Bulgaria to Oregon, a Roma Adoption Story

Published in the Fern Ridge Review, October, 2019. Photo credits: Jennifer Mitchell

Continued from – One Heart Bulgaria, Aid for Roma Mothers

Jennifer Mitchell and Nick Puff brought Luci home from Bulgaria in February 2018, after an adoption process lasting one and half years. When they first met her, she was three years old and had spent her entire life confined to a crib. She could not walk, and ate only mashed food.

Luci grew up in an orphanage. Bringing her to a family in another country meant taking her away from everything she knew. Before her arrival, Mitchell and Puff read books and took classes to prepare for her transition.

“As horrible as it might be, that’s their home,” said Mitchell. “People think about people who adopt as these wonderful, selfless human beings. You are changing the world for this kid, you basically changed their lives, but it’s not glamorous thing, not pretty. It’s messy and mad. The transition can be horrible. They’ve lost everything. Maybe people think we’re doing some great thing to save them when we take them away from that situation, but the truth is that it’s a huge shock. That’s all they’ve ever known.”

When Luci was adopted, she had a bald spot from rocking her head against the bars of the crib, a self-soothing technique.

The nurses who cared for Luci presumed she couldn’t walk, as she was born three months premature and immediately diagnosed with cerebral palsy. For them, with nine kids and only four hands, the best they could do was care for Luci in her crib. “It’s important to know that the nurses had been there twenty-five to thirty years,” said Puff. “They loved their job. They did their best with the resources they had.”

The orphanage was a big communist-era building, originally designed to hold 165 kids. Since joining the European Union, Bulgaria started shutting down such orphanages due to their bad image, and placing orphans in foster care. When Mitchell and Puff visited, the nurses only used one of the four floors. Puff explored the other levels and found bags of donated toys, left unopened. “They didn’t have the human resources to even use the donations,” said Puff.

Most of the orphans in Bulgaria come from the impoverished Roma community, just like Luci. The Roma culture has strong family bonds, but not enough resources to care for special needs children. Therefore, those babies are left as orphans.

Mitchell and Puff had to be realistic about the level of need they could meet in another child. They already had their hands full with three daughters, one son, and a menagerie of adopted rescue animals. “Even though we probably have more resources than most, we couldn’t adopt a kid that needed 24 hour care,” said Mitchell.

Luci with her adopted father, Nick Puff.

“Any orphan is going to have some sort of emotional trauma and loss,” said Mitchell, a family physician. Although Luci couldn’t walk at the time, she scooted and moved around with an energy that showed Mitchell she would someday. “I could tell she was there, she just needed to come to a family. You could see it in her eyes,” said Mitchell. “You could see some of the other kids had a lot more trauma. Lifelong trauma. She will too, but you could just tell.”

At the time the family was living in Pennsylvania and they brought Luci for an evaluation at an adoption clinic in Philadelphia. They confirmed her cerebral palsy diagnosis. “The degree of her CP is questionable,” said Puff, “because she was institutionalized. It’s hard to pull apart what is medical and what is being in an institution your whole life.”

“Back then her muscle tension in her lower limbs was typical of CP,” said Mitchell. “If she would have stayed in crib, she would have ended up twisted. The muscle gets atrophied and can’t be stretched out.”

Luci walked for the first time right before last Christmas, after nearly a year of physical therapy and leg braces. Mitchell and Puff, however, believe that the key to her success was her sisters. “The girls really taught her how to walk,” said Puff. “They spent so much time with her.”

“She copies everything,” said Mitchell. “She’s independent and sassy, which she had to have when she was born. She had to have something that allowed her to survive in a situation where she really shouldn’t have.” It’s that spark which told Mitchell that Luci was going to be just fine. “Her tenacity is what makes her mad if she can’t keep up with them as they run away, so she has to learn how to run.”

Luci plays with her older sister, Molly.

Now Luci is four years old and attends the Early Childhood preschool program in Oregon. She rides the bus by herself, and is learning how to speak. Two years ago, she could not handle affection or being held for more than ten minutes at a time. Just last week she fell down at school and for the first time came to the teacher for a hug.

Despite her progress, Luci, like most orphans, will always suffer a certain level of uncertainty. “Anytime anything changes, they have this feeling like, is this it? When is the other foot going to drop,” said Mitchell. “She knows it’s going to happen, she just doesn’t know when.”

Mitchell just returned from a trip to Bulgaria last month, where she was working with the organization, One Heart Bulgaria, to set up pregnancy services and a horse therapy program for Roma mothers. She also met with seven-year-old Stefan, whom the family plans to adopt in January.

Stefan has lived the last two years with a foster family, and is very healthy and mobile. Mitchell thinks his transition might be harder than Luci’s. “He is loved,” she said. “His foster family is awesome. The mother is like a grandma to him. He has a dog and beautiful little house and a cute garden. But they’re just fostering him. It’s going to be really hard for him.”

The family is up for the challenge, however. And between two loving, energetic parents, four playful siblings, a pack of affectionate dogs and cats, and a small farm with chickens, ducks, horses and a pond, there may be no better place for a displaced orphan to land.

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