Skip to main content
The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Mariela Neagu about her book, Voices from the Silent Cradles: Life Histories of Romania’s Looked-After Children

Our member, Dr Mariela Neagu (University of Oxford, UK), talks about her book, Voices from the Silent Cradles: Life Histories of Romania’s Looked-After Children (Policy Press, 2021).



Q: What is this book about?

I like to think of the book as a ‘black box of care,’ the voices that retrospectively tell the inside story of state care or adoption. The book brings together the narratives of 40 young people, all born in Romania in 1990 or around that time. As they were growing up, Romania ran contentious child protection measures, such as large residential institutions and intercountry adoption, as well as broadly acceptable ones such as foster care and domestic adoption. The book examines the lived experiences of Romanian-born young people in these different types of care.

The so-called ‘Romanian orphans’ (a misleading label used by the media) have been the subject of several studies, which aimed to assess the impact of early adversity on their development. Those studies measured and assessed children, but the child’s own voice was either missing or was marginal. In fact, the children concerned were described as ‘silent babies’ (hence the title of my book, Voices from the Silent Cradles). In my view, listening to what these young people had to say is necessary both from a moral and from a scientific point of view.  Most young people who took part in the study on which my book is based were in their mid-20s at the time of the interview. As such, they were able to reflect not only on their childhood experience in care and in adoption, but also on their subsequent coming of age.

Q: What made you write this book?

This study was the topic of my doctoral research at the Rees Centre in Oxford. Because its findings were so rich and interesting, I felt that I had a moral duty to make them available to practitioners and researchers, as well as adoptive parents and other care experienced people or adoptees. Moreover, in the book I was able to reflect on the implications of its findings for policy and practice. In the child protection field, policy is usually not influenced by children but often by media reports and by other powerful players.

For me, care belongs to the moral domain, it is very much about the way we treat others, more vulnerable than us. Do we listen to them or do we use our power to silence them? The study provides plenty of insights about what happens in both cases; and plenty of evidence that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is an excellent framework for thinking about children’s needs. As the UN Commissioner on Human Rights has recently stated that children’s rights have plummeted, this book may well be a timely reading.

Last but not least, I hope that the book will help researchers to think about children in care in a broader way, considering various aspects of their lives. This may lead to more multi-disciplinary, mixed-method studies.

An excerpt from the book (pp. 194–195):

Sophia was old enough to remember her encounters with a psychologist who supposedly wrote the post-adoption reports but she found those sessions useless and as a result she stopped attending them. The reason why I wanted to interview her was that a disclosure (in the media) of children who left Romania as ‘exceptions’ after the introduction of the moratorium showed a number of teenagers being adopted to Italy.

As regards ‘equivalent standards and safeguards’ similar to those in domestic adoption, Cora’s and Betty’s narratives illustrate the contrast between the two types of adoption. They were adopted at ages eight and 10 years old respectively. While Cora visited her future adoptive parents before the adoption was finalised, Betty was only once visited briefly by her future adoptive parents when she was in foster care. While Cora was supported to maintain contact with her siblings, Betty was told that her family was dead.

Pre-adoption placement is not practised in the intercountry adoption system and if there were such a provision, its implementation would be costly and complex from a legal point of view. The type and quality of placement in which the research participants spent their teenage years had an impact on the type of support and challenges they faced in their transition into adulthood. The adult lives of those with positive care experience were largely the result of choices they had made in their personal and professional lives. The study suggests that those who had positive care experiences were able to construct lives that were at least partly the outcome of choices they had made. That was the case for most domestic adoptees and for some of the participants in the other placement types. Similar findings have been found in other studies such as the one conducted by McSherry et al (2016) in Northern Ireland, Holland et al (2010) in Wales and Triseliotis and Hill (1990) in England, all suggesting that the quality of a placement and continuity of care are more important from the children’s perspective than the type of placement.

Exploration of overall life trajectories as described by the research participants indicated that while most of them were experiencing stability at the time of the interviews, in some cases these were rather fragile. Some of those with negative care experiences underwent labour exploitation from their employers. Most of those who grew up in residential care since birth did not mention any significant intimate relationships in their adult lives regardless of their educational achievement or employment outcomes. In some cases, negative care experiences throughout childhood were outweighed by intense, constant and unconditional support from a significant other in adult life and helped those young people to live dignified lives.

This study can improve the understanding of the UNCRC as a conceptual framework with a rationale that stems from human sciences, particularly moral philosophy and identity theory. The findings also suggest that longitudinal research on outcomes should consider the quality of the care placements from the young people’s perspective. From a theoretical perspective, the UNCRC provisions aim to ensure that a child’s sameness and continuity (as a condition for development) are respected even when separation from parents is in the best interests of the child.

Findings in this study confirm the child’s need for a good sense of identity irrespective of their care trajectory. Non-discrimination, the child’s right to be heard, the child’s best interests principle, the right to identity and to contact with parents and the desirability of continuity are tenets that make the Convention a legal instrument whose provisions are in consonance with identity theory employed to interpret the findings in this study. If applied correctly, these provisions can provide children in care with a healthy sense of identity which is key to their development, self-esteem and dignity.



Back to top