shaved heads crouch naked in puddles of urine, fight over a bucket of gruel, lie tethered to radiators. One little girl’s leg juts up at a grotesque angle; she uses her hands to scoot across the wet floor. Several kids rock back and forth or hit their heads against the wall.
Orphan no more: Adoption freed Izidor Ruckel from the hell of his Romanian orphanage. But his physical and mental scars aren’t easily escapable. He picks up a camera — the tool that hastened his rescue — to try to spare others from suffering. (Photo by Brad Horn/The Washington Post)
The footage is not easy to watch, even for those who remember seeing it on television more than two decades ago. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, and Eastern Europe’s communist dictatorships were rapidly collapsing. A few months after the execution of Romania’s leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989, Western journalists discovered a desperate underworld of abandoned children warehoused in unheated orphanages.
Around 180,000 were estimated to be living this way, and seeing them on ABC’s “20/20” spurred thousands of Americans to rush to save Romania’s forgotten children.
Some of those Americans are sitting here on an October afternoon in 2012, at the Homewood Suites hotel in Davidson, N.C., along with the Romanian children they adopted. Now in their teens and early 20s, these adoptees are too young to remember much of their home country.
But one person in the room remembers.
“That’s Izidor, in the red sweater,” someone interjects as a little boy with a big smile appears on the screen. The boy is 10, but he is the size of a much younger child, stunted by malnutrition.
Izidor Ruckel, 32, is still small, with haunted brown eyes and close-cropped hair. He is the reason everyone is here today.
As a child, his fierce determination to get out of the orphanage propelled him into the arms of an American family. As a newly adopted adolescent, he fought for his orphanage friends to come to America, too. As an adult, he has become an activist for the tens of thousands of children who still languish in Romanian institutions.
Determined that they should not have to relive the nightmares he endured, he wants to help them in the same way he was once helped: by taking their story public.
‘It set off a wildfire’
The ABC crew arrived at Izidor’s institution on a cold morning in 1990 and talked its way past a befuddled gatekeeper.
It was not the first Romanian orphanage the “20/20” team visited, but it was the worst.
“It was like an insane asylum,” recalls Janice Tomlin, a producer who was there that day. “We saw kids in straitjackets, we saw kids in a cage. . . . We saw this boy who was literally starving, dying.”
Adoptions of Romanian children
After news reports in 1990 revealed deplorable conditions inside Romanian orphanages, the estimated number of children adopted by people in the United States shot up. Romania banned most international adoptions in 2004.
Source: State Department
Under Ceausescu, birth control and abortion had been banned, and women were pressured to bear at least five children to provide workers and fighters for the nation. Countless children were institutionalized, sometimes because of disabilities but often simply because their parents couldn’t afford them.
The children wrapped their arms around the visitors’ legs. There was Marin, a dark-haired Roma boy with an infectious smile; Ana, who was blind and bedridden but sang with plaintive, perfect pitch; and Izidor, a bright-eyed boy with a limp.
The journalists produced a multi-part exposé that shocked American viewers and helped trigger an unprecedented surge in international adoptions in Romania and throughout the Eastern Bloc.
“My phone was ringing literally nonstop,” said Tomlin, who later adopted two infant girls there herself. “American couples, all of whom had the saddest stories of trying to adopt, specifically wanting to adopt a particular child they had seen in our report.”
News organizations across the world presented Romania’s orphanages as a symbol of a decayed empire.
“It set off a wildfire,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the New York-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
Thousands of Americans flew to Romania to rescue children. In the post-revolution chaos, there was almost none of the regulation and oversight usually required for adoptions.
Many adoptive parents knew nothing of the effects that sensory deprivation and neglect had wrought. Many of the children had become emotionally marooned, unable to process or return affection. “People didn’t know that they should prepare themselves to raise a child who may have special needs,” Pertman said. “People just sort of figured generally that love would conquer all.”
In 1990, 121 Romanian children received American adoption visas. The following year, the number shot up to 2,594. Americans continued to adopt there until early 2004, when Romania banned most international adoptions amid charges of corruption and rumors that U.S. families were trafficking children and selling their organs. By then, Americans had adopted about 8,000 children from Romania and tens of thousands more from Russia, Kazakhstan and other former East Bloc countries.
Children at the Sighetu Marmatiei orphanage were neglected and malnourished, often resulting in stunted growth and difficulty having close relationships. (Thomas B. Szalay)
Speaking before the audience in North Carolina, with just a touch of an accent and an edge of anger, Izidor describes life in the drab concrete Hospital for Irrecoverable Children in the remote Transylvanian town of Sighetu Marmatiei. His diction is formal and a little stiff, even as it is sprinkled with casual expressions like “bro” and “Jeez Louise.”
“If you did anything that even slightly annoyed them, they would either drug you, beat you or put you in a straitjacket — anything to keep you quiet,” he says. The back of his head is lashed with scars.
“A healthy child placed in one of these orphanages?” he says, his voice catching. “Give it one year and that child’s hopes and dreams and future have been taken away from him.”
Izidor opens the floor for questions. People congratulate him on his successes, so impressive because they are so unlikely: At age 11 he was plucked out of the orphanage by an American family in California and now lives in Denver, where he supports himself with two low-wage jobs. Being a “professional orphan” is, as he wryly calls it, his third job.
He is the rare one from that original cohort who can live on his own, and certainly the most activist. From personal experience, he knows what a powerful tool a video camera can be. And so, along with another Romanian American adoptee, Izidor plans to make a documentary about Romania’s current “orphans.” This gathering is a fundraiser to pay for their trip. They figure they need $30,000.
“This is something that can maybe change the course of history for the next generation,” he tells the audience. “Or even for the present one.”
Izidor visited some government-run institutions in 2005. Though the children were no longer dying of starvation, he says, many were neglected and abused. When these institutionalized children grow up, child welfare advocates say, there are few services to help them adjust to life as adults. Many end up homeless, shut out even from the facilities they grew up in.
Izidor even recognized some of his Sighetu friends, grown now and living on the streets. “I feel terrible for them,” he says. “Some of these kids have never stepped a foot out, and when they’re 18 they don’t have any skills.”
After the presentation, as Izidor accepts donations and signs copies of a memoir he wrote about his life in the orphanage, a square-jawed 14-year-old with straight black hair tucked under a backward baseball cap approaches and grins shyly.
“I’m Jared Smith,” he says. “I’m from Romania as well.”
“So,” Izidor asks, “how’s your life going?”
“Um, it’s been very good,” Jared says. He and his brother were adopted as toddlers by a couple in North Carolina, he tells Izidor, and he is interested in helping abandoned children in Romania. Izidor tells Jared to consider volunteering with a local organization that plans to send American students to work with children in Romania.
“I feel like I have it really good,” Jared says, “and I should do something about it.”
Izidor knows the feeling. But he isn’t sure how good he has it. When a woman in line asks what he is doing now with his life, he lowers his head.
“I work at not the greatest place,” he says softly. “I work at the airport, and the other place is — ” he whispers: “Wal-Mart.”
“That’s not a bad place,” the woman says. But Izidor has loftier goals.
After everyone leaves, he counts up the cash and checks.
Eight hundred and twenty dollars. It’s a start.
Finding a way out
Perhaps because his life in the orphanage was so brutal, one of Izidor’s most powerful memories from it was a night when someone was kind to him. A nurse walked in while he was being viciously beaten for some infraction. She stopped the beating and, hoping to cheer him up, took him home with her.
It was the first time he remembers stepping outside the orphanage. He saw apartment houses and townspeople. He felt snow on his face.
“It felt like it took hours, and it was a five-minute walk,” he recalls. “I was happy. And once she opened her front door, everything just smelled like food. You could smell cabbage roll, you could smell kishtele, it was like meatballs . . . that was love.”
It was only one night, but he wanted more.
“It was a heavy burden for Izidor,” Marlys Ruckel recalled. “We were just haunted by the faces of those who didn’t come. They were like brothers and sisters to him.”
Izidor was small and he had a lame leg, but he could be pushy, charming the nurses or bullying other orphans to get what he wanted. So when more Americans arrived, this time in search of adoptable children, he made sure to get noticed.
“I remember Izidor literally grabbing my leg and making me sit down next to him,” John Upton, a California film producer who became an intermediary for Americans seeking to adopt several Sighetu children, wrote later. “He told me through my interpreter that he wanted out of that hell.”
A few months later, two women from San Diego arrived. One was Marlys Ruckel. She beheld a boy who was 10 but looked 6, dressed in a girl’s sweater and shoes.
“Such a cute face, he had these great dark eyes,” she recalled. “He was working the situation even as a small kid. He said, ‘Which one wants to be my mom?’ And from that point on he was so charming with me.”
Izidor’s new life with the Ruckels, in a suburb of San Diego, included three biological daughters and a girl with physical and intellectual disabilities who had also been in Sighetu. Although he was not pleased to see her — they had not gotten along in the orphanage — everything else seemed like a dream come true. Izidor had his own room, plenty of food, a pet dog and cat, a mother and a father.
But many of his lifelong friends remained in the home for irrecoverable children, fighting over gruel.
“It was a heavy burden for Izidor,” Ruckel recalled. “We were just haunted by the faces of those who didn’t come. They were like brothers and sisters to him.”
As soon as his English was good enough, Izidor began calling Upton, demanding that he go rescue his friends. Upton eventually brought a dozen or so Sighetu children to the United States, skirting some rules to get them out of Romania.
Ana, the blind teenager who sang so beautifully, was adopted by a couple in Michigan. Elena, the girl with the torqued leg, went to a family in Louisiana. Marin, the Roma boy, was taken in by a family in Grass Valley, Calif. Six children went to families in Hampton, Va.
A new life: Izidor moved to San Diego in 1991 to live with the Ruckel family. He started going to school, learning English and integrating into American life; Top: Danny Ruckel and Izidor, 11, at the beach; Left: At dinner with the Ruckel family; Right: At the airport. (Photos by Thomas B. Szalay)
‘I was not used to love’
Izidor soaked up the American language and culture. He made friends and embraced his adoptive parents’ Christian faith. But as he entered adolescence, darker impulses surfaced.
“I got really homesick, I got really angry, I was not used to love,” he recalled. “I became a hell child. I couldn’t stand the family. I used to tell them, ‘I want to go back to the orphanage.’ ”
What’s more, Izidor’s place in the pecking order had shifted.
Doctors told him he had had polio as a child, and despite several operations in California, he still had to wear a brace on his leg. He tried to keep up; he joined the swim team and competed against kids with no disabilities — but when he joined the baseball team, it was as a batboy, not a player.
“In the orphanage, he was one of the strongest and the smartest, and I think he felt like he wasn’t, here,” said Marlys Ruckel.
He also started to ask about Sighetu. “He was very angry,” she said. “He didn’t understand why his parents left him there and he didn’t understand why they never came back to get him, and he wanted to go back to Romania. He wanted to go back to show them that he was okay. And he was mad at us, too . . . he was mad at everybody. When he found out he couldn’t be president of the United States, he said, ‘I want to go back to Romania, then, and be the king.’ ”
The teenage Izidor became belligerent, swearing at his mother and hitting his father. He eventually moved out of their house, dropped out of high school in his senior year, and started drinking and smoking pot, though he remained conscientious about showing up at his jobs at fast-food restaurants.
A few days after he turned 18, he learned that his family had gotten into a serious car accident. Jarred, he reconciled with them, stopped doing drugs, and began attending church.
‘I’m coming home’
But he still fantasized about returning to Romania, and when “20/20” offered to fly him back to Sighetu to do a follow-up program, he seized the opportunity. He was 21 years old.
“Izidor’s impending visit to his birth family had terrified Marlys Ruckel. She said, ‘I felt like I was losing him.’”
“It really was a feeling of the hometown boy going back,” said Tomlin, the producer, who accompanied him on that 2001 trip. “All the kids lined up in their Sunday clothes, there was the whole dog and pony show — they sang, somebody gave him a bouquet of flowers. Let’s just put it this way — it was bizarre.”
For Izidor, the orphanage symbolized both suffering but also, in a strange way, comfort. It felt good to be back. At the same time, he was furious at how children were still being treated. Given free rein as a celebrity visitor, he strolled from room to room, collecting damning film footage for “20/20” that the U.S. crew had not been allowed to see: children being beaten and put in straitjackets, hitting their heads against the bed, and sitting in their own urine.
As a final surprise, “20/20” located his birth family and took him to see them.
He had met them only once, just before he left for the United States, when they showed up at the orphanage in an apparent attempt to extract money from the Americans who wanted to adopt him; the orphanage director had ordered them out.
Now, he was suddenly in their home, a run-down shack in a muddy field in a town called Tasnad, five hours from Sighetu, where Izidor’s four biological siblings had grown up. As he spoke to them (through a translator because of his rusty Romanian), a lifetime of pain poured out.
“You left me,” he said. “The kids were beaten. There was no heat. . . . Do you know, living in Sighetu was the worst place, it was like living in hell.”
The parents protested — he had a problem with his leg, and a woman at the hospital had told them to send him away. They could not afford to visit. They hadn’t known how bad the orphanage was.
But nothing they said could wipe away the anger he felt.
Izidor’s impending visit to his birth family had terrified Marlys Ruckel. “I felt like I was losing him,” she said. “I felt like, ‘He’s going to find them, and of course they’re going to keep him forever.’ ”
But after the visit, she got a call from Romania. It was her son, saying, “I’m coming home.”
The person who returned was a new Izidor. He seemed calmer, more confident and settled. “He was saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so thankful that you guys worked so hard to get me and to help me,’ ” she said. “We’ve been close since then.”
Izidor stayed in touch with his biological brother, returning in 2005 to spend a few months with him in the town of Sighetu; he now Skypes regularly with the brother and one sister, who have moved to Italy.
Alex King and Izidor Ruckel are collaborating on a film about Romanian orphans. King is a filmmaker and adoptee from Romania, as is Ruckel. They were filming Romanian adoptees in Davidson, N.C. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
A split life
For the documentary, Izidor teamed up with Alex King, a 25-year-old videographer with a similar background to his, though Alex was adopted at age 6. They met after Alex’s adoptive mother bought a copy of Izidor’s memoir. So far they have interviewed American adoptive parents and a Romanian woman who runs a private children’s shelter outside Bucharest, which Izidor touts as a better alternative to state-run institutions.
Now, in a spacious house near the Denver airport a month after the North Carolina event, they are interviewing Tomlin, the former “20/20” producer, who has flown from Texas to attend their fundraiser here.
Tomlin describes the late 1990s, when adoption in Romania had turned into a racket. “I had babies offered to me,” she recalls of an investigation she worked on about the black market in infants.
The poverty was so crippling that people were “literally taking one light bulb from room to room to room,” she said. “I think in a lot of cases [parents] thought it was temporary, ‘while they’re in diapers, then we’ll go back and get them’ — and somehow it never happened.
“I’ve been all over the world, I’ve watched children literally starve to death in front of me in Ethiopia, I’ve seen horrible, horrible things.” But what she saw in Romania, she said, “you don’t come to peace with it.”
“He is American and not American, Romanian and not Romanian.”
Izidor listens, his hands shoved into his pockets, his eyes shrouded in pain.
The house, full of family photos, friendly dogs and the smell of homemade coffee cake, belongs to Sara and Chris Padbury, who are parents to five adopted children. Izidor often attends church with them.
It’s the life he has put together, a blend of American and Romanian.
Colorado’s snowy mountains and frozen air make Izidor feel at home. Other things do, too. His apartment is sparsely furnished, but one shelf contains a shrine of Romanian tchotchkes — a small ceramic wine barrel with matching mugs, a carved wooden plate. His bedroom curtains are wine-red with lace, like the ones in his old nurse’s house. His cellphone ringtone is traditional Romanian music.
He is American and not American, Romanian and not Romanian; he speaks with an accent in both languages. Wherever he is, he is different, which can feel lonely, but also lifts him above the gray world around him.
Most evenings he takes the bus to Wal-Mart for the overnight cashier shift. Three days a week he also works as a garage attendant at the airport. That makes 62 hours a week. It barely covers food and the $670 rent on his two-bedroom apartment in a modest complex off Interstate 70.
He shares the place with Chuck, a tall, puppyish friend from California who wears oversize glasses and knit hats. Chuck, 10 years younger than Izidor, has trouble holding down a job, so Izidor pays the rent and helps him look for work. Chuck helps Izzy, too, giving him rides to work, cooking and cleaning, badgering him to leave the house on time.
It’s a life with few frills, but buoyed by serious talks and friendly ribbing (“No pets,” Izidor declares; Chuck immediately vows he’s going to get a dog.). Izidor picks up dinner for the two of them at a burrito joint in a nearby strip mall, and they eat on the tiny couch and watch DVDs.
Later, they get up to go to the balcony for a smoke, but Izzy flops back down impatiently and hikes up his right pant leg for the hundredth time that day.
“God, I hate this brace,” he says, fiddling with the titanium and plastic device. It is four years old, and its hinges are loose. “It’s going to break. I told Wal-Mart that if it breaks I’m on crutches for a couple of months until I get a new one.”
But a new brace costs $6,000, and the insurance Wal-Mart offers would cost $1,560 a year and will not guarantee in advance that a new brace would be covered. Izidor shoves a folded business card into the loose part to steady it, straightens his pant leg, and goes outside to smoke.
Izidor Ruckel adjusts a worn-out leg brace that he needs because he had polio when he was a child. He stuffs pieces of folded paper between loose hinges to keep the brace from collapsing. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
The Colorado fundraiser takes place on a frozen Friday night, in a building owned by the Padburys’ church. A Romanian dance troupe has driven in from Boulder to perform. Eighty-five people have confirmed reservations. But a couple of hours before the event is set to begin, the local police shut down both I-70 and Interstate 25 because of a hunt for a gunman who had threatened a school. Stymied guests call to say they can’t come. Only around 20 show up, and Izidor stalls while they serve themselves potato salad. When no more arrive, he goes up to the stage and makes his presentation.
Izidor Ruckel takes a break after meeting people all day and lecturing about the film he wants to make about Romanian orphans. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Chuck asks permission to address the attendees. He tells the room that it hurts his heart to think about all that Izidor has been through. He declares that Izidor is one of the best people he knows.
Afterward, the friends collect the envelopes left on the tables. $1,300.
The first week of January, an online auction of a poster autographed by Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci and Romanian books and crafts brings in another $250.
A few days later, Chuck and Izidor have a fight. It is over a small matter — Izzy left the apartment door unlocked while watching TV, allowing friends to walk in on Chuck during a private Skype call. But it escalates into a shouting match, with Izidor threatening to move out.
Instead, Chuck storms out, vowing to kill himself. As a frantic Izidor pleads with him by cellphone, Chuck downs a couple of bottles of vodka and a six-pack of beer and swallows two bottles of sleeping pills. He hangs up on Izzy and stops answering his phone. The following afternoon, a woman looking for people to join a Bible study group finds his body in his parked car.
Devastated, Izidor plasters his Facebook page with pictures of his roommate, then spends weeks making a memorial DVD.
Recalling their final phone call, his voice cracks. “I just can’t believe that this happened on my watch.”
In March, another loss: John Upton, the filmmaker and friend who got so many children out of Romania, is shot and killed in California in a dispute with his neighbor. Izidor thinks about attending the memorial service, but he can’t afford the trip.
In June, Izidor, now 33, and Alex put together a preliminary version of their documentary, comprising the interviews so far.
Izidor got out of the orphanage in 1991, but he has never quite left it behind. He has stayed in touch with many Sighetu kids who came to America and some who did not, and he is a linchpin in a network of parents, children and activists, hundreds of them, connected to Romanian adoption. If you call any of them for information on the subject, they are likely to ask, “Have you talked to Izidor Ruckel?”
So it makes sense that, this past October, he is one of the ones telling his story to the government of Romania.
Romanian lawmakers have gathered to hear from advocates of a bill that would overturn Romania’s international adoption ban. Several, including some adoptees, have traveled from as far as Italy and New Zealand; others, like Izidor, are participating via Skype.
Izidor’s testimony is impassioned. He likens life in a Romanian institution to “a holocaust” and excoriates the country for its lack of education and training to provide for abandoned children. He warns that nobody in Romania is willing to adopt children with mental or physical disabilities. Instead, they are left “imprisoned and caged.”
From Izidor’s perspective, the ban cut abandoned children off from the kind of opportunities he had. He and other advocates think Romania can be seen as a test case for what can happen when international adoptions are cut off in a country with limited resources to care for orphans.
Around 40,000 children are in institutions there, according to Catharsis, a Romanian children’s rights organization; government estimates are around 22,500. Children who have disabilities or are of Roma heritage have particularly slim chances of being adopted locally, advocates say.
Other countries have also barred international adoptions, the most recent — and notorious — being Russia, which in the 1990s and 2000s was the source of some of the world’s highest numbers of international adoptions. In what many saw as a political tit for tat, Russian lawmakers last year abruptly banned adoptions by Americans, including many who had already met and bonded with children they had been cleared to adopt. Advocates fear that these children could remain in institutions.
As Izidor speaks, the hearing room in Bucharest is silent. He finishes his statement — but he is not done. Noticing that the senator who introduced the bill, and his representatives, have wandered in and out of the room during the three hours of testimony, he turns his anger on them.
“Where were you?” he asks the senator. “It’s pretty embarrassing to see your staff walk out in the middle of the meeting.” The senator, abashed, says he had other matters to attend to.
Afterward, Izidor has a sinking feeling. And indeed, despite his testimony and despite encouragement by the European Parliament for member states to allow international adoption (most already do), Romania’s Senatea few weeks later upholds the adoption ban 62-to-40.
Ramona Popa, a spokeswoman for the government’s Romanian Office for Adoptions, says that although the office does not oppose international adoptions in theory, it opposes the bill because it does not do enough to rectify earlier problems with the process.
Since Izidor last visited Romania, she says, the government has closed down large institutions, and a law that took effect in 2005 mandates that children in facilities receive the services of psychologists and social workers.
“Now there are smaller houses that respect the children’s rights,” Popa says. “If he will come again, of course he will see that there are other conditions.”
Izidor says that is hard to believe. He says he has seen recent documentary evidence showing conditions are still dire.
But the closeness of November’s Senate vote energizes him. Many ordinary Romanians are still unaware of how bad conditions are in institutions, he says. Perhaps by speaking to them directly, in a series of lectures, he can inspire in them a desire for change. The bill is now with Romania’s Chamber of Deputies, the country’ s other parliamentary body, with more hearings to come, and another vote.
Izidor even has a dream — farfetched, he concedes — of seeing the Sighetu institution reopened as an educational facility that would teach abandoned children how to function in the outside world as adults. Above all, he says, “It would have open doors, so people could walk in and out freely.”
(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Izidor and Alex are determined to get to Romania by Easter. They haven’t made much of a dent in their $30,000 goal, but Izidor is saving for an airline ticket and enough money to stay a couple of months. For a while, he upped his work schedule to 77 hours a week, and he has taken in a paying roommate. In July, he spent $680 to apply for his U.S. citizenship, and he is scheduled to take the test this coming Thursday.
Tomlin, now an independent producer shooting her own documentary on Romanian orphans she has followed since 1990, is talking to Izidor about hiring him to work with her crew there this spring, which could help defray some of his costs.
As the Jan. 1 deadline loomed for getting health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Izidor finally signed up for coverage through Wal-Mart. The cost had dropped to $960 a year. He still doesn’t know whether it will pay for a new brace.
“Sometimes I wish I could just wake up and bend the leg, like Forrest Gump,” he says. “You know? Like when he’s running, and the brace flies off, and he can walk?”
For now, he hikes up his pant leg and wedges in another piece of folded-up paper.
Video editing by Sandi Moynihan
Production by Diamond James and Veronica Toney